America doesn't always need a sweetheart. Sometimes, a wacky sister will do just fine.
Someone not too prissy or pushy, who could visit on a weekly basis and it still wouldn't be enough. The sort of sisterly figure who could dish out a hug or take a playful poke in the arm. A distant relative only if you couldn't reach a television set or theater where she was performing.
And, above all, funny. America's sister must be funny.
Carol Burnett has typified that symbolic role for her fans throughout 38 years in show business, especially during her 11-year run on the CBS variety series that carried her name. Since then, she has branched out into dramatic triumphs and returned to Broadway, with award-winning results.
In spite of that, the irrepressible memories of Burnett are her slow burns and double takes, clumsy pratfalls and funny accents, shared with an impeccable cast of TV comics and the rest of us at home. So much, in fact, that Entertainment Weekly recently listed her at No. 16 on its list of the 50 funniest living people.
For some viewers, the best part of the show occurred before Burnett plunged into her sketch-comedy rhythms. She greeted the audience, not with a monologue of jokes, but with a question-and-answer session. For a few minutes, viewers saw the real Carol Burnett; quick-witted, even glamorous, yet contagiously nice.
She would always tug on her right earlobe as a signal to the grandmother who helped raise her, and every viewer intercepted the affection. Burnett didn't mind; she was glad to have some time together _ as her theme song noted _ just to have a laugh or sing a song, or cut loose with a comical Tarzan yell.
It's a format that Burnett has reprised for a one-woman show that arrives at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday. No script, no rehearsals. The only concession to stage tricks is a brief introductory film that revisits some of the impromptu laughs she mined from exchanges with studio audiences. Anything can happen when Burnett hits the stage.
"I just go out there without a net," Burnett said from her Santa Fe, N.M., home. "The evening really is as good as what the questions are."
Or, the various avenues where those questions lead. Like the time Burnett was asked by a handsome man for a 40th birthday hug and kiss. She brought him onstage and couldn't resist slipping into her lovestruck routine once reserved for sexy male guests on her show.
"I was doing some shtick with him, asking what's your name and if he ever thought in terms of an older woman," Burnett recalled. "He started to hug me and I'm saying now, take it easy. Just milking it and having some fun.
"I gave him a peck on the cheek and hugged him and he started to walk away. I pulled him back for some reason, I don't know why, and asked if he was involved with anyone."
"Sort of," the fan replied.
Burnett pressed on: "What do you mean by "sort of?'
"I'm a priest," he said, and the audience burst into laughter.
"Oh, father, forgive me, for I have sinned," she ad-libbed, and it was a couple of minutes before order was restored.
"I'd like to take that guy around on tour," Burnett added. "I never use a plant (in the audience), but in that case I might."
Surprisingly, Thursday's engagement in Clearwater marks only the second time that Burnett has performed onstage in Florida. The first was co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Same Time, Next Year at his now-defunct theater in Jupiter.
She does have fond memories of Pinellas County, though, after spending the summer of 1978 working here on filmmaker Robert Altman's barely released comedy H.E.A.L.T.H.
Most of the filming took place at the Don CeSar resort hotel on St. Pete Beach, which was the location for an oddball fitness convention in the storyline. Twentieth Century Fox hid for two years the little-seen movie with its impressive cast before dealing it to another distributor. Burnett didn't mind.
"It was one of the most enjoyable summers I've had, working for Altman," she said. "We stayed just down the way from the (Don CeSar) hotel.
"All of us were in the same building _ Glenda Jackson, Betty (Lauren) Bacall, Jimmy Garner and Dick Cavett and all. It was kind of like college, like a dorm."
That feeling of camaraderie prompted Burnett to share her favorite dining spot with the rest of the cast. She took a liking to the service and food _ particularly the potato dumplings _ served at Good Times Continental Restaurant at Tierra Verde. The place wasn't very busy in those days, and Burnett visited 13 times, by co-owner Marie Krampera's count.
One night, Burnett took Altman, Garner, Bacall, Cavett, Jackson and several crew members to Good Times. Naturally, word spread fast that the restaurant was a nice spot for stargazing.
"All of a sudden, it got very busy," Burnett said with a laugh. "I called up for a reservation, and I couldn't get in.
"They said, oh, we're sorry, Miss Burnett. We would love to have you come, but we can't fit you in. It was so funny. It was just this one time, so I had to laugh."
It's difficult to imagine Burnett throwing a star tantrum even if she were denied a table dozens of times. The woman simply doesn't show signs of an ego that would be understandable from someone with her resume. Give her five Emmys, five Golden Globes and more People's Choice Awards than any female performer in history, and Burnett remains modest.
During this telephone interview, she claimed not to know about her honor in Entertainment Weekly and continually, graciously shrugged off compliments. The next day was her 64th birthday, and she gave a typical answer when asked how a legend celebrates another year of life.
"First of all, one does not feel that one is a legend at all," she corrected. "Actually, I'm cleaning out my closets."
Which led to a brief discussion of the items she'll donate to various charities and fund-raising auctions after the clean-up, then some details about the walk-in closets she designed for the home shared with her husband, producer Joe Hamilton. She seemed amused that anyone would be surprised that such a star worries about household duties.
"Well, you know, I have to go to the market this afternoon and schlep around town," she said. "You don't walk around thinking like that.
"I guess I'm really fortunate because I worked with not only some of the most talented people in the world but also some of the least egotistical."
She sidestepped the question of which performers today may have gleaned certain characteristics from the Burnett style, shifting the focus to celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Garry Moore, who showed her how to behave as the star of a weekly television show. Ask who makes her laugh today, and she'll insist she's an easy audience who laughs at everybody.
It seems that Burnett was glad to have some time together with just about everyone.
"I really didn't see too many jerks, at least I didn't work with many," she said. "There have been some recently, but that's only because they don't work the way I like to work. Everybody has their own M.O."
Of course, she wouldn't give names. It's safe to guess that she isn't talking about the cast and crew of NBC's Mad About You, in which she occasionally appears as the mother of Jaime Buchman, played by Helen Hunt. Burnett recently completed work on two episodes to be broadcast this month. Other than her current tour, Burnett is taking it easy in her professional life after 18 months on Broadway in Moon Over Buffalo. The birth of her first grandchild in February is another good reason to keep her calendar clear.
"I'm cooling it. I'm turning down stuff unless I absolutely love something," she said. "I'm just getting back into real life. It's time to clean out closets and do other things.
"I'm playing it by ear."
Probably the same one she tugs to let everyone know she cares.
AT A GLANCE
"Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett," 8 p.m. Thursday at 8 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $35 and $30, available at the box office and Ticketmaster outlets. Call 791-7400 for ticket information.