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It's so nice to have this time together

Carol Burnett has done almost everything show business has to offer and done it well. But when she shares a laugh with her audience in Clearwater Monday, she'll be doing one of her favorite things.

Carol Burnett is coming to town, because she wants to talk with us.

Not about anything serious, certainly. But she misses us and would like to field some questions Monday night, please.

"The show I'm doing will mostly be audience questions. That's what I think I miss the most from the old show," Burnett said in a recent interview. The Carol Burnett Show ran for eleven seasons on CBS (1967-78), winning 25 Emmys, six for her.

For her live show, "We start with some old video of audience segments, to get people in the mood to ask questions, then I just come out and talk," she explained, in that same swoopy voice anyone who has heard her can recall.

Her way with an audience has been a part of American television history for almost 45 years. In 1957 Burnett made her first big splash in television singing the Ken Welch novelty I Made a Fool of Myself (Over John Foster Dulles), sung to the very staid secretary of state at the time.

She then became one of the best second bananas on TV, working with the playfully square Garry Moore and the implausibly named Durward Kirby, a man often described as one of the funniest involved in early television. Burnett's girl-next-door looks, her rubber-faced shenanigans and her plaintive singing voice combined to make her one of the favorites of 1950s TV.

In the '60s Burnett's variety show was considered pre-Saturday Night Live state of the art, with some of the most inventive, funniest sketches ever seen on television. Burnett and company's unfailing glee at each other and their performances were often funnier than the material itself.

"The hardest people (in the show's cast) to make laugh were Vicki (Lawrence) and Lyle (Waggonner)," she said. "I was next in terms of being difficult to crack up, Harvey (Korman) was easy, but Tim (Conway) could get us all, I think at will."

The pleasure of those days was evident in her voice, so the question: Why leave the air while the show was still high in the ratings?

"It had changed, TV had changed," she said. "Harvey left, he had decided to do a sitcom, and things were just different. It wasn't bad, but better to have them wish you'd stayed than that you'd left."

Her influence on women was lasting. Here was a woman happily growing older before our eyes. Not a classic beauty, but elegant _ yet willing to take a pie.

She's one of our most diverse performers. Burnett was in such popular movies as Pete 'n' Tillie, Alan Alda's The Four Seasons and Robert Altman's A Wedding and HEALTH (filmed largely at the Don CeSar) .

Her made-for-TV movies and specials with such performers as Julie Andrews, Walter Matthau and Alan Alda showed her range as an actor and performer.

More recently, her appearances as Helen Hunt's mother on NBC's Mad About You won her another Emmy.

Why tour with a show like this now? "There's something about being on stage, like being shot at sunrise, that focuses the mind terrifically," she said. "You must . . . perform."

Stints on Broadway early in her career (Once Upon A Mattress) and more recently (the comedy Moon Over Buffalo and the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together) indicate her commitment to that idea.

And now the road again, to speak with more strangers, and sometimes even get a new joke.

"Something weird happens every night," she said. "There was one night, there was a young man in the audience who said it was his 25th birthday, and could he get a hug. I said sure, and he came down and got his hug.

"So far, so good. Then I answered a few more questions, and another man said he was 40 today and could he get a hug?

"I said come on down, and he trotted down and got his hug, and I decided to keep him there and have a little fun.

"I say, so you're 40, and he says yeah, and I say are you married, and he says no, and I say are you seeing someone, and he says sort of, and I say would you consider an older woman?

"And he says "No!' And gets a laugh. And I say why? And he says, "I'm a priest.'

"And I stood there, till the laugh dies, and _ there was nothing else to say, really _ I said "Forgive me, Father.' "