Once upon a time, "Once Upon a Mattress" sent a loopy young comedienne springing to stardom in a single bounce. She had come out of the chute with a consuming, clear-eyed (if somewhat sophisticated for San Antonio) goal: to be in a show directed by George Abbott--and, as luck and legend would have it, that''''s precisely what happened with "Mattress."
In the three-dozen years which followed, that show''''s pea-plagued "Princess Winnifred" became (after Queen Lucy) the Clown Princess of Television--and, when Mr. A''''s distinguished discoveries lined up to attest to his greatness at a memorial service for him last June, Carol Burnett was very much in that number.
She told the gathering about the laugh that got away--how she mislaid it during "Mattress''''s" year-long run, tried everything to get it back but couldn''''t. Eventually, she went to Abbott and asked him to tell her what she was doing wrong. "You `improved'''' it," decreed Mr. A, sending her back to the basics, simplifying as she went, retracing her comic steps to find out what was funny in the first place. "Comedy is like a puzzle," she says. "Sometimes, when you get a laugh, you think, `If I do a little more, I''''ll get a bigger laugh.'''' Not true."
When Burnett holds forth on the subject of finding and refining laughs, she radiates the purity of a rocket scientist talking serious shop. It was, in point of fact, the sound of laughter--her own--that has brought her back to Broadway for the first time in 30 years. "I laughed out loud when I first read ''''Moon Over Buffalo''''," she admits. "I just had to do it."
Coming from someone with such cast-iron comic instincts, this qualifies as praise from Calpurnia--but it''''s easy to understand her attraction to the piece, a broad-stroked backstage antic that rattles the same sort of fractured funny bones she rattled for 11 years on TV. She won five Emmys for her series, which was the longest-running musical/comedy/variety show in TV history. The man who hung this "Moon," author Ken Ludwig, collected a Tony for "Lend Me a Tenor" and an Olivier for "Crazy for You." This time out, he has served up a large and succulent slab of ham for Burnett to pick clean. She and Philip Bosco (another "Tenor" Tony winner) play Charlotte and George Hay, second-rate Lunts who careen around the countryside in the fifties, heading up a ragtag rep company that inflicts "Private Lives" and "Cyrano de Bergerac" on the deprived, obviously-not-too-demanding populace at large.
Burnett heeds this call to diva duty with real relish. "I like this woman because she''''s funny. She''''s ego ridden, of course, but underneath all that is this horrible insecurity. You find that in a lot of actors and actresses--anybody really, but especially performers. Being a performer, I think, is the most ego-building and ego-deflating profession there is. It''''s one or the other all the time--either you''''re kowtowed to or you''''re ignored--and you have to keep very balanced to survive."
In broad outline "Moon Over Buffalo" may seem like the American cousin to "Noises Off," the Michael Frayn farce about a British repertory company running amuck, but that''''s only a surface resemblance, insists Burnett, who did the movie version. "''''Moon Over Buffalo'''' is more linear, more focused on the story of these two over-the-hill ham actors trying to make it."
Her role in "Noises Off" was the second time she did on screen a part originated onstage by Dorothy Loudon (the other was Loudon''''s Tony-winning Miss Hannigan in "Annie")--and, in both cases, Burnett regrets having taken them on. "The only reason I got those roles was because I was on television and had a high TVQ. I think Dorothy should have done them. She created them, and she knew them better than I did. I''''m always for the person who created something to do it on the screen--way back, even before you think of Julie Andrews not doing ''''My Fair Lady''''."
Ironically, Loudon had replaced her on "The Garry Moore Show" when she moved on to greener pastures taping a TV show ("The Entertainers") by day and starring on Broadway ("Fade Out--Fade In") by night. A neck and back injury she sustained doing a pratfall on one of her last Moore shows scuttled both endeavors before their time, and "Fade Out--Fade In," which eked out a hectic year''''s run, was the last Broadway saw of Burnett until now. Interestingly though, her theatrical roots have managed to shine throughout her television reign.
It is indeed a blessing that Burnett began her career with uncanned laughter ringing in her ears--her New York debut at The Blue Angel got her shots on the shows of Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan which, in turn, led to Moore and "Mattress"--and, because of this exposure to a real live audience, she insisted that each and every episode of "The Carol Burnett Show" be presented the same way, just like a play.
This was almost a daring concept for its day, but theatre-wise Burnett was adamant. Many of the people she had worked with in live television she imported to the West Coast for her show. "We did an hour in about an hour and a half--all those musical numbers and sketches and everything--and, in 11 years, we had 12 `pickups.'''' Otherwise, we never went back to do anything. If something went wrong, we''''d go with it. There would be spontaneity and danger about a live show. I think that''''s important, and that''''s what is missing today.
"In the new era of TV, it''''s all different. I''''ve gone to tapings where a 22-minute show took about four or five hours, which is insane. That''''s not doing it for the audience; the director or producer or somebody''''s covering their tails so that they can make it perfect in the editing room. My feeling is: Don''''t use an audience if you''''re not going to do a show straight through. You might as well go tape it and just push the buttons for the laugh track."
The love of a live audience, then, is what has brought Burnett full circle--back to Broadway. Even when doing her series, she''''d spend her hiatus like clockwork in summer stock--"Same Time, Next Year" with Burt Reynolds and again with Dick Van Dyke; "I Do! I Do!" with Rock Hudson; "Plaza Suite" with George Kennedy. In recent years she did an original musical in Long Beach--and "Company."
"It''''s a thrill doing something that gets an immediate response," she admits. "For any actor doing comedy, it''''s a great high--a wonderful, natural, healthy high. A performance changes with every audience. You''''re up there, and the audience is your partner, shooting back at you a different kind of response than the audience last night. You''''re a team--like Abbott & Costello--and you gotta listen. You gotta listen to that audience."