Carol Burnett at the Chicago Theater
It’s true. I paid more on Tuesday night to watch an 83 year-old woman stand on a stage for 80 minutes than I did to watch Paul McCartney transfix an audience for 170 minutes back in 2013. A silly decision, right? Perhaps not if you consider that standing on stage was the iconic Carol Burnett, whose 70s variety show captivated my childhood’s Saturday nights, and who is as sprightly, funny and personable in her later years as she was back in her hey-day.
Performed at the Chicago Theater, the evening was an extension of the Q&A sessions that often began The Carol Burnett Show, interspersed with video clips of some of the show's more memorable moments. Ushers with microphones and flashlights spread out over the theater, and audience members – after the initial gushing that was as inevitable as it was graciously received by Burnett – asked questions, ranging from what inspired the performer to succeed, to “Would you sing me happy birthday?”
I’d heard Burnett on NPR’s Fresh Air a year or two ago, and she told some of the same stories on Tuesday night, but with a methodical pacing that sounded fresh, as if she were sharing the tale for the first time: how she tried to pay by check absent an ID at a posh Manhattan department store, how she and Julie Andrews played a prank in a D.C. hotel that led to meeting Lady Bird Johnson, and how she first met her future co-star Vicki Lawrence when the latter was just seventeen.
Audience members asked questions that naturally led to predetermined video montages that Burnett deftly segued to when the time was appropriate, and they often generated the hardiest laughs, as no doubt many in the audience were reliving their childhoods or their young adult years, when for a time Saturday nights included All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. I’m not sure you could come up with a better three hours of television. But as funny as many of the clips were, for me there was also a slight pang of loss, as face after face of entertainers no longer with us graced the screen.
I miss them, and hell, I even miss the dead variety show format, though I understand why it no longer exists, and I understand that we remember the best bits and forget the cheesy and underwhelming song and dance numbers. But on Tuesday night, though far too short – another fifteen or twenty minutes would have been appropriate – it was the best bits.