Carol Burnett dishes on 'Mad About You' reunion with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt

Bill Keveney
Carol Burnett demonstrates her signature ear tug during her acceptance speech at November's Paley Honors tribute to TV comedy legends.

The past, present and future keep Carol Burnett plenty busy these days.

The 86-year-old entertainment legend was toasted at the Paley Honors last month, voices Chairol Burnett in 2019's "Toy Story 4" and returns this month for the Spectrum Originals' reboot of "Mad About You" (available now online and on Spectrum cable). She also has an upcoming Netflix film, "Sorta Like a Rock Star."

Burnett, beloved by fans and fellow celebrities, spoke with USA TODAY about joining stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt for the 12-episode "Mad About You" revival; the golden era of "The Carol Burnett Show," which ran from 1967 to 1978; and what fans ask during popular question-and-answer sessions she conducts in cities around the country.

Question: How did it feel to return for an episode of "Mad About You"? You played Theresa Stemple, the mother of Jamie Buchman (Hunt), in 10 episodes of the original series, which ran from 1992 to 1999, and won an Emmy for the role in 1997.

Carol Burnett, right, appears in a scene from 'Mad About You' with Abby Quinn, left, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt.

Carol Burnett: Unfortunately, I had a terrible cold. The day we did the first read-through, I had no voice. But then I had a day off, so at least I got my voice kind of back. We (taped) on a Friday and the cold was knocking me out, but you know what? The show must go on. Joanna Kerns, the director (and former "Growing Pains" star), was mindful of the way I felt. I wanted to do right by it, so I was concerned, but they all embraced me and I will always be grateful for that.

Q: What was the chemistry like on set?

Burnett: Paul and Helen, they just have it down pat. It's like they are married. They obviously adore each other and admire each other's work and you can't even figure that they're acting. Sometimes, Paul would say something, and I thought it was Paul talking to me, but it was the character. He's so natural. (And) they couldn't have been sweeter.

Carol Burnett, left, and Bob Newhart, whose shows were part of the legendary CBS Saturday comedy lineup in the 1970s, were celebrated at November's Paley Honors ceremony.

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Q: Do you get excited by all the career tributes, including November's Paley Honors, which was a tribute to you and fellow TV comedy legends Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner and Lily Tomlin? Or do you get used to it? 

Burnett: This is a cliche, but it's true: You're truly honored by it. The one I'm really gobsmacked about was the Golden Globes. When they said, 'We're going to give this new (television) award to you' (in 2019), I thought, 'Oh, that's nice.' And then they said, 'And we're going to name it after you.' I was absolutely astounded. I'll be long gone, but that will be the award for television.

In "Toy Story 4," Woody (right, voiced by Tom Hanks) finds himself in Bonnie’s closet with toys she outgrew long ago: Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett), Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), Bitey White (Betty White) and Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner).

Q: Shows from fellow Paley Honors recipients – Lear's "All in the Family" and Newhart's "The Bob Newhart Show" –  joined "Burnett" on CBS' legendary 1970s Saturday lineup. Did it feel like a reunion? (Fun fact: "Family" star Carroll O'Connor played the husband of Burnett's character on "Mad About You.")

Burnett: "All in the Family" taped in the studio next to us. When we were rehearsing and there was a break, I'd walk (over) and watch them rehearsing. So I knew Carroll and (co-star) Jean Stapleton did my show. And I knew Norman, so yeah, it was a family. Television City was happening on Friday nights. Across the hall were the Smothers Brothers and down a ways was Glen Campbell. Later, Jim Nabors and Sonny and Cher came in, so it was like a college dorm thing going on.

Tim Conway, left, and Carol Burnett, seen in a sketch from "The Carol Burnett," have given the gift of laughter to generations of viewers.

Q: Who attends your popular Q&As (which will be held in Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Honolulu and other cities in 2020) and what do they ask?

Burnett: Because ("Burnett") is on YouTube and we've sold a lot of DVDs through Time-Life and we're on MeTV, I'm getting audiences ranging from 8 to 100. They ask me to do the Tarzan yell. They ask, "How did you discover Vicki? Was Tim Conway that funny in real life?"

Q: How funny was Conway, your "Burnett" co-star who died in May?

Burnett: I open the Q&As with a bit of the dentist sketch (between Conway, as the dentist, and Harvey Korman, as the patient). I'm looking at the audience watch it on screen and when Tim starts doing the bit with the needles and novocaine, I see they are screaming with laughter. I dare anybody not to lose it. And that (bit) is 40 odd years old.

Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser), left, faces a formidable force, mother-in-law Theresa Stemple (Carol Burnett), as her daughter, Jamie (Helen Hunt), looks on in Spectrum Originals' 'Mad About You.'

Q: What other projects are you working on?

Burnett: In November, I filmed ("Sorta Like a Rock Star") for two days. It's a cameo but it's pivotal to the plot, so I said sure. And Focus Films has optioned my (2014) book, "Carrie and Me," which is about my daughter (Carrie Hamilton, who died in 2002) and me. She was a force. Everybody felt that way about her.