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Tagging along with a favorite funny lady

CAROL Burnett is prepared to sing ``I Made a Fool of Myself Over George P. Shultz.'' Modern-day admirers of this multitalented, four-time Emmy-winner may not remember that her career first started soaring in the late 1950s, when she sang a song with the startlingly incongruous title: ``I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.''

Now we are talking about the fact that the entertainment business may be ready for a new round of variety programming. Is Mr. Shultz the modern-day equivalent of Mr. Dulles?

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``Maybe,'' Carol Burnett giggles, ``but the song would be much funnier now if Cyndi Lauper or Madonna did it about Caspar Weinberger - or whoever is the squarest official you'd never expect a girl to go ape over.''

We are chatting in Miss Burnett's limousine, which is taking us from her hotel to the ``Today'' show studios. Carol is on a two-pronged national tour to spread the word about her new book - ``One More Time'' (Random House) and a new miniseries - ``Fresno'' (CBS, Nov. 17-20). Since Carol is in New York for only a few days, she has invited me, an old interview friend, to breakfast with her at 7 a.m. at her hotel, then to ride with her in the limo to the show and to stay with her as long as necessary to obtain the interview material.

``I must tell Jane Pauley before we go on,'' she muses worriedly, ``that my book is a loving book, not one of those `I hate Mom' things. When I was on the `Larry King Show' on CNN, a woman called in and said, `How dare you write another book about hating your mother...' My book is not that at all. I am determined to make certain that people don't mistake my book for a sad downer.

``I'm prouder of this book than of anything I've ever done. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, too.

``I wanted to write something about growing up so my girls could read it whenever they wanted to. I started out doing it for my daughters, but I wound up doing it for myself, too.''

The security guards at the NBC studio entrance ask Carol for autographs, and we hurry up to the Green Room, where she is escorted to the makeup room protesting, ``This is as good as it gets.'' The makeup people turn out to be old friends, however, and I can hear loud laughter emanating from the little cubicle. When Carol returns, there is still some time before she's scheduled to go on, so we continue our chat.

Carol on variety shows on TV:

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``My favorite was `SCTV,' which was done in Canada. Those people were wonderful, and I miss it.

``There used to be a lot of stand-up comics. Then came variety shows. Now there are many stand-up comics again - people like Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy - and the pendulum seems to have swung back toward comedy. Maybe it will move back to variety, too.

``I would love to do variety again. As a matter of fact, I have a special coming up soon on ABC with Whoopi and Robin and Carl Reiner. But I don't see myself going back and doing the same old regular variety show. It would have to be something different. It would be a mistake to repeat myself. I wouldn't be growing.''

Carol on vulgar language by comics:

``I'm not offended if it comes out of the character. Whoopi uses raw language when she's playing one of her characters who would use raw language. But when she's Whoopi, she doesn't.

``Raw language does offend me if it is gratuitous, however. If somebody says it in place of being clever, I find that offensive. I don't find it clever to get a laugh out of a four-letter word. It's most offensive, because they are not using their brains.''

Carol on ``Fresno'':

``It's difficult to be funnier than `Dallas' or `Dynasty,' but I feel that `Fresno' is funnier. It is also a comment on those shows. I am reluctant to use the word `satire,' because somebody once said that satire is what closes on Saturday night. I don't think this miniseries will. I think people will be delighted by this parody and they will say: `It's about time; why didn't anybody think of it sooner?'

``Wouldn't it be wonderful if `Fresno' turns out to be a breakthrough for satire, and there is a whole wave of it soon? I miss satire on TV.

``What makes `Fresno' work for me is the fact that it has a good story - you care who gets the water rights. You're interested in everything that happens. There's no schtick in it. Maybe some people may even take it seriously. I think we've really struck raisins with this one.''

Carol on Nancy Reagan's antidrug campaign:

``It's a real concern of hers. I've known her for many years - before they went to Washington - and she was very much concerned about the drug situation long ago. Now she can do something about it, and it is to her credit that she has made it a priority. Our paths have crossed in the antidrug work, because I used to be active when I had the problem in my family. But my daughter has had five years of sobriety, and I have folded up my crusader's cape because I don't want to belabor it, since my own kid is doing so well. But now my daughter Carey has taken up the mantle, and she is talking to children about pot and dope, and I'm very proud of her.''

Carol on autobiographies:

``I would like other people to write about themselves growing up. They could learn so much about themselves and their folks and their backgrounds from an adult point of view. I understand my mom and dad and grandmother so much better now. I wish they had written something for me - what formed them. I would hope my girls will do it for their children.''

Carol on her own life:

``I wouldn't want to change anything. The good and the bad things happen for a reason. If you live through the bad time, you've learned how to survive. You can't have it all up; you need the ups and the downs.

``Married, single - those are good times and bad times. Right now, I'm happy, cheerful, content. Only one thing wrong: I would like to be able to relax and not feel that I have to be doing something to be productive. I need to learn that I can be productive while relaxing....''

Carol Burnett ... between TV shows ... divorced ... living alone in Los Angeles ... writing a book about her early life - is she relaxing now?

She looks at me and laughs, although there is a certain sadness in her eyes. ``Let's say, rejuvenating.'' Then she tries to change the subject.

After the ``Today'' taping, we dash through the lobby down to the street, where her limo is waiting to take her to a WOR radio interview. En route we pass long lines of tourists, queuing up to take the NBC tour, looking around frantically for some sign of stars. The young people, in particular, are watching for David Letterman or any of the ``Saturday Night Live'' crew, who make this building their headquarters.

They don't recognize Carol Burnett as we pass. After all, they have been seeing only reruns of her old shows, in which she looks quite different. Perhaps it is her new profile, or has something more changed?

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