With the consummate grace and comedic flair that en dears her to millions, Carol Burnett easily fields questions an interviewer tosses her way.
Until she gets this zinger: "Why do you think some one would pay $50 to listen to you?"
First, that rich laugh that everyone knows from her 11 years on "The Carol Burnett Show" and count less other performances on stage, in feature films and in other television programs.
When she recovers, she says: "My God. I have no idea. I'd think $1.98 plus carfare would be plenty."
Burnett will be in Buffalo to continue the dialogue that opened her show, when members of the audience were invited to fire away. "Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett" will be presented at 8 p.m. Oct. 9 at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts Mainstage.
To set the mood, there's a seven- or eight-minute video that shows some of the "really fun, silly questions that I've had over the years." Then it's just Carol, on a bare stage, open to whatever comes her way.
"It's scary sometimes," she said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I just fly by the seat of my pants. It's really only as good as the questions are. And my answers, of course. I'm getting to know people and they are getting to know me."
This isn't a full-fledged tour. It's something she has done now and again. This time it's in Buffalo, at West Point and on Long Island.
"Every once in a while I just go out and do these for fun," Burnett said.
Frequently she's asked to demonstrate the Tarzan yell that she
has done more often than Tarzan himself. And to tell tales about her TV gang, including Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.
But there's always room for the unpredictable.
Burnett recounts the time a man said it was his 25th birthday and asked if she'd sing "Happy Birthday" to him.
"So I gave him a hug and wished him happy birthday," she said.
"Then two or three questions later, another man said, 'Well, I'm not 25, but I am 40 today.'
"He was in a suit and tie, nice-looking. He said he thought I was funny and also sexy. So I invited him up on stage and I was playing with him and the audience was really into it.
"Then I asked him his name and he said it was Bob. So I said, 'Hi, Bob' (using her best seductive voice). Then I grabbed him and said, 'So, Bob, are you involved?'
"And he said, 'Sort of.'
" 'What does that mean?'
" 'Well, I'm a priest.' "
Burnett launched into: "Father, forgive me, for I have sinned."
Now 64, the comedian has no thoughts of retiring.
"If I want to, I will," she said. "I just don't want to."
Nor does she want to go back.
"Each day is different and each chapter is different. The important thing is to keep doing, do different things, do new things so you don't live in the past. I wouldn't want to go back. People sometimes ask why I don't do the show again with the gang. That's what it was for its time and its space, with all of us where we were in our time and our space. There would never be the same synergy."
Last year she went back to her roots on Broadway, where her career was launched with "Once Upon a Mattress." After a 30-year absence, she played in the comedy "Moon Over Buffalo," receiving a Tony nomination for her performance. She's currently featured in NBC's "Mad About You," for which she received an Emmy nomination. As Jamie's mother, she plays the broad comic style that has bridged decades and is now introducing her to a new generation of TV viewers. In one episode, when Jamie announces that she wants to go through natural childbirth, Burnett delivers this motherly bit of advice: "Are you crazy?"
Burnett said she keeps in shape by eating small snacks throughout the day and by using a treadmill and lifting weights three times a week.
"It is boring," she said, adding that she has been following the regimen for about 20 years. "Fighting your age is a losing battle. What you aim for is to be in the best possible condition."
To keep mentally sharp, she does two crossword puzzles each morning after rising early.
"The New York Times starts easy on Monday, but they get harder as the week goes on and I barely get through Wednesday," she said. "I'm kind of a novice."
Burnett, who was divorced from television producer Joe Hamilton in 1984 after 22 years of marriage, still has an eye out for the ideal man. And she knows just what she wants. He should have seen the Betty Grable movies the first time around, be a Prince Charming, appreciate an independent woman. And it wouldn't hurt if he were a combination of Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline.
Her first grandchild, Zachary, was born eight months ago to her youngest daughter, Erin, who lives in Los Angeles. Grandmother is a role she has readily embraced.
"I can't wait until he's weaned so I can get him and have some fun," she said. "I go kitchy-koo. I make faces. I hold him if I can lift him. He's built like a Sumo wrestler."
Her daughter Carrie lives in Colorado with her husband and has just finished doing the Boston run of "Rent." Her third daughter, Jody, has been a radio producer and is interested in working behind the scenes in show business.
Burnett, who grew up in a cluttered Hollywood apartment with her wonderfully eccentric grandmother, has a passion for buying, building and decorating houses. Her current Santa Fe, N.M., compound (which will be featured at 9 p.m. Sunday on Home & Garden Television) includes a 7,500-square-foot residence with an all-around view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a fireplace in every room.
"I haven't been there as much as I had hoped," Burnett said. "So it's on the market. I want to sell and get a smaller place so I don't feel so guilty about not being there. It's so beautiful that I feel awful when I'm not there."
One of her favorite ways to wind down is to settle in with an old movie. "Last night I watched the old Betty Grable 'Song of the Islands.' It was so inane, so wonderful. I saw it as a kid. Nanny and I used to go to the show together when it cost 11 cents for a double feature."
Burnett says she appeared in Buffalo "years ago."
"I went up there with Ed Sullivan to do something," she recalls. "I was just kind of getting started. Alan King was on the show. I know it was Buffalo. I remember the snow."
Burnett, who has won more People's Choice Awards than any other woman, retains an open rapport with fans, who know all about her early life in a shoe-box-size apartment, her face lifts, her earlier difficulties with daughter Carrie.
So what is that we don't know?
"I might as well confess," she said. "I'm not a natural redhead."
Tickets for "Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett" range in price from $30 to $50. They may be ordered from Ticketmaster (852-5000) or purchased at the Center for the Arts box office (645-2787.)