There’s just something about interviewing comedians that feels more daunting than interviewing actors better known for their dramatic work, if only for the nagging and completely irrational sensation that if you leave the interview not having made them laugh, you’ve somehow failed to do your job. Which is why I was so nervous to interview the once-in-a-lifetime duo of Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler – one a legend, the other a legend-in-the-making – about their new film “The Secret World of Arrietty”, a Japanese animated movie directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi that’s been re-dubbed by American actors for its upcoming Stateside release.
In the film – which is based on Mary Norton’s 1952 novel “The Borrowers”, about tiny humans who live amidst ordinary humans and “borrow” items from their larger brethren as a means of survival – Poehler voices the title character’s mother Homily (a “borrower”) and Burnett voices the role of Haru, a hard-bitten maid employed in the home of a woman who is currently caring for her ailing teenage nephew. Though the two characters voiced by the actresses have only a brief exchange over the course of the film (a result of the fact that the borrowers largely make themselves invisible to their ordinary-sized counterparts), Disney was nice enough to pair the women together for the purposes of last weekend’s junket.
In case I forgot to mention it before, I was very nervous. Would I be able to keep up with the crackling wit of these two comedy phenoms? Would I screw up a question? And – most importantly at all – would they begin to mercilessly point and laugh at me as they came to realize what a complete and utter buffoon I was?
Yes, those were the sorts of ridiculous thoughts that ran through my head as I waited to be called into the interview.
And yet I shouldn’t have worried, as both Burnett and Poehler were incredibly kind, warm and gracious throughout. I also found them quite thoughtful as they spoke of coming up as women in the (still) male-dominated world of comedy, with the 78-year-old Burnett noting that when she was a little girl, the only real female comics she had to look up to were those who displayed more masculine traits in order to fit in and be accepted by their male counterparts.
“What I’m happy about is that now there’s so many women that are in comedy and accepted, so that they don’t have to be crazy or zany or loud or anything like that, which is where i came from,” said Burnett. “When I think of Martha Raye – you probably don’t remember her or know who she was – but she was a big, loudmouth comic, funny as hell, but very masculine. And I’m not against that at all, but that’s kinda how you had to be at that time to get recognized…when i was growing up, it was, ‘Little boys can be cut-ups, little girls must sit very quietly and be feminine.’”
Luckily for Poehler, performers like Burnett helped open the door for women of subsequent generations like herself to be more accepted by the mainstream as legitimate comedians.
“Growing up she was the number one performer for me in my life,” said Poehler. “I loved her show so dearly, and like everyone did, I felt like i was part of that family…’SNL’ was certainly a big influence for me in my teen years, but ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ was by far the first thing I ever saw that not only [had] a woman running her own show and being in charge, but also being like such a magnanimous, benevolent captain, and there being real, genuine love and sense of play among the cast, and i think that most people who watched that show felt that they were part of it.”