Aaron Blank '01 helped legendary actress Carol Burnett earn a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. The Whittie served as producer and director of the behind-the-scenes account of her acclaimed weekly TV variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978. An executive producer at Penguin Random House Audio—which released the audiobook that its sister imprint, Crown Archetype, published in print last year—he answered questions about the award, the collaboration with the beloved 83-year-old entertainment institution, his next project and his Whitman ties, among other topics. Edited excerpts of the email exchange follow. —Staff report
Did you think you and she would win the Grammy?
This was the third nomination for both Carol and me and the second time we've worked together. I've become very superstitious with award shows over the years (having had my heart broken) and in my mind kept saying, "Third time's a charm," but never uttered that aloud. The category this year was a total tossup as well; there was no presidential memoir or other clear frontrunner. It is truly an honor just to be nominated. I also have no memory of them announcing it. I was so shocked (and relieved I didn't have to make a speech—only the nominee gets to at the show, and Carol wasn't able to make it). I just remember applause, standing up and yelling, "Thank you!" and then running to the lobby to call Carol.
How did you get this gig with Burnett?
You know the phrase, "You never know if you don't ask"? I believe in it, and back in 2010, Carol wrote her memoir, This Time Together. I saw it come up on our schedule and at that time was just getting my feet wet with producing. I went to my boss, Dan Zitt (VP of content production), and pitched to him that I wanted to produce it. I was still a little green to direct it. But this time six years had passed. I was ready. I have always had a great amount of respect for his belief that even junior producers should get the chance to work with the big names.
What were some of the joys working with her?
She is my favorite sort of talent to work with in the recording studio—she is able to do what I call psychic directing. When she would make a (rare) mistake, I would be reaching to turn on the mic so I could ask her to go back and fix it, and 99 percent of the time, she knew what she had done wrong and was already correcting it.
For this audiobook, Carol recorded a new performance of her song, "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." I was unable to be there for the recording. When the finished track came in, I listened through it, breathless.
Burnett likes to write, having penned several New York Times bestsellers. She headed her TV show in front of and behind the camera. Burnett has won the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center and six Emmy Awards. Plus, she is an inductee of the Television Academy Hall of Fame. So your collaboration with her: how much did you produce and direct her and how much did she produce and direct you?
Carol is a consummate professional. She replies to emails faster than I do! She trusted me to make choices that were in the best interest of the program and the legacy of her show. We did have some obstacles bringing the printed book to the audio edition, and I'm very happy to say we succeeded in making a true audio biography of her show.
There was one point during the recording when I questioned a fact in the book, and Carol was right on top of the answer that it was indeed correct. She is always prepared, always cheerful and always willing to do whatever it takes. This was definitely a collaborative effort, aided by her amazing management team. There is quite a bit of outside audio content—cast interviews from the Archive of American Television, an appearance she made on The Dick Cavett Show and her singing her [theme] song exclusively for the audiobook. All of these elements had rights associated with them that needed to be cleared so we could use the actual recording. We even have her farewell speech from the final broadcast.
What skills or values from Whitman inform your career?
I use my Whitman education every day. I think the biggest thing that I learned at Whitman was how to deliver high quality on multiple fronts. I would always be working on two to three shows at once at Harper Joy Theatre. This is my every day as a producer.
Whitman honed my compassion, accuracy, desire to go above and beyond, never to settle for good enough. [Theatre teachers] Nancy Simon, Tom Hines and Parke Thomas taught me these things.
When I trace where I am today, where I was this past Sunday, it comes down to the education and opportunities I had at Whitman. From working in summer theatre in Upstate New York to having a contact at Random House, it all comes back to a very special school in Walla Walla.
Talk about that spiffy outfit you wore to the ceremony.
They say black tie, but just about anything goes. Even sneakers! [He wore a suit.] And yes, I did my own pressing (badly). The special part of my outfit were the cufflinks and monogrammed tie clip. They have pewter speaker silhouettes on them and were my grandfather's; he sold electronics and received them as a sales bonus. I also had a little wallet with good luck symbols on it that was swag from one of his companies as well as a couple of other good luck charms.
You will receive a Grammy statuette in the next several months. Any idea where you'll put it?
Funny you should ask. I'm trying to come up with the best location but am totally paranoid of something happening to it! I'll definitely get a display case for it. Maybe keep it safe in my mother's Bellingham basement?
What's next for you?
I produce the audiobooks that are based on Ken Burns' documentaries, using Knopf's hardcover companion books as our guide. This fall, PBS will be showing his newest, The Vietnam War. Primary sources are a big part of his work, and we will be able to use the audio of his interviews of veterans on both sides of the war, something that in previous works had been actor-read recreations. It's a very exciting project!
But beyond work, it's really continuing to believe in the power of positive thought and mental projection; I didn't believe in it for years and thought it was all hippy-dippy hoo-ha. I even produced books about it! Finally, a year ago when things really weren't going my way, I gave in and tried it. Lo and behold, it works, and I tell anyone who will listen (including current students I mentor).