- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
“You can’t wrap your head around the fact that it went so fast,” says Carol Burnett, one of the most significant and beloved figures in the history of the medium of television, as we sit down at the Santa Monica offices of Dick Clark Productions and begin discussing last December’s DCP-produced The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special, a celebration on CBS of Burnett’s groundbreaking 1967-1978 variety sketch program The Carol Burnett Show. “We all wish we were younger and so forth,” the 85-year-old continues, “but what we did [on the show] couldn’t be done today, so I’m glad I am where I am, and I’m glad I was there in that age at that time, because it really was a golden time for television.”
Over the course of her career, Burnett has been nominated for 22 Emmys and won six. She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985. She won a Peabody Award in 1962 in recognition of her comedic performances, and another in 2018, the first ever for lifetime achievement. And she won a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003; the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005; the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2013; and the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
* * *
LISTEN: Hear the entire interview below [starting at 15:19], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Matthew Belloni, The Hollywood Reporter‘s editorial director, about the the hugely controversial changes to the format of the Oscars that the Academy announced this week.
Click here to access all of our past episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Natalie Portman, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Elisabeth Moss, Justin Timberlake, Reese Witherspoon, Tyler Perry, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Emilia Clarke, Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Fonda, Bill Maher, Claire Foy, Michael Moore, Amy Schumer, RuPaul, Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro, Margot Robbie, Ryan Murphy, Emma Stone, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner, J.J. Abrams, Rachel Brosnahan and Jimmy Fallon.
* * *
Burnett was born in San Antonio in 1933. Her parents were both alcoholics who died young, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother, on welfare, during the Great Depression. When she was 7, they moved to Los Angeles, where they lived very humbly, but Burnett flourished. Thanks to an angel donor, she was able to afford to attend UCLA, where she began taking acting courses and dreaming of a career on Broadway in a George Abbott show. Thanks to a chance meeting with a businessman who took an interest in her future, she received a loan that enabled her to move to New York in pursuit of that dream — and, within just a few years, she realized it.
Burnett’s career began to take off thanks to a song — “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” — that she performed three times in one week on national TV, twice on Jack Paar, then on Ed Sullivan. It was a perfect showcase for her talents with music and comedy, and her willingness to make herself look silly, and even less than attractive, in order to get a laugh. She soon was cast in Abbott’s Broadway show Once Upon a Mattress, and simultaneously joined The Garry Moore Show, a CBS variety program featuring songs, sketches and a repertory company. From 1959 through 1962, she shined on it, and it later served as a model for The Carol Burnett Show.
In 1962, coming off of Garry Moore as a much-in-demand rising star, Burnett signed a 10-year contract with the Tiffany Network. It called on her to do a special and two guest spots each year, and gave her an option, which she could exercise within the contract’s first five years, of doing 30 hourlong comedy variety shows on the network. Near the end of the fifth year, she exercised it, but was told by a CBS vice president that comedic variety was for men, not women. She was instead offered a sitcom called Here’s Agnes. Burnett recalls, “I said, ‘I don’t want to be Agnes every week. I want to be different people. I want to have music. I want to have guest stars. I want a rep company. I want costumes, scenery, lights.’ And they had to put us on the air.”
With Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and, appearing as a guest star until the ninth season when he became a regular, Tim Conway, Burnett launched a show unlike anything before or since. “It was like a Broadway show,” she says, noting that it had a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, elaborate lighting, 65 Bob Mackie costumes per week (most famously, a dress made out of a curtain sending up Gone With the Wind). “We did it like a live show,” she adds, even though it was taped, “because I think people liked the idea that it was a little bit dangerous.” And though its time slot shifted and its ratings fluctuated over the years, it proved a favorite of CBS chief William Paley, so it was always protected, and it eventually found its home on Saturday nights. Because of the popularity of The Carol Burnett Show and several other now classics that CBS also aired on that night, Burnett marvels, “People wouldn’t go out on Saturday nights.”
Burnett’s most famous and frequently performed sketch was called “The Family,” in which she played Eunice, a histrionic Southern woman — but for many, Burnett herself came to feel like a member of the family. She was wild and crazy (as manifested itself in her iconic Tarzan bellow). She and her castmates cracked each other up. She took questions from audience members. And at the end of every show, she would tug on her ear as a way of saying hello to the grandmother who raised her. One thing she would almost never do is address topical or political news. “It’s timeless because it wasn’t timely,” she says of the show, adding, “I’m a clown. I love the whole idea of belly laughs.”
The Carol Burnett Show came to an end in 1978, and was really the last successful musical-variety sketch show on TV. During its run, Burnett also did other things — among them, she was the first celebrity to make a guest appearance on Sesame Street, and starred in two high-profile films, Martin Ritt‘s Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972) and Billy Wilder‘s The Front Page (1974). After the show came to an end, she continued to appear in films, most notably in Robert Altman‘s A Wedding (1978) and Health (1980), John Huston‘s Annie (1982) and Peter Bogdanovich‘s Noises Off (1992). She also wrote multiple memoirs, toured the country and starred in several other TV shows. But, to members of the public, she was almost always most closely associated with The Carol Burnett Show.
That’s why it was particularly special to return to Stage 33 at CBS Television City, where she and her cohorts had originally shot The Carol Burnett Show, to record The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special — now nominated for two Emmys, best variety special (pre-recorded) and best production design for a variety special, and due out on DVD on Sept. 11 — alongside Lawrence and Waggoner, as well as a host of celebrities, many of them comediennes, who wanted to pay tribute to a show and a woman they say had a profound impact on them. Burnett says she deeply appreciates the kind tributes they pay her, and relishes their success, but she also emphasizes, humble as ever, “If I hadn’t been born, these ladies would be doing what they’re doing.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day