Carol Burnett Talks New Netflix Show, Lucille Ball and the $1,000 Loan that Started Her Career

The 85-year-old icon will be the first recipient of the Peabody Career Achievement Award, which will be handed out at Saturday's ceremony: "I don't mean to brag, but it's quite an honor."

In the 56 years since Carol Burnett landed her first Peabody Award in 1962, the legendary comedian has won just about every other honor possible, including a handful of Emmys and a Grammy. So, having exhausted the pool, it is fitting that Burnett, 85, is the first recipient of the Peabody Career Achievement Award, which will be handed out at the May 19 awards ceremony (hosted by comedian Hasan Minhaj, also a winner this year) in New York. Burnett, who revisited her most iconic hit with CBS’ The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special in December and debuted her new Netflix series, A Little Help With Carol Burnett, on May 4, spoke with THR about the tiny stars of her new show, her friendship with Lucille Ball and the funniest people she’s ever met.

How does it feel to have received a Peabody at the beginning of your career and now?

When I got the first one, I was gobsmacked. Now, it’s amazing to be the first one to get this one. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s quite an honor.

The Carol Burnett Show celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, but the primetime variety show, once a network staple, has pretty much disappeared. 

You couldn’t do [now] what we did back then. We did a mini Broadway musical comedy revue — 65 costumes a week. Today, you would only see that on Broadway. And CBS left us alone. If I were doing this today, they’d never let me hire [actress] Vicki Lawrence. She was 18, right out of high school, never had any professional experience. But the network let us take the chance. 

One Old Hollywood adage is never to work with kids or animals, but your new Netflix show features a cast of young kids. How did that come about?

My friend and manager said, “You remember those kids shows? Maybe we should do something like that; would you be comfortable with that?” I said, “Let’s go for it.” There’s a panel of five kids, and they range from 5 to 9 because they don’t censor themselves at that age. They come up with such ideas — they’re so smart! 

You just had a birthday April 26, which has a bittersweet memory attached to it since it’s also the date your friend Lucille Ball died in 1989. What was your friendship like?

She called me “kid.” Every year she’d say, “Happy birthday, kid.” She never gave me advice, but I watched how she handled herself and handled everybody. She gave me a baby shower for my second baby. It was a black-tie affair, and the men were invited. She was married to Gary Morton, who was the emcee. He opened the baby gifts and did a monologue about each one. When the party broke up, the men said: “Wow, you girls … these baby showers are so fun!”

Who is the funniest person you’ve known?

Tim Conway and Robin Williams — they’re totally different. And there are women today that make me laugh: Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Maya Rudolph. It’s so wonderful to see so many women now being funny and being accepted.

Many stars who are active into their 80s and 90s have lots of younger friends. How does that happen?

I just think, “I’ve made another new friend.” It’s just like anything, it's chemistry. With Amy [Poehler], it was lovely — same with Jane Lynch and Maya. I haven’t really met Kristen Wiig, but I’m sure we could get along. 

Not many people are taking on new jobs in their 80s. What keeps you working?

It doesn’t feel like work. If it did, I don’t think I’d want to do it. I still go on the road and do my one-woman Q&A show. And I enjoy that because I never know what anyone is going to ask — it keeps the old gray matter ticking. You have to be on your toes. It’s not like I’m sitting at a desk from 9 to 5. I think keeping busy is the thing. 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.