Los Angeles Times
First Lady of Laughter Carol Burnett
Sheʼs made us smile for six decades and now inspires a new generation of comedians
It’s been 37 years since TV’s The Carol Burnett Show went off the air, and yet Carol Burnett is still asked by fans to perform some of her greatest hits, like tugging her left ear (a “hello” to her grandmother) and her Tarzan yell. So she must be tired of doing them all by now, right? “No,” she says without a beat. “You have to keep in mind that for that audience—this is the first time they’re seeing it.” Which probably explains why, at her Los Angeles Parade photo shoot, she generously suggests she lead a group of aspiring young comedians in the Tarzan yell. As Burnett throws her head back and howls, the familiar funny sound sends the whole room decades back in time.
For Burnett, 82, who was born in San Antonio, Texas, it all started with the divorce of her parents, both alcoholics, and her move-in with her grandmother “Nanny” in Hollywood, when she was 7, in 1940. Fourteen years later, after discovering a love for theater at the University of California, Los Angeles, she moved to New York City.
Within five years, she’d earned both a Tony Award nomination (for her role in Once Upon a Mattress) and a regular co-hosting spot on TV (on The Garry Moore
Show). Eight years later, in 1967, she made history: The debut of The Carol Burnett Show made her the first woman ever to host a variety sketch show. With costars Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Harvey Korman, the show collected 25 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run before wrapping in 1978.
Burnett went on to appear in movies (including playing Miss Hannigan in the 1982 screen adapation of Broadway’s Annie) and in dramatic TV roles, and has written three memoirs, all of them New York Times best-sellers.
She now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with her husband, Brian, a music contractor for the Hollywood Bowl and the Nederlander theaters. She has two grown daughters, Jody and Erin. (Her daughter Carrie Hamilton died of cancer in 2002.)
Burnett will perform some of her live Q&A “Laughter and Reflection” shows beginning in the spring and will release her fourth book (about her years on The Carol Burnett Show) in the fall. And this month, she’ll accept the Screen Actors Guild’s 52nd Life Achievement Award to honor her career and humanitarian accomplishments (airing Jan. 30 on TNT and TBS at 8 p.m. ET).
She’s also fiercely committed to doing what she can for comedy’s next generations: Not only has Burnett established scholarships around the country (including one at her alma mater), but if a young fan writes her for acting advice—often after finding her classic show clips on DVDs and YouTube—“if it’s a well-written letter and they’re young enough and they leave their phone number,” she says, “I’ll call them.” How different would your life have been if you hadn’t moved in with your grandmother when you were 7 years old? Whoa [laughs]. I have no idea. Had my mother and my father stayed married, had they not turned to drink ...They were good people, they just had the disease. But Nanny doted on me. So I felt special even though we were poor. We’d save our pennies, and we went to the movies. Growing up in the ’40s and seeing those movies— they weren’t cynical. I grew up thinking,
Everything is going to be peachy keen. The good guys won; the bad guys didn’t.
Did that influence the type of comedy you ended up doing? It influenced my thinking when I went into show business: I was never afraid. I knew in my heart I would make a living so that I could put food on the table, clothes on my back and pay the rent. What memorable career advice did you
get starting out? I was trying out for something in New York on television. The star of the show was an emcee kind of guy. He said, “Honey, you’ll never make it in television. You’re too loud.” So I didn’t get the job, needless to say. I guess that was advice—but I didn’t take it!
What do you think of comedy today? A lot of it I’m not thrilled with. Some of the comedy I’ve watched on television seems to have been written by teenage boys in the locker room. And now I’m sounding like an old fogey, but look back at some of the sitcoms that were brilliant—All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart. Those hold up today, and there’s not one cheap laugh in them. Otherwise, I don’t watch that much comedy. I’m into House
of Cards. Breaking Bad—my God, did I
binge on that!
Is there any other comedy you’re watching that you think works? I’ve been watching The Grinder. I think Rob Lowe and Fred Savage are just divine. I love everybody in it. That’s clever writing without being scatological or getting dirty.
What do you think shapes and forms a person’s sense of humor? I think you’re born with it. You can maybe develop one, but I don’t know that it’s environmental. My mother was very funny. My dad had a great sense of humor. My grandmother too. But I don’t think you can teach timing. I don’t think you can teach a sense of humor.
You’ve played so many goofy, nutty characters. Do you ever pull that out at home with your husband or your
friends? [Laughs] No! I’m not that funny. If I go to a party, I’m not one to be the funniest person in the room at all. Whenever we go out to dinner with Tim [Conway] and Harvey [Korman] and their wives, you’d have to know the Heimlich maneuver, because they make me laugh so hard I could choke! Lucy [Lucille Ball] loved to laugh and was a great audience, but she never cut up when she wasn’t on camera.
Yet in the Q&A sessions during The Carol Burnett Show, you were hilarious. That’s different. It’s the performing version [of me]. I go around the country and do Q&As. I fly without a net. I don’t know what they’re going to ask, so it’s really fun, but [points to her head] it also keeps the old gray matter ticking.
The Q&A on The Carol Burnett Show really helped make the show. How did that come about? I didn’t want to do it at first. It was a suggestion from our executive producer, Bob Banner. He said, “Carol, you’re going to be in all kinds of getups: fat suits, teeth blacked out, fright wigs . . . People should get to know you first. Why don’t you be the warmup, and we’ll tape it?” I said, [scared gasp] “I can’t do that.” And he said, “Just try it, and if you don’t like it we’ll deep-six it.” I was terrified I wouldn’t have a snappy answer. But after we did it three or four weeks, the audience started coming prepared and I started to loosen up and have fun with it.
What is something that will always be funny to you? I love good physical comedy—to see somebody who can do things with their body like Dick Van Dyke could do, with crazy falls. Steve Martin in All
of Me, when he did that whole thing where he was possessed by the spirit in his body? It was brilliant.
Is there anyone working today who you see a little bit of yourself
in? Not really. I see them as themselves. You know, somebody said, “Isn’t it nice that you inspire Tina Fey and Amy Poehler?” They were very kind in saying that they watched my show growing up. But if I had never been born, they’d be doing what they’re doing. I think they would be doing it anyway. I just hope they keep it up.
Who do you respect in comedy today? Well, Tina and Amy. I mean, they ran their shows beautifully. And also what’s important—I know I’m going to sound like a goody two-shoes—but they’re kind. They’re good people. I just think it’s so important to be kind. You can still be strong, but you don’t have to be nasty about it. If you’re kind, you’re going to get the best out of everybody.
Your guest appearances seem particularly chosen. What does a show have to be for you to want to be in it? Well, it varies. I’m a fan of Hawaii Five-0, so I’ve been on that
three times. I did Hot in Cleveland because I’m very close with Betty White. I love Betty, and Betty was on our show. I would
do The Grinder because I am a fan of the show. I would do a part in House of Cards if they ask—a straight role.
What is a day in your life like? My husband and I, in the morning, our routine is I’ll have coffee. We do the New York Times and the L.A. Times crossword puzzles—we tag team—and then he works. When he’s there, we’ll watch old movies or we’ll play Scrabble. Or we go out to dinner a lot. We have a lot of friends, so it’s a nice social life.
You’ ll be accepting SAG’s Life Achievement Award. What do you appreciate about this
award in particular? Because it’s from your peers. And it also encompasses television and movies, so it’s the whole shebang. I’m just sorry I have to make a speech. I get nervous about that. Kennedy Center Honors, all you have to do is show up and wave.
Really? What is it that you’re most nervous about? Am I going to say the right thing? Am I going to be succinct and get my point across? It’s all of that. And I’m a little nervous about seeing all of the big movie stars. I think, Oh my God! There’s Meryl Streep! Oh geez!
How do you want to be remembered? That I made somebody laugh when they needed it. That at one point, when they needed it, that I made them forget—even if it is just for 10 seconds—that they were hurting.