- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

It never occurred to Carol Burnett that jobs for female comedians might be tough to come by. . “It wasn’t conceit, but naivete,” Miss Burnett says. “I’ll just keep plugging, like Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland] did: That’s why I was able to hang in there and take rejection. All those movies I saw had happy endings.”

One of this year’s class of five Kennedy Center honorees, Miss Burnett, 70, ranks among the greatest comediennes in the history of television. While she has starred in film and on Broadway, she will always be best loved for the hilarious ensemble sketch comedy of “The Carol Burnett Show,” which batted cleanup in CBS’ now-legendary Saturday night lineup of the ‘70s.

A television landmark, the show netted 22 Emmy awards and perennially high ratings during its 11 seasons. A 2001 reunion special brought CBS monster ratings, proving our affection for the skinny redhead with the big mouth hasn’t dimmed.

Miss Burnett’s parents battled alcoholism throughout her childhood. Her father left home when Miss Burnett was 8 years old. Both Miss Burnett and her sister were raised by her grandmother, to whom the star would pay homage on her show each week by tugging on her ear.

“Yes, they had the disease,” she says of her parents. “That was very sad, and very trying at times, but I never felt I wasn’t loved. My grandmother was fierce about loving me.”

The matriarch also proved a steady source of comic inspiration. “She was funny, but sometimes she didn’t mean to be,” Miss Burnett recalls with a chuckle.

It was the movies that left the deepest imprint on the young Miss Burnett’s imagination. For 11 cents, a child could catch a double feature, a price even her family could afford.

“I’d come home and act out the movies with the kids on the block,” she says. “It was an escape. I never thought I’d be an actor.”

Miss Burnett majored in English and theater arts at UCLA, with one eye on a career in journalism — until a university requirement helped alter her life’s course.

“Whether you wanted to be a playwright or a scenic designer, everybody had to take acting,” she says.

She preferred comedy to drama. “I was too embarrassed to chew the scenery and do the dramatic thing,” she says.

When she did her comedy, “they all laughed,” she says. “I was astonished at how good it made me feel, much more so than anything else I had planned doing.”

She later moved to New York, where an agent told her he couldn’t help unless she had a project he could sell. So, she teamed up with a group of struggling actresses, and together they created their own revue to showcase their talents before an invited audience of agents.

That pluck helped her land a series of variety show appearances, including guest spots on the Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows. She was soon co-starring opposite Buddy Hackett on the live sitcom “Stanley,” but the series got crushed by its immensely popular rival in the time slot, “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.”

Undeterred, Miss Burnett landed in the Broadway musical “Once Upon a Mattress.” That role paved the way for “The Garry Moore Show,” where she worked for three seasons as part of his comic ensemble.

She would earn a rare, five-year contract with CBS, which she didn’t activate until its final year, when she created “The Carol Burnett Show” which premiered on September 11, 1967.

The show became a smash thanks to Miss Burnett’s willingness to mock her regular Jane appeal and the deft comic interplay of the show’s regulars, including Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.

She learned the trade secrets of ensemble comedy from mentors such as Mr. Moore. “If Garry thought it would be better if I took the line, he’d say, ‘Give that to Carol,’” she says. “He was generous that way, but it was smart of him.”

Miss Burnett tried reviving the variety show format three times in the years after the demise of “The Carol Burnett Show,” but none of the attempts could match the original.

Today, she doesn’t watch much television, and she bemoans the death of the variety show format.

“There’s plenty of talent out there, but it would have to be a different kind of presentation,” she says. “We had a 28-piece orchestra. We had dancers and singers and guest stars.”

Miss Burnett has been beset by personal tragedy in recent years. In 2001, daughter Carrie Hamilton died at 38 of cancer. Mother and daughter had reconnected in recent times following Miss Hamilton’s own battles with addiction. The creative fruit of their reunion was a well-received play, “Hollywood Arms.”

While best known for her television work, Miss Burnett also worked steadily in film, including successes like 1982’s “Annie” and 1981’s “The Four Seasons.” She also starred in some bombs, such as 1981’s “Chu Chu and the Philly Flash.”

She says she never quite felt at home on the big screen.

“The only time I was really comfortable in front of the film camera was with Robert Altman. He created such an atmosphere, it was like getting in a sandbox and playing,” says Miss Burnett, who worked with the director on 1978’s “A Wedding” and 1982’s “Health.” “Other times, I was too self-conscious to please the director so much.”

She grew up in movie theaters, spoofed her favorite films on her television show and worked alongside some of film’s greatest stars, such as Lana Turner, in comedy sketches.

In the end, however, the medium always seemed bigger than the little girl who grew up watching Judy and Mickey in the dark.

“I think was a little in awe,” she says.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide