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Carol Burnett: Sketch Comedy's All-Time Queen

Icons | December 11, 2017

Carol Burnett guest stars on the Carol Channing Special, 1969. , (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Carol Burnett is sketch comedy's first lady and fairy godmother, best known as the star of The Carol Burnett Show, which aired for 11 seasons starting in 1967. The variety show had a vaudeville formula that included comedy sketches and musical numbers, and set a new high bar for television comedy while keeping viewers in stitches for over a decade.

Time and again, Burnett has managed to do something that's much harder than it sounds, particularly in comedy: Please the viewing public and critics alike. Her comedy has a slapstick element without being stupid, and it's wry without being aloof. People who grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show fondly recall the antics of Burnett and co-stars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway. The television industry loved the show and its star too, showering the program, its cast, and its crew with eight Golden Globe awards (from 30 nominations) and 25 Emmys (from 68 nominations).

Burnett's signature show was a culmination of brewing brilliance that had not gone unrecognized. Before The Carol Burnett Show was even an idea, Burnett had three Emmys: for The Garry Moore Show, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, (a special with her friend Julie Andrews) and An Evening With Carol Burnett. She also had a Tony Award nomination, for the 1959 show Once Upon a Mattress, and a Peabody Award for her comedy. In the years since The Carol Burnett Show ended, she has continued to perform, and has been recognized on an ever grander scale. She's a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Kennedy Center honors, and a Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. At the 2019 Golden Globes, Burnett became the inaugural recipient of a special honor that bears her name: The Carol Burnett Lifetime Achievement in Television Award.

But Burnett was never in it for the awards -- anyone who watched the show could tell you that. Burnett radiated such joy whenever she was in front of the camera that is was clear she loved what she was doing. She and her castmates were famous for losing their composure mid-sketch, getting so caught up in their own amusement that they couldn't stay in character. On any other show, such unprofessionalism was to be avoided, like the plague. But the flubs and breakdowns were actually part of The Carol Burnett Show's charm. These people were simply having too much fun to keep a straight face. Watching the show, you get the feeling that Burnett and her co-stars were having the most fun that anyone ever had on a TV set.

Of course America could forgive them for cracking up -- Americans everywhere were cracking up right along with them.

Carol Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1933 and in the beginning there wasn't a lot to laugh about. Both her parents were alcoholics (they would divorce in 1939), and at a young age Carol went to live with her grandmother, whom she described to Leonard Lopate of WNYC as "a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist ... if Mary Baker Eddy didn't work she'd pop a phenobarbitol." Carol's half-sister Carrie lived in the apartment (also described as a boarding house) as well, and her mother lived nearby. Burnett has said she was quiet and shy as a child, but the imaginary friends and alternate identities she created were a bit more outgoing. She was also very insecure about her looks.

"It was not a pleasant childhood," Burnett told UPI. "There are some that were happier and some that have been really miserable. Mine was not miserable."

Carol did grow up feeling very loved by her grandmother and both parents (years later, on her show, she would lovingly parody her mother with the character of Eunice, and famously signed off by letting her grandmother know that she loved her). She also developed an interest in singing during this period, learning to belt it out alongside her ukulele-playing mother and pianist grandmother (not that there was a piano in that one-room flat). Finding her singing voice also led to developing one of her comedic calling cards: the Tarzan yell.

Carol Burnett’s mother never approved of her acting aspirations, contributing to her daughter's low self-esteem. Her mother encouraged her to be a writer instead of a performer. Burnett reported, "She wanted me to be a writer," Burnett told Life magazine in 1971. She said you can always write, no matter what you look like. When I was growing up she told me to be a little lady, and a couple of times I got a whack for crossing my eyes or making funny faces. Of course, she never, I never, dreamed I would ever perform." Both of Burnett's parents died of alcoholism-related causes when Carol was in her 20s. Carol looks back with a sense of regret, not anger, saying of her mother "I wish we'd really gotten to know each other better. She was petite and very beautiful and one of the brightest, funniest ladies when she was well, and -- I miss her very much."

When Burnett went to college, she intended to be a writer -- a playwright, actually. In 1950, she enrolled in the theater arts-English program as a freshman at UCLA, which required that she take classes in acting, which she did, reluctantly. But the requirement changed the course of her life; once Burnett got a taste of performing for an audience, and particularly the instant validation of comedy, she was hooked. "They laughed, and it felt great," she told the Toronto Star. "All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you hear a laugh that great again."

Burnett's rise to national prominence was swift. She got a taste of television fame when she was invited to perform her parody song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles." on both The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1959, she made her Broadway debut playing the lead role in Once Upon a Mattress (and earned a Tony nomination for it), and became a regular player on The Garry Moore Show. In the '60s, Burnett rose through the ranks of TV entertainment, befriending and sharing the screen with such household names as Julie Andrews, Bob Newhart, Jim Nabors, and Lucille Ball. By the time The Carol Burnett Show kicked off in 1967, its star was a seasoned performer with sitcoms, variety shows and her own specials under her belt.

For all her personal success, Burnett could not have created the comedy institution of The Carol Burnett Show without that supporting cast. It was just three others: Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner. Tim Conway was a frequent guest, and replaced Waggoner as a regular player in 1975; Dick van Dyke replaced Korman in the show's final season. Week in and week out, this tight nucleus of comedic talent (plus a guest star or two) created a vast range of characters. 

The Carol Burnett Show featured many recurring bits and characters, including Chiquita (Burnett's parody of Charo), the Oldest Man (an accident-prone geriatric played by Tim Conway), "As the Stomach Turns" (an over-the-top soap opera) and the dim-witted secretary (Burnett) Mrs. Wiggins. One of the most popular recurring sketches was "The Family," in which Burnett played the melodramatic Eunice, Korman played her husband, and Lawrence played "Mama," Eunice's mother. "The Family" was spun off into a TV movie, Eunice, which spawned Mama's Family, a sitcom starring Lawrence (with cameos by Burnett) that ran for six seasons beginning in 1983.

Carol Burnett was famous for her Tarzan yell, which became her signature. She tells a story about the time she was out shopping at Bergdorf Goodman and realized that she didn’t have her wallet when she got to the check-out counter. Of course, she was easily recognizable and was told that if she would give them a sample of her famous yell, they would accept that as identification. She gladly obliged, only to be approached by a security guard pointing a gun at her. It's not just a great story -- it also sounds like it could have been a skit on the show!

The Carol Burnett Show excelled at bringing us characters that seemed well-rounded even within a sketch that might only last a few minutes. If you watched the show, you certainly remember the characters and some of their quirks:

  • Mrs. Wiggins, the ineffective secretary constantly filing her nails and shuffling around the office doing the "Wiggins walk," much to the disappointment of her boss, Mr. Tudball (Tim Conway)
  • Rhoda Dimple, a parody of Shirley Temple
  • Nora Desmond, a washed-up movie star based on Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard
  • Chiquita, a parody of Charo, the Spanish-American performer and guitarist
  • Zelda and George, a couple played by Burnett and Harvey Korman, based on the couple in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun

Bob Mackie, a famous clothing designer who's created outfits for Cher, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Barbara Eden and many other stylish performers, designed all of the costumes used on The Carol Burnett Show. One of his greatest creations for the show was the dress worn by Starlet O’Hara in the Went With the Wind! skit, which was a spoof of the famous 1939 film Gone With the Wind. In the original movie, Scarlett O'Hara makes a dress out of a curtain; the character in Burnett's version does the same -- but leaves the curtain rod intact, protruding like bizarre shoulder pads over her shoulders. When Ratt Butler compliments her on the dress, Burnett replies "Thank you, I saw it in the window and just couldn't resist it." The line sent the studio audience into the longest fit of laughter in the show's history, and Mackie's dress is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Burnett was known for ending her shows with the song, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together, and her famous ear tug. That ear tug was her way of sending the message to her grandmother, "Hello Nanny, I love you.".

When Burnett took the stage to accept the first-ever Carol Burnett Award for Achievement in Television, in January 2019, she reflected on her journey in remarks that clearly touched the performers in attendance. Here's an excerpt:

Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about being young again and doing it all over, and then I bring myself up short when I realize how incredibly fortunate I was to be there at the right time because, what we did then, it couldn't be done today. The cost alone would be prohibitive: 28 piece live orchestra, no synthesizers, 12 dancers, an average of 65 costumes a week, and there's the brilliance of our regular rep players: Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggonner, Tim Conway, plus two guest stars every week. I'm so grateful for the chemistry that we had with each other.

And there was great chemistry behind the camera too with our crew, our producer, our director, our choreographer, our writers, the cue card guys. We all became one happy family for 11 joy-filled years. And nothing like our show and, I might add, other variety shows at the time could ever see the light of day today because, the networks, they just wouldn't spend the money and because there are so many cable competitors. They are not going to take a chance. And it's sad to say today's audiences might never know what they are missing. So here's to reruns and YouTube.

But what has remained the same for every person who is lucky enough to be on television is the belief that we've been given an opportunity to do something special. We've been granted a gift, a [canvas] to paint with our talent, one that can make people laugh or cry or maybe do both.

So this award, oh, my gosh, so generously named after me, is dedicated to all those who made my dreams come true and to all those out there who share the love I have for television, and we yearn to be part of this unique medium that has been so good to me. I'm just happy our show happened when it did and that I can look back and say once more, "I am so glad we had this time together." Thank you.

Tags: Carol Burnett | The Carol Burnett Show | What Did She Do?...

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.