Carol Burnett: Sketch Comedy's All-Time Queen

By | December 10, 2017

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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.

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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.