April 26, 1933– Carol Burnett:
“Comedy = tragedy + time.”
Are you old enough to remember before Beta, before VHS, before DVRs and streaming, it was sort of a big deal that people stayed home on Saturday nights because they didn’t want to miss The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)? It was a really big thing. Before her shot at a variety show, Saturday night was considered a dead spot in television broadcasting, because people had their typical date night. It was a big cultural shift to stay home and watch television, and CBS was largely responsible with their revolutionary lineup of innovative comedies: All In The Family (1971-79) and its spinoff The Jeffersons (1975-1985), The Mary Tyler Moore (1970-77), The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78) and finishing the evening with The Carol Burnett Show.
It’s hard to believe we were ever so spoiled. These shows changed writing for television. Boundaries were pushed.
In 1967, Burnett had been a popular veteran of television for more than a decade, starting with variety show appearances with Jack Paar and on The Ed Sullivan Show performing her specialty, a lovelorn novelty song called I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles (then Secretary of State) from her nightclub act.
Her first big breaks came with regular appearances in 1955 on The Paul Winchell Show and the Buddy Hackett sitcom Stanley. In 1959, she began to get serious attention as a regular on the CBS variety series The Garry Moore Show.
She left The Garry Moore Show for the chance to star in the Off-Broadway musical Once Upon A Mattress which moved to Broadway where it earned her first Tony Award nomination. She would later appear in three television versions in 1964, 1972, and 2005.
In 1962, Burnett signed a contract with CBS for 10 years, requiring her to do two guest appearances and one special a year with a clause that after five years she had an option to do 30 one-hour variety shows, “pay-or-play”. In the last week of the fifth year, along with her husband Joe Hamilton, Burnett asked the head of CBS to exercise that clause, who explained to her that variety hours were a “man’s genre”, and instead offered Burnett a sitcom called Here’s Agnes. Burnett said no, and because of that contract, CBS was obliged to give Burnett her own variety series.
Fresh from The Danny Kaye Show, Hamilton and Burnett hired Harvey Korman. They also signed Lyle Waggoner, who usually played self-absorbed pretty boys in the sketches and did the announcements, and a young singer, Vicki Lawrence, who had written a letter to Burnett when she was 17-years-old, remarking on their resemblance.
Burnett had a special fondness for gay return guest-stars: Rock Hudson, Richard Chamberlain, Paul Lynde, George Chakiris, Female illusionist Jim Bailey, Vincent Price, Joel Grey, Lily Tomlin, James Coco and Roddy McDowell. Jim Nabors was the guest-star on every season premiere of the show; Burnett considered him a good-luck charm.
The show often featured Gay Icons like her pal Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Lucille Ball, Gwen Verdon, Lainie Kazan, Bernadette Peters and Cher.
The Carol Burnett Show had a decidedly Camp component and sketches that had a wink towards Broadway and Golden Age Hollywood insider jokes and send-ups of Shirley Temple and Joan Crawford, and sketches like Nora Desmond, Burnett’s send-up of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and a parody of Barbara Stanwyk’s Stella Dallas: Stella Toddler. Its 1976 season had probably it most famous sketch of all: Went With The Wind!, a parody of the Gone With The Wind (1939). There was also Funt And Mundane, with Korman and Burnett as hammy actors Alfred Funt and Burnett as Lynn Mundane, take-offs of legendary gay acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
The Carol Burnett Show earned 22 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run. After its time on CBS, it resurfaced on ABC as a summer show Carol Burnett & Company in 1979. The popular “Family” sketches led to a CBS made-for-television film called Eunice starring Burnett, Korman, Lawrence, Betty White, and Ken Berry. Its success spawned a spin-off sitcom Mama’s Family (1983-90) starring Lawrence and Berry, with occasional appearances by Burnett and Korman guest-starring as Eunice and Ed Higgins. CBS brought back The Carol Burnett Show for another run in the fall of 1991, but Burnett’s kind humor was now rather tame and it only lasted nine episodes.
But, by then Burnett had other things going; she had already been working in films: Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972), The Front Page (1974) and Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978), Annie (1982) and Noises Off (1992). She received an Emmy nomination playing Anti-Vietnam War Activist Peg Mullen in Friendly Fire (1979).
She returned to the stage in summer stock productions of Plaza Suite and I Do! I Do! with Rock Hudson. She appeared in revivals of the Stephen Sondheim musicals Follies and Company and on Broadway in Sondheim’s Putting It Together opposite John Barrowman. She received a second Tony Award nomination for Moon Over Buffalo in 1995.
Burnett seems most at home in television and she did splendid work guesting on Mad About You, winning an Emmy, Desperate Housewives, Law & Order: SVU (Emmy nomination), and Glee.
On her awards shelf is a 2003 Kennedy Center Honor, The Presidential Medal Of Freedom from 2005, and the 2013 Mark Twain Award For American Humor. She was inducted into the Television Hall Of Fame in 1985, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2015.
Her daughter Carrie Hamilton died from cancer when she was just 38-years-old. But, before she was gone, Burnett and Hamilton wrote a play together that was produced on Broadway, Hollywood Arms, about Burnett’s relationship with her grandmother, based on Burnett’s memoir, One More Time (1986). It was directed by the legendary Hal Prince. In the character based on Burnett, Michele Pawk won the Tony Award.
Burnett wrote two more volumes of memoirs, This Time Together (2010) and In Such Good Company (2016) for which she won a Grammy Award for Spoken Word in 2017.
Born in San Antonio to two alcoholic parents, she was raised by her beloved grandmother, who got them to Hollywood, where they lived in a boarding house and shared a love for Golden Age films. Burnett was shy and sensitive, but was popular at Hollywood High School for her funny performances. She majored in Theatre at UCLA.
She has known personal tragedy, but Burnett hasn’t had much scandal in her life; she’s not really tragic, she’s not a movie star, she has mostly stayed out of the spotlight except when she is working, she is not much of a diva, the gays didn’t discover her, but I think Burnett is a Gay Icon. She has inspired countless drag queens.
There were some gay rumors about Burnett; after all, she was caught kissing Julie Andrews by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. In the 1960s, Burnett and Andrews were staying in the same hotel in Washington, D.C. when they were invited to perform for LBJ. They decided to prank director Mike Nichols, who was also staying at the same hotel, but the stunt didn’t go as planned. Burnett:
“We’re sitting there and Julie looks at me and says: ‘I know what we should do… when we know Mike is coming down the elevator, let’s be kissing’ I said, ‘Julie, I love you a whole lot, but I don’t know.’ And she said, ‘We’ll just look like we’re kissing. …’ I said, ‘OK.’ So we see (the elevator count down from the fourth floor) and we start kissing and nothing. Then we look up and out walked Lady Bird. She said, ‘Are you Carol Burnett?’ and I said, ‘Yes ma’am and this is Mary Poppins.'”
Good news, Burnett is returning to series television this fall! Filming has begun on Household Name, produced by Amy Poehler for ABC.
Poehler presented Burnett with that SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, where she spoke of the enormous influence Burnett had had on her and Tina Fey:
“We watched Carol with our moms, and our moms taught us 90% of what we needed to know to be the kind of women that we are today, and the other 10% is Carol.”
Household Name is about a family who gets the deal of a lifetime on a fabulous house, but it comes with an unusual caveat: The original owner of the home, ageing former film star Vivian Valmont (Burnett) has to live in it with them until she dies. I like the premise. It seems perfect for Burnett’s special talents. I can’t wait!
Burnett is married to Brian Miller, principal percussionist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He is 23-years her junior.