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The Christmas season is a wonderful time to reminisce on the love and laughter Carol Burnett gave her audiences for many years.


Born Carol Creighton Burnett in San Antonio, TX on July 26, 1933, Burnett’s childhood was marked by alcoholism, which afflicted both of her parents; most particularly Burnett’s father, Jody, who was largely absent from her early life due to his committal to a sanitarium. She and her younger sister Chrissy were largely raised by their grandmother, who reared them in her boarding house in Hollywood, helping to nurture the lifelong passion for classic movies that Burnett’s mother, a frustrated writer, helped to cultivate.

Tall, long-limbed, with an expressive face, Burnett discovered that she could make her peers laugh while a student at Hollywood High School, using it to bolster her self-confidence. Performing naturally beckoned to her, and with the support of her grandmother, she studied theater as an undergraduate at the University of California in Los Angeles. After graduation, she set out to make a name for herself in television and pounded the pavement in New York and California, along with the countless other hopefuls in search of work. During this period, Burnett was married to a fellow UCLA theater student, Don Saroyan, but the marriage ended amicably in 1962.

She also worked as a hat-check girl and a theater usher, later requesting that her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (which she received in 1975) be placed in front of the movie house where she had worked.Burnett’s earliest break came in the form of a novelty song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” which earned her exposure on variety shows and in nightclubs.

This led to a guest shot on the popular “Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show” (NBC, 1950-54), which preceded her first turn as a series regular with “Stanley” (NBC, 1956-57), a short-lived comedy vehicle for Buddy Hackett. After several false starts, Burnett became a bona fide star in 1959 when she performed double duty as a cast member on “The Garry Moore Show” and the lead in “Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical comedy based on the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea.

Burnett won a Tony for her performance as the unrefined Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and starred in a television broadcast of the show in 1964. She would return to it twice in subsequent years; once for a 1972 TV version, and later for a 2005 TV adaptation, in which she played the show’s villainess, Queen Aggravaine, also serving as executive producer.

Burnett’s comic talents also got a workout on “The Garry Moore Show,” which gave her an opportunity to try out different characters and sketches on a weekly basis.

Among the many characters she developed there was the frumpy washerwoman who becomes transported by her backstage workplace and performs a show-stopping bump-and-grind to the tune of “The Stripper.” Burnett would later reprise the character on her own series, and it would serve as the show’s unofficial logo.

Burnett’s versatility earned her an Emmy for her work with Moore, soon establishing her as a headlining performer. By 1962, she was starring in her own network special, “Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall,” which partnered her with fellow musical theater phenom and lifelong friend, Julie Andrews.

The broadcast earned her another Emmy Award in 1963, as well as a Peabody Award. That same year, Burnett married producer/director Joe Hamilton, with whom she had three daughters, Carrie, Erin and Jody.CBS signed Burnett to a long-term contract in 1962, with Hamilton on board as her producer. She was reluctant, however, to give in to the network’s wishes for her to star in a sitcom, fearing the monotony of playing the same character every week for years on end.

Burnett instead turned her attention to “The Entertainers” (CBS, 1964-65), a variety show she co-hosted with Bob Newhart and Caterina Valente, as well as appearing regularly as a guest on TV variety program, game shows and network series. The most notable of these was a four-episode stint with another female comedy legend, Lucille Ball, on “The Lucy Show” (CBS, 1962-1974) in 1966 and 1967 (Ball later returned the favor by appearing on Burnett’s 1967 special, “Carol + 2,” which partnered them with Zero Mostel). Ball reportedly offered to produce a sitcom for Burnett under her powerful Desilu shingle, but Burnett’s heart and creative energy lay with creating fresh characters in sketch comedy.

Finally, in 1967, CBS granted her wish with “The Carol Burnett Show,” a weekly series that gave a spectacular showcase for Burnett’s comedic gifts.Each episode of “The Carol Burnett Show” opened with the actress greeting her audience and fielding questions on all manner of subjects – from her love life to her favorite comic bits, including a startling imitation of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell, which quickly became her primary trademark. Each opening bit concluded with Burnett tugging her ear and offering a smile to the camera, which was later revealed to be her signal to her grandmother – a regular viewer until her death – that she loved her.

The show itself featured several recurring sketches, including “Ed and Eunice,” which focused on a combative Southern family and occasionally dipped into dramatic waters (it would later serve as the basis for “Mama’s Family”); “Old Folks at Home,” with Burnett as one-half of a quarreling elderly couple; and “Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins,” with Burnett as a blowsy and inept secretary. But the show built much of its reputation on spectacular parodies of classic Hollywood films and television series, with their take on “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which featured Burnett descending the staircase at Tara in a dress made not only from the curtains, but the entire curtain rod as well, was one of the show’s most indelible images.

Burnett’s flawless physical and verbal comic skills, as well as her considerable musical background, was the engine that drove the show, but she was abetted by superb guests – everyone from Jimmy Stewart to Cher – and a quartet of terrific supporting players, including 19-year-old singer/actress Vicki Lawrence (who bore a striking resemblance to Burnett), actors Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner, and comedian Tim Conway, whose gift for absurdist behavior frequently broke up his castmates on the air. Each show would end with Burnett in her washerwoman garb, crooning her melancholy theme song, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye.”The show was hailed by critics and audiences alike and collected countless awards, with Burnett, herself, netting three Emmy awards, five Golden Globes, and seven People’s Choice trophies for her time on the series. But after 10 solid years on the air, the show hit a stumbling block with the departure of Harvey Korman, the actor whose moody offscreen personality occasionally conflicted with the ebullient Burnett. He simply yearned for more opportunities and left the show in 1977. His absence – combined with Waggoner’s departure in 1974 – left the show without a strong male comic lead. Dick Van Dyke was tapped in 1977 to replace Korman, but there was a surprising lack of chemistry between the two comic stars, and Van Dyke left the show without completing his full contract commitment.

Singer-actor Steve Lawrence and Ken Berry (both frequent guest stars) attempted to fill in for Korman, but by 1978, Burnett had decided to bring the show to a close. “The Carol Burnett Show” ended its network run in 1978 with a two-hour special that featured highlights from previous shows. The show continued to attract a substantial audience when it began airing in reruns in 1978 and then in shortened form for syndication in 1979.In addition to her network series, Burnett filled the early and mid-1970s with a wide variety of television specials and even the occasional film. The former was largely successful; she co-starred with Alan Alda in the Emmy-nominated romantic comedy “6 Rms Riv Vu” (1974) and teamed with opera star Beverly Sills for “Sills and Burnett at the Met” (1976), as well as Dolly Parton for “Dolly and Carol in Nashville” (1979).

The latter was more miss than hit. “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” (1972) marked her first starring role in a feature, in which she struggled to balance comedy with heavy drama in its story of two longtime singles who marry and deal with personal tragedy. Billy Wilder’s adaptation of “The Front Page” (1974), with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, also failed in its attempt to recreate the sparkle of Depression-era screwball comedy. Burnett fared better as the head of a Southern family under siege during an opulent wedding in Robert Altman’s black comedy “A Wedding” (1978), earning a Golden Globe nomination; though their second teaming – 1980’s “Health” – failed to connect with audiences.In 1979, Burnett tackled straight drama with great success in “Friendly Fire,” David Greene’s affecting TV movie of a family dealing with the death of their son by fellow soldiers in Vietnam. The Peabody and Emmy-winning film also netted Burnett an Emmy nomination, and she would make infrequent returns to serious fare throughout the 1980s, including “Life of the Party: The Story Of Bernice” (1982), which earned her a Golden Globe for her performance as a woman struggling with alcoholism; “Between Friends” (1983), which teamed her with Elizabeth Taylor; and “The Laundromat” (1985), directed by Robert Altman and written by Marsha Norman (“‘Night, Mother”). Burnett also put a dramatic spin on her Eunice character from her variety series with “Eunice” (1982), a TV movie which reunited her with many of her “Carol Burnett Show” co-stars.There were also movie appearances during this period, most notably “The Four Seasons” (1981), a likable comedy-drama about middle-class couples, starring Alan Alda and Jack Weston, and the big screen adaptation of “Annie” (1982), which gave audiences a formidable reminder of Burnett’s musical skills in her performance as the villainous Miss Hannigan. Offscreen, however, Burnett’s personal life underwent considerable turmoil during the early 1980s.

Her marriage to Hamilton ended in 1984, and she went public with her daughter Carrie’s decades-long struggle with drug addiction. Burnett also launched a high-profile suit against The National Enquirer, which printed allegations that she had been drunk in public. Burnett won the suit and donated the proceeds to the journalism departments at two prominent colleges. In 1986, Burnett penned her autobiography, One More Time, which was a bestseller on the non-fiction lists.But television comedy remained Burnett’s best showcase, and she remained active in TV movies, including the soap opera spoof “Fresno” (1986) and a TV version of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” (1987), but did not return to a weekly series until 1990. “Carol and Company” (NBC, 1990-91) was an anthology series that allowed Burnett to tackle a different character for a half-hour each week.

Despite a solid supporting cast including Richard Kind, Peter Krause and Terry Kiser, and an impressive roster of guest stars like Christopher Reeve and Hal Linden, the show failed to catch on with audiences. She followed this with a revival of “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS (1991), which returned to the sketch format, but it too struggled to find an audience, vanishing after just nine episodes.Sensing that the original “Carol Burnett Show” still had an ardent following, she reunited with Korman, Conway, Lawrence and Waggoner for “The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion,” which was highlighted by memorable clips from the series. It scored phenomenal ratings and prompted Burnett to put forth several other nostalgic specials, as well as newer ones akin to her late 1960s and early 1970s TV efforts.

The best of these was “The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers,” which focused on bloopers and moments in which the cast broke each other up; it aired shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and brought a much needed dose of levity back to the airwaves, earning an Emmy nomination.

Another reunion, “Carol Burnett: Let’s Bump Up the Lights!” (2004) was devoted to new and vintage questions from the audience.Burnett remained quite active in TV movies and guest shots on series during this period; serious drama like “Seasons of the Heart” (1994), with Burnett as publisher Vivian Levinson Goldstein, was balanced with comedic fare like “The Marriage Fool,” her third reunion with Walter Matthau and an American Comedy Award winner for Burnett.

She also began a successful recurring stint as Helen Hunt’s mother on “Mad About You” (NBC, 1992-99), which won her an Emmy and two American Comedy Awards.

A lifelong devotee to “All My Children” (ABC, 1970-2011), she appeared in a 1995 episode of the show as Verla Grubbs, long-lost daughter of Langley Wallingford and all-around hellraiser. She later reprised the role for the show’s 35th anniversary in 2005, and hosted a 1995 special celebrating its 25th anniversary on the air.Burnett began returning to the theater in the mid-1990s, starting with the comedy “Moon Over Buffalo.” The play, which was chronicled in the 1997 documentary “Moon Over Broadway” was launched in Boston, MA and traveled to Broadway in 1995, where it was a modest hit. Burnett even received a 1996 Tony nomination for her role.



  1. Yes they are, Neil! Real humor is naturally funny. But time gives us many different profiles to stimulate our funny bones from the stressses of these days. Thanks NEIL for stopping over and reflecting on this coffee share. Have an awesome rest of the week! Cheers!👍🎭

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