Carol Burnett is the kind of acclaimed performer whose awards attention isn’t merely focusing on EGOTing (although she is almost there, having won six Emmys, a Grammy and a special Tony). The legendary actress and comedian has also picked up two Peabody Awards, the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and five Golden Globes — among others — in her almost seven-decade long career. Now, she will not only accept the inaugural special achievement in television award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. at the 2019 Golden Globes, but that award will also be named for her.
Last year, after Burnett found out she was receiving her second Peabody, she told Variety that she felt “gobsmacked” by the continued honors. But those who have worked with her — and those who have grown up inspired by her — are far less surprised.
“Carol is so versatile in her character work, while still showing us the human underneath it all. You never feel like she’s putting on a mask — she’s showing you different aspects of HER,” says “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator and star Rachel Bloom, who recalls watching Burnett in the 1982 film “Annie” and being “instantly drawn to the nuanced ways” she played the villainous character.
“Not one choice was the obvious one,” she says. “I have seen her massive collection of Golden Globes and, honestly, she still deserves 100 more.”
Burnett’s first meaty small-screen gig was in the late 1950s when she played the girlfriend of Buddy Hackett’s titular character in NBC’s sitcom “Stanley.” She soon went on to guest star in a number of other series including “The Twilight Zone,” “Get Smart” and “The Lucy Show” and appear for three years on “The Garry Moore Show.” Burnett also received a 10-year deal with CBS that included a clause saying she could do a 30-episode variety show; just five years after honing her sketch comedy chops on “The Garry Moore Show,” she took CBS up on that clause, launching “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1967.
“The Carol Burnett Show” featured extravagant musical numbers and detail-oriented comedy pieces, allowing Burnett to display the diversity of her performance skills. She played everyone from Mrs. Wiggins, a secretary who, she likes to say, “the IQ fairy never visited,” to Eunice, a put-upon member of a complicated family, to her distinct versions of Scarlett O’Hara and Norma Desmond in parodies of “Gone With the Wind” and “Sunset Boulevard,” respectively.
However, even as the show was setting Burnett apart by showcasing her immense talents, it also allowed the audience to feel like they were getting to know her as a person, as she started each show by dropping the fourth wall and taking questions, and often gifts, directly from the audience.
“For those 30 shows we were just going to have a ball. That was the idea. We didn’t know if we’d ever get to do any more than those, but we knew we had 30 shows, and we were going to make the most of them,” Burnett told Variety last year.
But the series went on far longer than a mere 30 episodes. “The Carol Burnett Show” ran for 11 seasons on its own and saw episodes re-edited for a syndicated half-hour version titled “Carol Burnett and Friends.” It was also revived for brief new series and specials, including “Carol Burnett & Company” in 1979, “Carol & Company” in 1990, “The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion” in 1993 and, of course, spinoff sitcom “Mama’s Family” in 1983.
Burnett also proved she had a keen eye for talent when filling out the cast for “The Carol Burnett Show.” Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner were hired to support Burnett in that first season of the show, and Burnett brought in the then-unknown Vicki Lawrence, as well. Famously, the story goes that Lawrence had written Burnett a letter, and Burnett showed up at a contest into which Lawrence had entered. Because of the similarities in their looks, and because of the talent Burnett saw at that contest, she invited Lawrence to audition to play her younger sister on her show.
“I can’t even imagine what in the hell it was that Carol saw in me that she decided to take that kind of a chance,” Lawrence says.
Burnett helped Lawrence hone her craft, often “just by osmosis,” Lawrence continues. “It was pretty hard not to learn from her just sitting in the audience and watching over and over.”
Even more important than learning about performing, though, Lawrence says, she learned about how show business could and should run from Burnett.
“I do think there’s something to the whole trickle-down theory because as it is at the top of the company, so runs the whole company. There was just no room for people to be prima donnas or idiots or angry or mean because Carol’s the kind of person who knows everybody — she knows the prop man’s name; she knows his dog; she knows his kid,” she explains. “And now in this era of, ‘Let’s really examine women in this business and what they’ve been through and what they’ve gone through to get to where they are,’ it makes it even more special because she was a woman doing all of this.”
And Burnett didn’t stop at comedy. Over the years she often appeared on television dramas ranging from the original “Magnum PI” to the reboot of “Hawaii Five-O,” as well as “Touched by an Angel,” “Law & Order: SVU” and daytime soap opera “All My Children.” She also performed live on stage in quite a few Broadway productions, including “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Putting It Together.” Most recently, she created a different kind of variety talk show — one that featured children doling out advice, titled “A Little Help With Carol Burnett.”
“Carol has been and always will be very likeable, and the audience senses that immediately,” says Carol Leifer, who wrote on “A Little Help.” “Her talent takes it from there, but I think it’s that foundation of connection and good will towards people that makes her a star.”
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