“People sometimes say I remind them of a sister or aunt or cousin, because they grew up with me,” she explains in her warm contralto voice, still rich at age 80. “And now, because of YouTube and our DVDs, I’m getting mail from 11-year-olds. I guess the way we used to do comedy still holds up pretty well.”
“The Carol Burnett Show” held a chokehold on American television for 11 seasons. The weekly variety show combined the last vestiges of so-called Old Hollywood with must-see appointment television, and endured long past 1978, when Burnett signed off her show with, “I’m so glad we had this time together.”
America was glad, too. Millions spent Saturday nights with Burnett and company, gulping up her humor and zany character sketches. She taught us Broadway show tunes that people in small towns might otherwise not have known. We watched for the costumes. That dress! The stars. Lucy! Mickey! Sammy! The laughs led to 25 Emmys and even more honors for its chief comedienne. Carol picked up Golden Globes, a Peabody, even a Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was — or rather, is — the first lady of variety.
Burnett will add another accolade to her overflowing trophy case on Sunday when she receives the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a lifetime-achievement honor befitting those who have had an “impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist.” Burnett is undeniably closer to Twain than many past winners. Like Twain, Burnett is a slice of homegrown Americana, a humorist whose name evokes an epoch of culture, not just comedy.
Burnett, ever self-deprecating, has never grown accustomed to accepting praise.
“It wasn’t just our show,” she says, stressing the “our.”
“It was that whole Saturday night lineup we had — ‘All in the Family.’ ‘M*A*S*H.’ ‘Mary,’ ‘Bob Newhart’ — It was the golden era. Those shows hold up over time.”
A shy kid’s discovery
Time has yet to take its toll onCarol Burnett. Here, in the restaurant of the San Ysidro Ranch just a few miles south of her Montecito home,it’s as though she’s standing back at CBS Studio 33 in Culver City, playfully commandeering all questions for her opening monologue.
Why did your show resonate?
“You think I know?”
Did you know you were breaking the glass ceiling?
“You don’t realize what you’re doing when you’re doing it.”
What’s left on your to-do list?
“George Clooney,” she says to the perfect set-up. “I say that all the time.”