Get To Know: Carol Burnett, Comedy Godmother To Funny Women Everywhere

“We love you, Miss Hannigan”

by Dan Callahan

In our column “Get to Know,” we discuss cultural icons of the past, whose legacy continues to influence art in our world today.

One of the most uninhibited clowns of all time, the warm and lusty Carol Burnett has been giving pleasure and her all for over 60 years on television. She played on Broadway a few times and made 10 or so feature films, but Burnett is most at home on TV. She has worked in the full range of that medium, appearing on talk, game, and award shows, her own favorite soap opera All My Children, sitcoms like Mad About You, earnest TV movies, and specials. Most notably, she played on her own variety program, The Carol Burnett Show, from 1967 to 1978, and now has a new special to mark the 50th-anniversary of the first airing of that show coming out on December 3 on CBS.

Burnett has a wide comic range that allowed her to believably play housewives and working girls on her show but also grand divas, as in her take-offs on Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond and Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce. Burnett’s old movie parodies became a staple of her repertoire because it was very clear how much she loved them and how much they had inspired her as a young girl living in Hollywood with her grandmother. She got her first laugh in a play she did at UCLA. “I had always been a shy, quiet, sad sort of girl, and then everything changed for me,” Burnett said in 2009. “You spend the rest of your life hoping you’ll hear a laugh that great again.”

There were a few years of struggle in New York before Burnett got her break in a Broadway musical called Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, which she later filmed for TV three times, twice in her original role of Princess Winnifred and then in 2005 as Queen Aggravain. The 1964 TV version preserves Burnett’s perfectly shaped and judged star performance as the brassy Princess. She’s not afraid of vulgar laughs in that musical, like when she puts grapes in her cleavage, but a vulgar laugh in 1964 looks practically genteel today.

In her first feature, Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963), Burnett does a striptease. Her forceful sexuality would always be a kind of motor for her performing style, but in her 2016 memoir, In Such Good Company, Burnett admits that she was uncomfortable with the “man crazy” material that her male writers often imposed on her at the beginning of her show. She would eventually assimilate this aspect of her performing character and make it truer to her own creative instincts.

From 1959 to 1962, Burnett was a regular on The Garry Moore Show, a clever and well-balanced variety program that did movie parodies, sing-a-longs, and sketches, where the performers breaking up or screwing up only increased audience laughter. Burnett learned a lot on The Garry Moore Show, and her talent is all there already on that program. She has certain sure-fire shticks, like narrowed eyes for anger accompanied by a mouth that looks like it’s about to explode, and a very high scream, for rage and frustration, that always feels somehow unexpected. (Her catchphrase on that show was, “Wonderful!” and also, “Watch it!” when she thought a man was getting fresh.) She did a TV special with Julie Andrews in 1962, and they had ideal chemistry with each other, maybe because they’re both so different in manner yet so similarly warm at the core. 

Some sketches on The Carol Burnett Show can last almost the length of a sitcom episode, but Burnett avoided starring in a sitcom in the '60s because she didn’t want to play just one character. If she is dealing with a sketch on her show that isn’t first or even second-rate, Burnett will do anything short of disemboweling herself to somehow make it work and find her laughs (and somehow she managed to avoid any serious physical injuries). She is very adept at ad-libs and bits to embellish and amplify a laugh, and Burnett is often funniest when she does far-out little facial expressions after a joke line.

The best routines on Burnett’s show will often make her live audience wait quite a long time for a laugh, as in the classic sketch “Kidnapping.” Three or so minutes go by before we start to understand that Burnett’s despairing wife will have to repeat a message to her husband’s kidnappers for a news camera. The wife can’t do it again in the same way, and a reporter (Harvey Korman) gives her some direction to be more “real.” And so the wife starts to “act” what she had said earlier in a slightly more histrionic way, and Burnett cries into her handkerchief before going in for the big laugh five minutes into the sketch: “Could I try that one more time?” she asks. This makes the audience explode with laughter and applause, and then Burnett goes into shtick overdrive as only she can for the rest of the sketch. 

Burnett’s signal achievement on her show came with the often very distressing “Family” sketches, where her character Eunice was locked in hellishly repetitious battle with her unloving and negative Mama (Vicki Lawrence) and her boorish husband Ed (Korman). The writing for these sketches is so tight and so closely observed that the line between comedy and tragedy gets blurred. Eunice loves movies like Burnett does, and she wants to go into show business, but Eunice is limited and untalented, unlike her creator. Burnett makes a case for this trapped woman, who has no options for escape and has to find some comfort in her own unhappiness.

When her show went off the air, Burnett did some dramatic TV movies like Friendly Fire (1979), where she was a mother whose son was killed in Vietnam. She underplays very effectively there, as a highly controlled woman who will not display any emotions of pain and anger. And then she was offered an ideal film role: the wicked Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie (1982). Her song “Little Girls” shows the essence of Burnett, a major comic with Ethel Merman-like pipes who makes her villainous character into a seedy would-be vamp wallowing in bathtub gin and thwarted sexual desires. This woman’s rage is clear, but she is finally as likable and original as Burnett herself.

Burnett was very funny in Peter Bogdanovich’s film of the stage farce Noises Off (1992), and she has played the role of beloved comic emeritus to a generation of younger women like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, just as she herself was befriended and mentored by Lucille Ball when she was young. Burnett has her own official channel on YouTube, which might have been invented just so we can spend happy afternoons watching her best sketches.

Like Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, Burnett was a TV fixture because she was like a friend, not like the distant movie stars that she so lovingly parodied. When she would tug her ear at the end of her shows—which had started out as a private message to her grandmother—Burnett was signaling to us that we were also her family. When the worst happens to all of us, Burnett is one of those rare people who can make just about anybody feel better, loved, seen, and comforted.

Burnett’s generosity shines through most in her Q&A sessions with her audiences, and especially in the classic moment, below, when she lets a woman up on stage to sing a song with her. With Burnett, there is no separation between herself and the people watching her. As gifted as she is, Burnett is still somehow one of us, and she speaks to us all directly.