Vintage Funny Women Awards: Carol Burnett

With the preparation for my Edinburgh show my Vintage Funny Women column has been on hold for a few months but fear not – here is the latest instalment and it is all about the very talented, hilarious, ear-lobe tugging Carol Burnett.

This column comes hot on the heels of the news that Burnett, now 82 years old, is to be honoured in January 2016 with a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. She can put that on her mantelpiece along with her: six Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to name but a few.

I didn’t I know much about Carol Burnett before writing this column, her show wasn’t on British television as I grew up, but now that I’ve done the research I am pretty sure she would have been up there in my other comedy influences.

Until last week, my only knowledge was of her musical endeavours – creating the role of Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress, a show she kept returning to throughout her career, and her brilliant portrayal of Miss Hannigan in the 1982 film version of Annie (before it went all street and modern). Her legacy will live forever through this much loved musical film as each new generation of children fall in love with Annie and her optimism for ‘Tomorrow’. Here is Burnett at her fiercest in both senses of the word:

Carol Burnett was born in Texas on the 26th April 1933. Her parents were both alcoholic so Burnett’s early years were spent being looked after by her grandmother in a Hollywood boarding house. It was through her grandmother that she gained a love of the musicals of the Golden Age – a love that would get realised on Broadway years later.

After she graduated High School, Burnett was anonymously gifted $50 for a year’s tuition at UCLA where she intended to study Journalism – a subject she quickly swapped from when she realised she wanted to be a playwright. The only issue for Burnett was that a prerequisite of the play-writing course that she would have to take the acting course which didn’t appeal, or so she thought. As soon as she started getting laughs from an audience it was game-over for the quiet life of a playwright:

“They laughed and it felt great. All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you’ll hear a laugh that great again.”

Burnett moved to New York and created a nightclub act for herself, leading to guest appearances on shows with Ed Sullivan and Jack Parr.

From here her career started building. Burnett’s next big break was playing a foil to a ventriloquist dummy act and making guest appearances on television variety show and celebrity quizzes, all the while building up her fan  base. Next to come knocking was Broadway and in 1959 she starred as the very ‘shy’ Princess Winnifred in Mary Rogers’ musical ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ – she went on to play the role in the televised version in 1964, again in 1972 and a final version, this time as the queen, in 2005.

Over the next few years Carol’s star was on the ascent as she guested on many established television shows. By 1958 Burnett was a regular on the variety show ‘The Gary Moore Show’, performing sketches and earning her stripes for what was to come with her own show. In 1962 she performed in the Emmy award winning ‘Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall’ with her good friend Julie Andrews.

In 1962 former Vintage Funny Woman Lucille Ball invited Burnett to guest on her show:

Lucille Ball was so confident of Burnett’s talent that she offered to help and produce a sitcom for her but Burnett had her heart set on a variety show. Burnett remained good friends with Lucille Ball until Ball’s death in 1989.

The variety show she wished for finally did arrive and in 1967 ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ launched, earning 22 Emmy awards during its 11 year run. The footage says more than I could ever write so here are some great clips:

I particularly enjoy her turn as Scarlett O’Hara with a whole curtain rail in the dress!

The ‘Carol Burnett Show’ finished in 1978 and Burnett went onto stretch herself by performing serious roles in a string of TV-movies as well as singing in concert productions of musicals, particularly favouring Sondheim. The 1990s saw a couple of television revivals of her variety show format but neither recreated the success she once found.

You will still Burnett pop up as a guest star in programmes such as: Glee, Hot in Cleveland and the recent revival of Hawaii Five-0, she even voiced a character in Horton Hears a Who. Carol Burnett is an amazing Vintage Funny Woman and if you want to read more about her she has published two memoirs and even a play on her early years.

You can now buy The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes which are coming to DVD for the very first time.  Time Life has unearthed rare treasures from the Golden Age of TV not seen for more than 40 years with the long lost episodes from the first five seasons of the show.  You can watch the trailer, which features Tina Fey, Bill Hader and Julie Andrews.