If comedy, as it’s often been described, is used to mask pain, Carol Burnett somehow managed to take a very painful childhood and turned it into a true legacy of Classic TV in the form of The Carol Burnett Show. And not only was that 1967-78 comedy variety show the first to be hosted by a woman, but it brought home 25 Emmy Awards over the course of its run and remains a true landmark in TV history.
Born April 26, 1933, in San Antonio to parents who were alcoholics, Carol was placed in the hands of her grandmother, Mabel Eudora “Mae” Jones, who played a strong role in raising her (and to whom Carol’s ear tug at the end of every episode of the show was a signal that everything was OK). Growing up she found she had a knack for “performing” for people, though she didn’t get a sense of where that would lead her. Eventually she would end up at UCLA, initially planning on studying journalism, but then switching her major to theatre arts and English with the intention of becoming a playwright. A required course was one devoted to acting, and that changed everything for her — though no thanks to her mother, who told her insecure daughter, “You can always write, no matter what you look like.” Ouch.
“It was hard,” admits Wesley Hyatt, author of the book The Carol Burnett Show: So Glad We Had This Time, “but she focused on the good parts of it. She was raised by her grandmother, who was quite a character — she learned that her grandmother in her later years was seeing a much younger man and having a good time doing so. She was also able to get away and go to the movies a lot; she loved going to the films of the thirties and forties and to play characters that way. Growing up in California, I don’t think she let adversity hold her back. She was an early believer in positive thinking, always saying, ‘OK, I’m going to do this and try and do that.’ No matter what the odds, she would always make that effort.
“When she auditioned for Broadway shows, if she didn’t get picked for them, she’d laugh and be, like, ‘OK, that wasn’t my turn; that wasn’t the right project. Let’s move on and go to the next thing.’ In fact, when she finished The Carol Burnett Show, she showed a reporter from the New York Times this necklace she’d gotten from Beverly Sills that said, ‘I’ve already done that, let’s go on and do some more.’ I think that’s a very healthy approach to have. I’ve heard about some actors and actresses who complain bitterly about roles they missed out on. Carol has chosen not to do so.”
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