U.S. Comedienne

The many honors awarded Carol Burnett attest to the approbation of her peers and the love of her public. Carol Burnett has been Outstanding Comedienne for the American Guild of Variety Artists five times and recipient of five Emmys. She received TV Guide' s nod as Favorite Female Performer for three consecutive years in the early 1960s, along with a Peabody award in 1963. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences proclaimed her Woman of the Year; a Gallup Poll found her to be one of America's 20 Most Admired Women in 1977. She has eight Golden Globes, twelve People's Choice Awards, the first National TV Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Performance, the first Ace Award for Best Actress, and the Horatio Alger Award, conferred by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. The latter is, in many ways, most significant, as Burnett's personal style and endearing "everywoman" qualities resulted from a life filled with emotional abuse and the ravages of poverty. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985.

Her grandmother wanted her to go to secretarial school, with the objective of marrying a rich executive. Burnett wanted college, and a degree in journalism. The odds were slim against her finding tuition and carfare of over fifty dollars at a time when the family's rent was thirty-five dollars per month. When an anonymous donor placed a fifty dollar bill in the mailbox, she enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles, quickly switching from journalism to theater arts. Eventually, she joined a musical comedy/opera workshop where she honed her skills in characterization, comic music, and acting. She became a campus star. But her family's poverty made her dreams of moving to New York City and playing on Broadway seem unattainable. A performance at a professor's home in a skit from the musical Annie Get Your Gun in 1954 gave her an unexpected break. A party guest gave Burnett and her boyfriend, Don Saroyan, each a grant of one thousand dollars designed to jump-start their careers. Her benefactor attached four stipulations to the money: she must never reveal his identity, she must move to New York City to try her luck; she had to repay the loan within five years; and she was honor-bound to help other young people attain careers in the entertainment business. Within eighteen months, she managed to fulfill two of these criteria. While living at New York's Rehearsal Club, the hotel haven for aspiring actresses that had inspired the movie Stage Door, she made her own break by organizing The First Annual Rehearsal Club Revue, which showcased the myriad talents of her housemates. While others gained varying opportunities from the program, Burnett signed with the William Morris Agency and rapidly found outlets for her comedic and singing talents.

The Winchell-Mahoney Show, Paul Winchell's children's program, gave her a first break in television; for 13 weeks in 1955 she played comic foil for his ventriloquist dummies, sang, but did little comedy. She played Buddy Hackett's girlfriend in NBC's short-lived 1956 sitcom, Stanley. A comedic nightclub act and her collaboration with writer/composer Ken Welch gave her more opportunities for exposure to television audiences. Welch wrote a song spoofing the Elvis craze; Burnett's rendition of "I Made A Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" led to appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Toast of the Town with Ed Sullivan, and an amazing amount of publicity as the dour Secretary of State fielded questions regarding his "relationship" with Burnett. In 1956, she appeared on CBS-TV's morning show with Garry Moore, and from 1959-62, became a regular on Moore's eponymous primetime program. Critical and popular praise followed, as Burnett portrayed as many as five or six characters an hour in each show; ranked as America's Favorite Female Performer of 1961-62 by TV Guide, that season she received her first Emmy. She also made a television special based on her successful 1959-61 portrayal of Princess Winnifred, the gangly, yet sensitive heroine of the off/on Broadway musical, Once Upon a Mattress. She and Julie Andrews made an Emmy-winning special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. Her popularity amply confirmed, CBS negotiated a ten-year contract which required her to perform in specials and guest appearances for the first five years. During the remaining five, Burnett was to dedicate herself to her own show.

The Carol Burnett Show debuted on 11 September 1967, and ran for eleven seasons. It gave Burnett the opportunity to integrate a vaudeville-inspired melange of guest stars, music, and various comedic styles with her own unique blend of sophistication and folksiness. By filming the show live, with an in-studio audience and a recurring ensemble cast, The Carol Burnett Show fused the aura of live performance with the benefits of filmed production. Burnett's opening question-and-answer session with audience members showcased her congenial, unpretentious persona, and illustrated her astonishing spontaneity in dealing with the unexpected. Bits and pieces of her life experience found their way into the show; her signature ear-tug, originally a signal to her grandmother, the working class grace of her Charwoman character, her childhood fascination with movies and stars, and the painfully funny relationship between Burnett's Eunice character and Vicki Laurence's Mama in "Family" sketches. The show reached its ratings peak in 1972, but remained popular enough to carry it through 1978, when Burnett essential terminated the program before it became too stale.

After The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett continued to perform in all aspects of the entertainment industry, from television to Broadway. Highlights of her television career include the made-for-television movie, Friendly Fire, in 1978, which examined issues confronting families with sons in Vietnam, the miniseries Fresno, in 1986, which lampooned popular nighttime soap operas like Dallas by presenting comedic elements as if they were serious drama, and musical/opera specials with starts as diverse as Beverly Sills and Dolly Parton. Burnett-as-performer is also known as Burnett-the-Crusader: in 1981, she won a lawsuit against The National Enquirer tabloid, which had slandered her in 1976 with an article suggesting that she was drunk and rowdy at a gathering of celebrities and international political figures. Burnett's diverse list of credits continue to grow, and even after a lifetime of success, this consummate professional remains true to the pledge she made to her anonymous benefactor--a lecture given for The Actors' Studio in New York City aired in 1996 on the Bravo Arts network, as Burnett helps others find their way into television, motion pictures, and legitimate theatre.

-K.C. D'Alessandro


Carol Burnett

Photo courtesy of Carol Burnett

CAROL BURNETT. Born in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., 26 April 1933. Attended the University of California, Los Angeles, 1951-54. Married 1) Don Saroyan, 1955 (divorced, 1962); 2) Joe Hamilton, 1963 (divorced, 1984); children: Carrie Louise, Jody Ann, Erin Kate. UCLA summer stock, summer 1952, 1953; moved to New York, 1954; hatcheck girl 1954-55; signed with William Morris Agency, 1955; in television from 1955; debuted on Broadway as lead in Once Upon a Mattress, 1959; recorded first solo record album 1961; toured Midwest in concert, summer 1962; signed with CBS-TV, 1962; in film from 1963, debute, Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? Recipient: 5 Emmy Awards, 1962-91; 5 American Guild of Variety Artists Awards; TV Guide Award, 1961, 1962 and 1963; Peabody Award, 1963; National Television Critics Circle Award, 1977; One of the 20 Most Admired Women in the World by Gallup Poll, 1977; San Sebastian Film Festival Award for Best Actress, 1978; 12 People's Choice Awards; 2 Photoplay Gold Medals; 8 Golden Globe Awards; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Woman of the Year; First Ace Award, 1983; Television Hall of Fame induction, 1985; Horatio Alger Award, 1988. Address: c/o International Creative Management, 8899 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.


1955 The Winchell-Mahoney Show
1956 Stanley Pantomime Quiz
1959-62 The Garry Moore Show
1964-65 The Entertainers
1967-78 The Carol Burnett Show
1990-91 Carol and Company
1991 The Carol Burnett Show


1986 Fresno


1974 6 RMS RIV VU
1975 Twigs
1978 The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank
1979 The Tenth Month
1979 Friendly Fire
1982 Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice
1983 Between Friends
1985 Laundromat
1988 Hostage
1994 Seasons of the Heart


1962 Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall
1963 Calamity Jane
1963 An Evening With Carol Burnett
1964 Once Upon a Mattress
1966 Carol and Company
1967 Carol + 2
1969 Bing Crosby and Carol Burnett--Together Again for the First Time
1971 Julie and Carol at the Lincoln Center
1972 Once Upon a Mattress
1975 Twigs
1976 Sills and Burnett at the Met
1978 A Special Carol Burnett
1979 Dolly and Carol in Nashville
1982 Eunice
1982 Hollywood: The Gift of Laughter (co-host) 1984 Burnett "Discovers" Domingo
1985 Here's TV Entertainment (co-host)
1987 Plaza Suite
1987 Carol, Carl, Whoopi, and Robin
1987 Superstars and Their Moms
1988 Superstars and Their Moms
1989 Julie and Carol--Together Again 1991 The Funny Women of Television
1991 The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show (host) 1993 The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion
1994 A Century of Women
1994 Men, Movies, and Carol


Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed?, 1963; Pete 'n' Tillie, 1972; The Front Page, 1974; A Wedding, 1978; Four Seasons, 1981; Chu Chu and the Philly Flash, 1981; H.E.A.L.T.H., 1982; Annie, 1982; Noises Off, 1992.


Once Upon a Mattress, 1959; Fade Out--Fade In, 1964; Plaza Suite, 1971; I Do! I Do!, 1973; Same Time Next Year, 1977; Love Letters, 1990.


One More Time: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1986.
Purdum, Todd S. "Carol Burnett Comes Round to Where She Started From." (interview). The New York Times, 24 September 1995.
"The Serious Business of Being Funny." (interview). The New Yorker, 21 August 1995.


Marc, David. "Carol Burnett: The Last of the Big-time Comedy-Variety Stars." Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Chur, Netherlands), July 1992.

O'Connor, John J. "Funny Women of Television: A Museum of Television and Radio Tribute." The New York Times, 24 October, 1991.

Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Laughing Till It Hurts: The Complete Live and Career of Carol Burnett. New York: Morrow, 1988.


See also Carol Burnett Show; Variety Programs