Born April 26, 1936 (some sources say 1934), in San Antonio, TX; daughter of Jody (a theater manager) and Louise (Creighton) Burnett; married Don Saroyan (an actor), 1955 (divorced); married Joe Hamilton (a producer), 1963 (divorced); children: Carrie Louise, Jody Ann, Erin Kate. Education: Attended the University of California, Los Angeles, 1953-55. Comedienne, 1955--. Began career as singer in cabarets and musical comedies; achieved national recognition with parody song "I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles," 1957. Guest performer on numerous television shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show, the Dinah Shore Show, and the Tonight Show. Regular performer on the Garry Moore Show, 1959-62. Star of the Carol Burnett Show, 1967-78, and Carol & Company, 1990--. Performer in musical comedies for stage, including Once Upon a Mattress, 1959, Fade Out, Fade In, 1964, and I Do, I Do, 1974. Performer in nonmusical comedies on stage, including Plaza Suite, 1970, and Same Time Next Year, 1977. Principal film work includes Pete 'n' Tillie, 1972, Front Page, 1974, A Wedding, 1977, Health, 1979, The Four Seasons, 1981, and Annie, 1982. Television films include Friendly Fire, 1978, The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, 1979, The Tenth Month, 1979, Life of the Party, 1982, Between Friends, 1983, and Hostage, 1988.
Carol Burnett's contributions to musical theater have been eclipsed by her longstanding career as a comedienne, but music helped to make her the star she is today. Burnett launched her zany career with a parody song, "I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles," and made a hit of the Off-Broadway musical "Once upon a Mattress" well before she found herself starring on a perennially popular television variety show. A People magazine contributor called Burnett "Fanny Brice in a noisebox, an all-purpose funny girl with sexy legs who could hoof it, belt it, swing the slapstick and then with terrifying tenderness tear the heart out of some chuckleheaded caricature and lay it in your startled hands."
A number of critics have noted that Burnett's fierce, satirical comedic style is a reflection of her difficult childhood. She was born in San Antonio, Texas, the daughter of two alcoholics. Her father deserted the family when she was eight, and she moved with her mother and grandmother to Los Angeles. There they lived on welfare in a boarding house. As she grew up, Burnett spent more and more time with her grandmother, who was strict and deeply religious. Needless to say, her troubled childhood left emotional scars that trouble her even today. "I couldn't understand what my parents were going through," she told Newsweek magazine. "I thought it was something I had done. So I tried to be as quiet and as cooperative as I could be. Just a little caretaker."
That urge to be a "people pleaser" led Burnett through busy, productive high school years to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, which she attended on scholarship. She had originally intended to major in journalism, but when she took a playwrighting class that required acting, she discovered that she loved the stage. She promptly changed her major to theater and studied voice, acting, and dancing.
Burnett was a member of UCLA's opera workshop during her junior year. Under that aegis, she and a partner, Don Saroyan, performed a duet from "Annie Get Your Gun" for a private party. The act so impressed one of the wealthy guests that he staked the two young entertainers $1000 each to travel to New York and find work in show business. Burnett pocketed the grant and made her way to New York City in the summer of 1954.
A part-time job as a hat checker in a club helped to pay the bills while Burnett made the audition rounds in Manhattan. She lived at the famed Rehearsal Club, a hotel for aspiring actresses, and she quickly became popular enough there to be elected president of the club. Under Burnett's supervision, a number of young women in the club pooled their resources, rented a hall, and staged a revue for all the agents and theater reviewers they could cajole into coming. Burnett's contribution to the revue was a spoof of Eartha Kitt's sexy "Monotonous," performed in ragged bathrobe and curlers. The performance won her an agent who secured her employment in summer stock and in nightclubs.
Burnett broke into television on Paul Winchell's children's show for NBC, and by 1956 she was making semi-regular appearances on Garry Moore's daytime variety program. Much of the early television work she did was in the musical-comedy vein, and in 1957 she made a national name for herself with a send-up of teenage love songs called "I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles." The silly song became such a hit that Burnett eventually quit performing it--she was afraid the public would identify her too strongly with that one number.
In 1959 Burnett became a regular on the nighttime version of the Garry Moore Show. She also starred in an Off-Broadway musical, Once Upon a Mattress. The show, based on the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, featured Burnett as a gawky, tomboy princess named Fred. Once Upon a Mattress ran for 460 performances, moving from Off-Broadway to the Winter Garden and the St. James Theatre before closing in 1960. Burnett stayed with the show throughout its entire run, even though the simultaneous work for the Garry Moore Show brought her to the point of exhaustion.
Burnett loved musical comedy, but as her fame grew her work as a singer diminished rapidly. In the early 1960s she was still working elegant bookings such as New York's Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, and in 1962 she co-starred with Julie Andrews in a television special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. By the time she signed as the star of her own comedy show, however, Burnett had accumulated a cornucopia of comic characters, few of which ever belted out a tune. Her wildly popular Carol Burnett Show featured far more skits than songs, a reflection of the American viewer's growing boredom with the musical-variety format.
The Carol Burnett Show allowed its star to inhabit a limitless range of characters, from charwomen and downtrodden housewives to the snobbiest bluebloods and royalty. Few politician's wives escaped her scathing parodies, and she specialized in wacky spoofs of great Hollywood movies. The People reviewer noted: "Like a jellyfish, she flowed from one outlandish shape into another. Unlike jellyfish, she never stung. The harder we laughed at her characters, the more we loved them. The crudest were killingly funny, the subtlest wonderfully touching cameos of the human predicament."
In the 1980s Burnett appeared in some straight dramatic roles on television and in films, and she won the coveted role of the greedy orphanage superintendent in the film version of Annie. That part brought her back into her first love--musical comedy--but by 1990 she was back at what she did best, comedy-variety. The executives at NBC were quite pleased when her Carol & Company show became a sleeper hit, moving into the Nielsen top twenty in the spring of the year. In fact, Burnett's new show survived its first season and was renewed for 1991--no small feat for a woman entertainer nearing 60.
Burnett has not been spared her share of tabloid headlines over the years. Twice divorced, she has undergone therapy herself and has relived the nightmare of substance abuse and addiction through the suffering of her oldest daughter, Carrie. Newsweek reporter Harry F. Waters noted that the comedienne "has used therapy to confront some personal demons, including her rage toward her alcoholic parents and a resultant urge to hide her anger behind a mask of perennial good cheer."
Her personal tragedies notwithstanding, Burnett has staged a comeback at an age when even the best actresses and singers often struggle for recognition. Waters observes that even though Burnett's comedy "has taken on a dark (and daring) new edge," American audiences continue to find the redheaded star endearing. "Loving Carol Burnett is a national habit," the reporter concluded. "Just when we forget we're hooked, it all comes back."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Carol Burnett's Career
Carol Burnett's Awards
Five Emmy Awards, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for comedy.
August 5, 2003: Burnett is named to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Source: New York Times Arts, www.nytimes.com/2003/08/06/arts/06HONO.html, August 8, 2003.
December 7, 2003: Burnett received a Kennedy Center Honor. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, December 8, 2003.
November 3, 2005: Burnett was announced as a 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient by President George W. Bush. Source: San Diego Union Tribune, www.signonsandiego.com, November 3, 2005.
- Esquire, June 1972.
- Newsweek, June 18, 1990.
- People, Summer 1989.