Carol Burnett is more than a triple threat. Yes, she can sing, dance and act – but she can also make you fall down laughing during one of her comedy skits. She made her mark in the world of comedy through Broadway, movies and – above all – television, carrying her charwoman mop and tugging her ear lobe.
The Texas native’s alcoholic parents left her at an early age with her grandmother in Hollywood. According to Burnett, she was a pistol even then, with an imaginary twin sister named Karen. She and the “twin” would change places with different clothes, coming in the front door while the other slipped out on the fire escape. “Then,” she said, “I became exhausted and Karen mysteriously vanished.”
Burnett got into acting and show business by accident, having planned to be a journalist and/or playwright. But, she found she had to take an acting course to get into the writing program. The first time she made an audience laugh, she was hooked. She found some early sponsors who helped her move to New York and pursue show business. Burnett soon caught on in nightclubs, especially with her first parody song hit: "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" (Dulles was Secretary of State at the time). In a short time, she was asked to perform this number on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.
Her first comedy role on Broadway was as the princess with the pea, called Once Upon a Mattress. She also became a regular guest on The Garry Moore Show and did a television special in 1962 with Julie Andrews at Carnegie Hall. She then went on to gigantic success in her own television variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, which began in 1967.
Joking ad lib with the audience before the show demonstrated her natural sense of humor. But, she also surrounded herself with an extremely talented comic ensemble comprised of Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence to perform hilarious skits. Burnett’s skits included cleverly silly movie parodies: Went With the Wind had Burnett dressed in drapes complete with curtain rods to parody Scarlett O’Hara’s big scene of making a fine dress out of Tara’s velvet drapery. Upon seeing this vision, “Rat Butler” tells her “That gown is gorgeous!” “Thank you,” she replies, “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it!”
Other parodies included From Here to Maternity, Sunnyset Boulevard, Lovely Story, The Howl and the Pussycat and Bonnie and Clod. The show also featured an ongoing soap opera parody called As the Stomach Turns, complete with dramatic organ chords. Her series skit, Mama’s Family, went on to become its own television show with Vicki Lawrence as “Mama.”Once The Carol Burnett Show stopped in 1978, we never saw the wide-reaching comedy talent from a variety show again. Burnett’s story is inspiring.
She grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family with a huge lack of confidence in her looks, noting “Adolescence is just one big walking pimple.” Through towering talent and perseverance, she found her fame and fortune in Los Angeles. “I have always grown from my problems and challenges,” she said, “from the things that don’t work out, that’s when I’ve really learned.”
If you are interested in some of the award-winning skit scripts from the Carol Burnett Show, they are available through the Contemporary Drama Service
(https://www.contemporarydrama.com/Default.aspx) with performance rights included.