Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Carol Burnett

Episode Summary

Carol Burnett (1933-present) is an American actress, comedian, writer, singer, and all around national treasure. She’s best known for her iconic eponymous television variety show–the first of its kind to be hosted by a woman.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leading Lady is an American actress, comedian, writer, singer, and all around national treasure. She’s best known for her iconic eponymous television variety show. It was the first of its kind to be hosted by a woman. She also achieved great success on stage and in film in both dramatic and comedic roles. Please welcome the one and only Carol Burnett. 

Carol was born on April 26, 1933 in San Antonio, Texas to Ina and Joseph Burnett. At the time, Ina worked in publicity for film studios, while Joseph managed a local movie theater. Both struggled with serious alcohol addiction. When Carol was very young she lived with her maternal grandmother Mae, who was a much more stable presence. 

By the late 1930s, the Burnett’s marriage had fallen apart and the two divorced. Now free from constraints, Ina took the opportunity to move to Hollywood. Mae and little Carol soon followed, living in a single room in a boarding house close to Ina’s residence.   

While living at the boarding house in Hollywood, Carol found that she could easily entertain the other boarders with little jokes and comedic routines. When she was nine, she taught herself the “Tarzan Yell,” which was an early favorite amongst her neighbors and later a favorite amongst her millions of fans. 

Carol also spent much of her childhood surrounded by music as her grandmother was a trained pianist and her mother played the ukulele.  As a reprieve from life in the boarding house, Carol and her grandmother took constant trips to the movie theater. Carol credits the many, many hours spent at the theater for instilling in her a great love of film and an interest in the industry.

When Carol graduated from Hollywood High School in 1951, she received an envelope from an anonymous sender containing exactly enough money to pay for a year of college at UCLA. She started that year thinking that she would study journalism, but soon switched to a Theater Arts and English major. 

Carol wanted to become a playwright, but found that in order to get into the playwriting program, she had to take an acting class. According to Carol, she wasn’t thrilled about it. That mandatory class would change her life. She later said: 

“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.”

Carol continued performing in university productions where she received notice and acclaim for her comedic acting chops. During her junior year at UCLA, Carol and some other student actors were invited to perform at a professor’s holiday party. The performance was apparently so good that afterwards, a man and woman attending the party approached Carol to congratulate her on her performance. They asked what her plans were going forward, to which Carol replied that she wanted to move to New York City to work in musical comedy, but couldn’t afford it. On the spot, the couple offered to give Carol and her boyfriend $1,000 each interest free to make the move. The only conditions were as follows: The loans had to be repaid within 5 years, nobody could ever know who provided the loans, and if Carol became successful, she would agree to help future aspiring artists achieve their goals. Carol agreed to the terms, and was soon on her way to New York.

At first, Carol had a tough time landing roles. After a performance in the Rehearsal Club’s 1955 Revue, which was attended by agents and even stars like Marlene Dietrich, Carol started getting jobs. 

At first Carol was mostly getting small parts on the Winchell-Mahoney Show, where her brand of comedy was well received but not necessarily highly memorable. A year later, Carol landed her first sitcom role on the short-lived show “Stanley,” playing opposite Buddy Hackett. In 1956, Carol got more national exposure with her appearance with Garry Moore on the CBS Morning Show. Three years later, in 1959, Moore decided to add Carol to the cast of the wildly popular Garry Moore Show, where her brash, almost slapstick-esque  comedy started to gain a following. 

That same year, Carol also starred in the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, for which she received brilliant reviews and a Tony nomination.

After winning an Emmy in 1961 for her work on The Garry Moore Show, Carol started looking to put together a show of her own. In 1967, Carol launched another variety show on CBS called The Carol Burnett show. It was an immediate, massive hit. Though American audiences had started to grow weary of tv variety shows during the 1960s, The Carol Burnett show was the exception to the rule. It ran from 1967 to 1978 and garnered 23 Emmy awards. 

The Carol Burnett Show featured everything from musical numbers and comedy sketches to guest stars and a regular opening segment during which Carol would do a hilarious Q&A session with the audience. The show was jam packed with talented comedic actors, including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway. One of the show’s most famous original sketches “The Family,” was spun off into its own television show- the beloved sitcom “All In The Family” starring Vicki Lawrence. 

By 1971, The Carol Burnett show anchored an iconic Saturday night television lineup including “All In The Family”, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, and “MASH.” The show’s popularity endured -- a 2001 retrospective about The Carol Burnett Show drew in a whopping 30 million viewers. Carol became a household name.

Carol also pursued a career on the silver screen and was in a number of movies in the 1960s and ‘70s like “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?”, “The Four Seasons,” and of course the movie musical classic “Annie,” in which Carol gave a tour de force performance as the drunken orphanage proprietress Miss Hannigan. 

In more recent years, Carol has returned to the small screen, working on numerous tv shows like Magnum P.I., Desperate Housewives, Mad About You, and even Glee. She also continues to perform on Broadway from time to time, including a starring role in the 1995-1996 production of “Moon over Buffalo”, for which she was nominated for a second Tony Award.

In 2013, Carol received the Kennedy Center’s highly esteemed Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

All month we're talking about Leading Ladies. For more on why we're doing what we're doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can find me on Twitter @JennyMKaplan.   

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

As always, we'll be taking a break for the weekend. Talk to you on Monday!