Carol Burnett’s Q&A roadshow
Although beloved American comedian Carol Burnett grew up in poverty in the 1940s with two alcoholic parents, she never felt poor or unloved, thanks to her grandmother.
With their scrounged pennies, the two would retreat to the cool darkness of movie theaters in California as often as possible. The optimism of the films, coupled with her grandmother’s love, left a lasting impression on the future Emmy Award-winning performer.
“She was unfailingly in love with me, which made me feel very secure in spite of the fact that we were poor,” Burnett said of her grandmother in an interview with the Beacon.
“I grew up with the imprint of the movies on me. I thought nothing was impossible, so I was never discouraged,” she said. “I was raised thinking positively.”
Of course, Burnett’s optimism paid off and she ultimately did strike it big. At 86, she continues to entertain audiences around the country with her one-woman show.
On Thursday, July 25, she will sit down with an audience in Bethesda for An Evening of Laughter and Reflection — a live, 90-minute question and answer session. Burnett has spent the past decade traveling the country doing these shows, which also feature clips from her career in comedy.
“I fly without a net,” she said. “I don’t want any planned or planted questions. Doing these shows keeps the old gray matter ticking because you can’t think about what you did yesterday or what you’re going to do tomorrow.”
A blast from the past
The spontaneity of the evenings is similar to her famous television comedy series, “The Carol Burnett Show,” which aired from 1967 to 1978, netting 25 Emmys. Each show began with an unscripted Q&A session and ended with Burnett singing her theme song, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” which was written for her by her second husband, Joe Hamilton.
Countless comic skits from the show have become classics, such as her silent charwoman character and her parody of Scarlett O’Hara, where she’s dressed in brocade curtains (including the curtain rod). Today, that dress is part of the Smithsonian collection.
Burnett continued to act and sing after her eponymous TV show ended. She starred in the 1982 movie Annie as the evil orphanage headmistress, Miss Hannigan (playing her not only as a villain, but as an alcoholic).
She had recurring roles on the television sit-com “Mad About You” and the soap opera “All My Children;” guest-starred on two seasons of “Glee,” the award-winning Fox television series; and most recently, was the voice of a chair named “Chairol Burnett” in Disney’s upcoming Toy Story 4.
As for her accolades, Burnett has amassed every possible award. She won a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2013, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2015 and was the inaugural recipient of a new Golden Globe Award named for her this past January: the Carol Burnett Award for Lifetime Achievement in Television.
From Texas to Hollywood
A shy child, Burnett moved with her grandmother from her native San Antonio to Hollywood after her parents were no longer able to care for her.
During her freshman year at UCLA in 1951, she signed up for a theater class. One evening, she belted out a line in a funny way (“I’m baaack!”), and the audience’s laughter gave her “the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me,” as she later put it, changing her life.
Burnett also remembers two donations from total strangers that helped alter her future. An anonymous donor gave her about $50 to help pay tuition at UCLA, and others gave her $1,000 so she could move to the Big Apple.
These gifts inspired Burnett’s lifelong commitment to “pay it forward.” She has formed a foundation, established a scholarship at her alma mater and donates to many charities, both national and in her current hometown of Santa Barbara.
Arriving in New York City in 1954, Burnett took a job as a hat check girl and moved into the Rehearsal Club, a boardinghouse for aspiring actresses. She and five roommates each chipped in $5 to buy an orange dress from Bloomingdale’s that they would share for auditions, she remembers.
“It was kind of like a movie, living in the house with all these girls. We really bonded. Everybody got along, and when somebody got a job, we all applauded.”
Burnett’s big break came in 1955 with her television debut on a children’s variety show hosted by ventriloquist Paul Winchell (she played the puppet’s girlfriend).
That’s when she invented her signature gesture: tugging her ear at the end of the show. The now famous motion was a signal to her grandmother; a way to say, “Hi, Nanny. All’s well.”
Slings and arrows
Her early childhood and adulthood were marked by struggles — both of her parents died when she was in her 20s — and Burnett’s adult life also hasn’t been without heartbreak. She lost a daughter to lung cancer in 2002, which she wrote about in her 2013 memoir, Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.
This spring she lost dear friend and television co-star Tim Conway. His death on May 14 was announced just before Burnett was scheduled to appear on stage in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a difficult moment for her.
“I told a couple of funny stories about him, and the audience was very gracious. I got through the show,” she said. “He was as nice as he was funny, and that’s something.”
After decades of making people laugh, Burnett has learned how to stay positive and enjoy life.
She credits a writer on “The Carol Burnett Show” with teaching her how to take things one day at a time with a bedtime ritual she remembers to this day. Every night, think of “three ‘gratefuls’ and three ‘did-wells.’
“It can be, ‘I did well because I drove to the grocery store and smiled at the other customers.’ That’s a did-well. You can be grateful for good health, grateful for your friends — you just try to pick something out of the special day that you just lived.”
Have a question for her?
In the past decade of live Q&A sessions like the one she’ll host in July, Burnett still thrives on her interactions with the audience. And thanks to her growing popularity with younger fans on the Internet, they’re not all white-haired, she pointed out.
“Because of YouTube and Netflix, I’m getting audiences that range from eight years old to 100 — all ages — and that’s really fun,” she said.
A few years ago, Burnett noticed a 9-year-old boy sitting in the second row of one of her audiences. She asked him if he knew who she was. “There was a pause and he said, ‘Surprisingly, yes.’ The audience loved it. That’s just pure gold when you get that. I thought, ‘I’m going to take him on the road.’”
Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection is scheduled for Saturday, July 20, at Richmond’s Altria Theater; 6 North Laurel St., (804) 592-3368. She will be in Baltimore on Tuesday, July 23, at Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, 140 W. Mount Laurel Ave., (410) 900-1150, and on Thursday, July 25, at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at the Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Maryland, (301) 581-5100.