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On Eve of Twain Prize, Carol Burnett Looks Back

  • Carol Burnett guest stars as Victoria’s (Wendie Malick) mother, a local TV legend and puppeteer for a children’s program who gets Elka (Betty White) in on the action in the situation comedy  “Hot in Cleveland. (TV Land photograph)

    Carol Burnett guest stars as Victoria’s (Wendie Malick) mother, a local TV legend and puppeteer for a children’s program who gets Elka (Betty White) in on the action in the situation comedy “Hot in Cleveland. (TV Land photograph)

  • Carol Burnett at San Ysidro ranch in Santa Barbara. Washington Post - Bill O’Leary

    Carol Burnett at San Ysidro ranch in Santa Barbara. Washington Post - Bill O’Leary

  • Carol Burnett guest stars as Victoria’s (Wendie Malick) mother, a local TV legend and puppeteer for a children’s program who gets Elka (Betty White) in on the action in the situation comedy  “Hot in Cleveland. (TV Land photograph)
  • Carol Burnett at San Ysidro ranch in Santa Barbara. Washington Post - Bill O’Leary

Montecito, Calif. — “Call me Carol,” says the diminutive woman as she sits down to look back, knowing we could mistake her familiar presence for someone else: Mrs. Wiggins, Starlet O’Hara, the irrepressible Eunice Higgins, the visages and variants that add up to the wholly singular Carol Burnett.

Happens all the time. Little girls in grocery stores glare at her from behind their mothers’ legs. They see Miss Hannigan, the bungling villainess in the film version of Annie. Others see a woman with the pipes of a wild man: They beg her to do a Tarzan call.

“People sometimes say I remind them of a sister or aunt or cousin, because they grew up with me,” she explains in her warm contralto voice, still rich at age 80. “And now, because of YouTube and our DVDs, I’m getting mail from 11-year-olds. I guess the way we used to do comedy still holds up pretty well.”

The Carol Burnett Show held a chokehold on American television for 11 seasons. The weekly variety show combined the last vestiges of so-called Old Hollywood with must-see appointment television, and endured long past 1978, when Burnett signed off her show with, “I’m so glad we had this time together.”

America was glad, too. Millions spent Saturday nights with Burnett and company, gulping up her humor and zany character sketches. She taught us Broadway show tunes that people in small towns might otherwise not have known. We watched for the costumes. That dress! The stars. Lucy! Mickey! Sammy! The laughs led to 25 Emmys and even more honors for its chief comedienne. Carol picked up Golden Globes, a Peabody, even a Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was - or rather, is - the first lady of variety.

Burnett will add another accolade to her overflowing trophy case on Sunday when she receives the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a lifetime-achievement honor befitting those who have had an “impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist.” Burnett is undeniably closer to Twain than many past winners. Like Twain, Burnett is a slice of homegrown Americana, a humorist whose name evokes an epoch of culture, not just comedy.

Burnett, ever self-deprecating, has never grown accustomed to accepting praise.

“It wasn’t just our show,” she says, stressing the “our.”

“It was that whole Saturday night lineup we had — All in the Family. M.A.S.H. Mary, Bob Newhart — It was the golden era. Those shows hold up over time.”

Time has yet to take its toll on Carol Burnett. Here, in the restaurant of the San Ysidro Ranch just a few miles south of her Montecito home, it’s as though she’s standing back at CBS Studio 33 in Culver City, playfully commandeering all questions for her opening monologue.

Why did your show resonate?

“You think I know?”

Did you know you were breaking the glass ceiling?

“You don’t realize what you’re doing when you’re doing it.”

What’s left on your to-do list?

“George Clooney,” she says to the perfect set-up. “I say that all the time.”

Laughter was the antidote to poverty growing up. Born to alcoholic parents in San Antonio, Burnett moved with her grandmother to a working-class neighborhood in Hollywood, where she was worlds away from the silver-screen stars she’d one day host on her show. Movies were an escape. She frequented theaters with her grandmother, sometimes two or three times each week, a habit that encouraged her drive and optimism.

“I was blessed because of the movies,” she says. “In the movies, the good guy always made it. The bad guys didn’t. Mickey and Judy were going to put on a show, and then they always ended up on Broadway. That’s what I figured. I never thought that I couldn’t do something if I had the fire in my belly.”

Surprisingly, Burnett admits that she was a shy kid. She initially wanted to be a journalist, following the cruel advice of her mother, who once told her, “You can always write, no matter what you look like.” She changed her mind after enrolling in a theater class at UCLA and experiencing the adrenaline rush of live performance.

“The audience laughed and I thought, whoa, I love this feeling,” she says.

In 1954, while she was still in college, her near-mythic discovery occurred: A man saw her performing a piece from Annie Get Your Gun as part of a student group at a party. He asked her about her plans. She didn’t have enough money to move to New York, so the man and his wife loaned Burnett $1,000, on the conditions that she repay the loan within five years and always pay the favor forward. He also made her agree that she would never reveal his name. To this day, she hasn’t.

She left California for the New York cabaret and nightclub circuit, where John Foster Dulles, or rather, Mr. Dull-est, helped her hit the big time.

“I made a fool of myself over John Foster Dulles,” Burnett crooned on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar, and The Ed Sullivan Show. The song, which satirized a generation of girls going gaga over the swiveling hips of Elvis Presley, even caused a minor political hiccup. The New York Times asked, “Is this girl a Republican or Democrat?” And Dulles, then Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, remarked on the spoof during an appearance on Meet the Press.

“I never discuss matters of the heart in public,” he joked.

The tune catapulted Burnett to national stardom, and she went on to appear on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress, and to join The Garry Moore Show, cutting her teeth with the big boys of television each week.

“I got great training through Garry Moore,” Burnett says, remembering her first regular television appearance. “It was great to be a second banana on that show. Although, in a way, I wanted my show to be like his but without any second bananas. We had a true rep company show, which is what I wanted.”

Initially, Burnett didn’t even want her own show, preferring the freedom of television specials. But her reluctance was testing CBS. Her mentor and close friend, Lucille Ball, pushed her into regular television after a string of appearances on The Lucy Show. She offered Burnett her own sitcom in 1966, which she politely declined. It was only after CBS, seeing the ratings success of Burnett’s variety specials, forced her to accept its offer that she took on a series. The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS on Sept. 11, 1967. It made her the most visible comedienne after Ball.

“I didn’t know I was a groundbreaker,” Burnett says emphatically, maintaining that it wasn’t particularly hard to be a woman in comedy at the time. “Lucy didn’t even know she was a groundbreaker until later.”

But occasionally, the two did speak about their rare roles as televised comediennes on weekly shows that bore their names.

“I still don’t know anything about business,” Burnett adds. “It wasn’t something that ever interested me. But Lucy had to learn it when she broke up with Desi. . . . And I’ll never forget when she said to me, ‘Kid, that’s when they put the “s” on the end of my last name.’”

Burnett had a softer reputation in Hollywood: She was known as the nicest lady in show business, a woman who kept her promise to her anonymous patron by giving breaks to young performers, including a 19-year-old Bernadette Peters. Vicki Lawrence, Burnett’s protégé on The Carol Burnett Show, still finds it remarkable that she was chosen to “study” under the star each week.

“It was surreal: I got to go to Harvard School of Comedy in front of America,” Lawrence said by phone from her home in Long Beach, Calif. “People look back at The Carol Burnett Show and see that we all grew up together. She was just so nurturing and encouraged everyone to fly. That feeling permeated through the screen and the audience was part of it, too.”

Many of today’s darlings of comedy crafted their own variety shticks on Burnett’s shoulders. They credit her with cracking what was then the glass stage, whether or not she knew it at the time. Tina Fey, a past Twain winner, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph will be on hand at the Kennedy Center to pay tribute to her achievements.

“Carol Burnett was a pioneer,” Poehler said in an email. “She proved you could be hilarious, strong and beloved. She taught us the power of looking silly.”

“She was the first woman to helm the last beautiful, glossy and arguably best variety show ever, so a lot of women look up to her,” Lawrence added.

At its finest, The Carol Burnett Show eschewed political humor and exclusionary jokes, the common currency of comedy in the modern digital age. Her brand of humor was proudly democratic. It’s why she’s less keen on sitcoms today.

“I’m getting a little tired of everything having to do with sex and bathroom humor,” Burnett says flatly. “It’s almost like you have teenagers in a locker room writing a sitcom. They’re cheap laughs. It’s not clever writing.”

She does, however, reserve praise for Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. She loved 30 Rock and Frasier when they were on.

As for whether she could see a variety show like hers working on television today, she’s uncertain.

“I could see it working, but the networks don’t trust variety,” she says. “It would take someone to do it and make it a big hit. Kristin Chenoweth could do it. She’s got great comedy chops. But they couldn’t do it the way we did. We had a 28-piece live orchestra. We had 12 dancers and two major guest stars a week. Bob Mackie made 60 to 70 costumes each week. If they did it, it would have to be a lot less elaborate.”

After The Carol Burnett Show, there were television specials, spinoffs, Annie and Broadway plays, but she is still heralded for the laughs she generated on Saturday nights. Burnett has spent the past decade popping up in guest spots on shows such as Glee and Desperate Housewives. Earlier this year, she appeared with her pal Betty White on Hot in Cleveland. She filmed a spot for Hawaii Five-0 this month.

Her focus has also evolved from television to stage and most recently, writing. She’s telling stories of the golden years and opening up about her family’s trials. In This Time Together, which was published in 2010, she recalls her rise to fame alongside personal tragedy, including the death of her daughter Carrie Hamilton from cancer in 2002. She recalls her divorces from college sweetheart Don Saroyan and from Joe Hamilton, the Carol Burnett Show executive producer with whom she had her three daughters.

Her latest book, Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story, which came out in April, describes her relationship with her daughter, noting that Carrie asked Burnett to complete a screenplay she had worked on before she died.

“Her request had been living with me for 10 years,” Burnett recalls. “I couldn’t finish the story. But I wanted people to know what kind of person she was,” she says of why she penned the memoir of her daughter. “I put her unfinished story in the book. I liked it better this way,” she says.

After finishing her memoirs, she hopes to continue doing sporadic spots. She spends a fair amount of time touring the country, doing her signature question-and-answer sessions.

“I love them because I never know what anyone’s going to ask,” she says. “I have to be in the here and now. And I say, it keeps the old grey matter ticking.”

At home in California, she counts Pilates and crossword puzzles as the key to her vigor and health, favoring The New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords. But despite her sprightly spirit, she’s reluctant to attempt a full-blown television resurgence. She’s content to look back and smile.

“I don’t want to do regular television anymore,” she says without any hint of longing. “It could never top that kind of fun we had on our show. It was 11 years of laughs.”

“The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor,” at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kennedy Center, will air on PBS stations on Nov. 24.