Comedian Carol Burnett dishes

On her secret benefactor, life at 77, her younger husband—and how she can’t tell a joke to save her soul

Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

In This Time Together, her new memoir, the star of The Carol Burnett Show—who once planned to be a writer—reflects on her career, her family, and Hollywood friends such as Julie Andrews and Cary Grant.

Q: You had a birthday last week. But inside, do you feel 77?
A: No! It’s funny, I was having a little lunch with some lady friends in Santa Barbara, and we went around the table and everybody had to say how old they felt. I said, “Eleven.”

Q: Why do you feel so young?
A: It’s all about keeping busy, though lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been shot out of a cannon, with all this book stuff. And I do Pilates, I eat pretty well and take my vitamins. I do the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning to keep the old grey matter ticking. But I guess it’s also about attitude.

Q: You’ve experienced some terrible losses, like your daughter Carrie’s death from cancer in 2002. Yet in your book, anyway, you seem perennially optimistic.
A: Well, I’m not always optimistic. You wouldn’t have all cylinders cooking if you were always like Mary Poppins. Beverly Sills and I used to talk about this: we had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, pretty much. I first fell in love with Beverly as a person when I saw her on 60 Minutes telling Mike Wallace, “I’m not always happy, but I always try to be cheerful.” I try to follow that mantra.

Q: Your parents were alcoholics and you were raised, in poverty, by your maternal grandmother. As a kid, how did you manage to be cheerful?
A: Although we were on welfare, whatever money we could save, Nanny and I would go to the movies. This was in the forties, and a lot of movies then had a message: the bad guys got it, and the good guys won. There was no grey area. I don’t ever remember seeing a movie when I was growing up that smacked of cynicism; there were gangster films, with Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, but you kind of knew they were pretending. So I had the imprint as a child that if Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland] could put a show on in a barn and then it got to Broadway, well, that’s just the way things are! Inside, I always knew I would be okay.

Q: You’ve had some incredible luck. You write about a benefactor who saw you perform when you were studying at UCLA, then loaned you $1,000 to go to New York to pursue your dream of being in a Broadway musical. The catch was that you couldn’t reveal his identity. Did you ever hear from him again?
A: I paid him back, five years to the day, just as he’d asked. Years later, when I was doing the Burnett Show, his wife called the office and said, “If you ever get down to San Diego, we’d like to take you and your husband to lunch.” I was so thrilled. We went and had lunch, and he was kind of quiet, reserved, but very nice. As we were walking back to our car, his wife took hold of my arm and said, “You know, when your name comes up in conversation, or if you’re on television and other people are around, he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles.” It was their secret. He died a few years later, but I’ve never revealed his name, not even to my kids, because that was a promise.

Q: In New York, you got yourself an agent by renting a hall and putting on a show with a bunch of your girlfriends, which also sounds a bit like a fairy tale.
A: See? Mickey and Judy! The Rehearsal Club, where I lived, was a landmark for young ladies interested in the theatre, and a movie, Stage Door, had been written about it, so at least it had familiarity when the agents and directors and producers got their invitations to come see the show—for free. We said, “You’re always saying, ‘Let us know when you’re in something’—but how can we get in anything without an agent?! So we’re putting on our own show.” And it just all fell into place. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t. There was a naïveté when I was in New York, and in a sense that’s what saw me through. If I was auditioning for something and the girl next to me got the part, I didn’t get discouraged. I just thought, “Well, it’s her turn.” Finally my turn came with a show called Once Upon a Mattress.

Q: At the same time, you were also a regular on Garry Moore’s variety show, where you won your first Emmy. How did you manage to do both, physically?
A: Well, I was about 12 years old, that’s how! [Laughs] I had two jobs of a lifetime at the same time, and at first I had no days off at all. One Sunday matinee, I actually fell asleep onstage, on top of the mattresses. The whole show is about the fact that the princess can’t fall asleep on those mattresses, but I was so tired, I just kind of passed out.

Everett Collection

Q: How did they wake you up?
A: “Carol? Carol!” from the wings. I jumped up, and the audience thought I was milking it, but I wasn’t. Afterwards, the producers changed the schedule, so I had a day a week where I didn’t have to do anything.

Q: In 1962, CBS gave you a 10-year contract with a clause guaranteeing that in the first five years, if you wanted, you could have 30 one-hour shows. Was that common?
A: No, it was very unusual. I don’t think it’s been done before or since, because it gave me all the power.

Q: Why did CBS do it?
A: Well, I had a good agent. But I never thought I’d want to host a show; I was much more interested in Broadway. Then, come the last week of the five years, my family kind of needed the money, so we pushed the button. The next day, CBS tried to talk me into a sitcom: “A variety show is a guy’s thing: Dean Martin, [Jackie] Gleason, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar” and on and on. My show definitely wouldn’t have happened without that clause in my contract.

Q: Were you convinced the show would succeed?
A: You know what? I didn’t think about that. I just threw it out there into the universe and said, “Que sera, sera.” I remember getting together with [co-stars] Vicki [Lawrence] and Lyle [Waggoner] and Harvey [Korman] before the first show and saying, “We don’t know how long we’re gonna run, but we have to have fun. Let’s also run a ship where we take care of each other.” And we wound up with 11 years of belly laughs.

Q: And 25 Emmy awards. Your cast always seemed to get along so well, but you write that one night you had to fire Harvey Korman for being rude to a guest on the show. You two made up the next day, but were there other flare-ups?
Certainly none that affected me. But you never know what goes on in the booth, with the director and producers. But [executive producer] Joe [Hamilton], my husband at the time, was famous for running what they called the quietest booth in town: there was no yelling, and that made for a relaxed atmosphere. It was certainly relaxed on stage, except when Tim Conway got on a roll and we couldn’t keep from laughing.

Q: When your show ended in 1978, you continued to act on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. Were you ever tempted to try stand-up?
A: No. Can’t tell a joke to save my soul.

Q: That’s hard to believe.
A: It’s just not my thing, though I love to listen to jokes. I remember Ed Wynn, a famous comedian who started out in vaudeville, once said, “Stand-up comedians say funny things. Sketch comedians say things funny.” Isn’t that a good distinction?

Q: Why do you think so many comedians, both male and female, have such raunchy acts today?
A: Because it’s easy. I’m not a prude—if somebody gets raunchy in their act, I don’t mind it if they’re playing a character, somebody who talks that way—but it’s just too easy to get a laugh with a four-letter word. It’s a lot harder to get laughs and not be raunchy. If you look at Ellen [DeGeneres], she did a wonderful one-woman show a few years ago, and there wasn’t one raunchy thing. Like Bill Cosby years ago, she’s a storyteller. They just know how to say things funny.

Q: Do you feel pressure to be funny when people meet you for the first time?
A: I’m really not that funny in real life! But I am the best audience one could find. I love to laugh.

Q: What do you think of this Facebook movement, similar to the successful campaign for Betty White, to draft you to host Saturday Night Live?
A: That’s fine! [Laughs] I’m so thrilled for Betty—she was on our show a lot and we’re buddies. She’s paving the way for all of us old hens.

Q: Would you want to be centre stage again?
A: If it looked like it would be fun. I very much enjoyed doing Law & Order, playing a killer—that was fun, and they had a family feel around the set, so it was a happy show to do even though the subject matter was quite the opposite. I intend to keep on keeping on, and I’m ready for anything, though I don’t think I’d want to do more weekly stuff. I’m enjoying myself too much.

Q: Does it bother you to be called, as you are in just about every article, a “living legend”?
A: Um, yeah! I’m living, but what is a legend? Is it about the fact that I’ve been around so long?

Q: It does put the focus on the past, not the future.
A: I think that’s my answer: it bothers me because it’s about the past.

Q: What do you watch on TV these days?
A: Glee and Damages are my appointment television. Occasionally I’ll watch reruns of Seinfeld or The Golden Girls—how that happened, I don’t know, because it had no smart-aleck teenagers, it was all about older women. I don’t know that that could be done today.

Q: But demographically, there would be a bigger market for it.
A: Well I would think so, but the networks, those guys in the suits—I don’t think they’ve been weaned yet!

Q: Some years after your divorce from Joe Hamilton in 1984, you told the New York Times you were ready to meet someone and you were open to a younger man, because the older ones tend to be chauvinists. And sure enough, in 2001, you did marry a much younger man. Has that helped keep you feeling young?
A: Yes. He’s in his 50s, so it’s not like he’s a boy toy, and he’s a classically trained musician and a contractor for several major orchestras here in Los Angeles, so he has a wonderful career. Musicians, I have always found to be funny, and Brian has this sharp take on life that cracks me up. He makes me laugh far more than I make him laugh.

Q: What’s been the best part of getting older?
A: That I’m not driven that much, I can take things or leave them. I can look back and see how fortunate I was, and appreciate it—that’s a good part of getting older. See, I’m glad I was born when I was. My time was the golden age of variety. If I were starting out again now, maybe things would happen for me, but it certainly would not be on a variety show with 28 musicians, 12 dancers, two major guest stars, 50 costumes a week by Bob Mackie—the networks just wouldn’t spend the money today.

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