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Carol Burnett Is Still Going Strong and Living in the Now

The Queen of Comedy discusses sorrow, laughter and her childhood

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Williams & Hirakawa/August

What cabin fever?

My heart goes out to people who are ill or lost their job — it's just mind-boggling. So I can't complain. I'm safe. I've got my husband, a home and food on the table. We do crossword puzzles and play Scrabble and watch old movies. But I miss seeing my kids, my grandchildren and my friends, and when all this is over, I just want to throw a great big hugging party.

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Define ‘tough'

Some people say I had a tough childhood. It wasn't that tough. We were poor, but I was never hungry. My mama and dad were alcoholics, and they were divorced. But I had my grandmother, and she raised me. We had one room; I slept on the couch until I was 21; Nanny was on the Murphy bed. She was funny! She used to look under the bed every night. I'd say, “What are you looking for, Nanny?” She'd say, “Randolph Scott.”

Here I come! Eventually …

Growing up in Los Angeles, we'd fly kites and roller-skate and play Jungle Girl. I taught myself the Tarzan yell when I was about 9. I was also editor of my high school paper. My intent was to go to UCLA and major in journalism, but we didn't have the money. Tuition was $43. One morning I got a letter. Inside was a $50 bill. I don't know, to this day, who sent that.

Patience, patience!

When I went to New York, I was auditioning for something and I thought I had it. But another girl got it. Instead of being discouraged, I thought, It's her turn. It's not my turn. My turn will come. It saved me from being disappointed.

Paying forward

If someone had told me 52 years ago that our little show [The Carol Burnett Show] would be viable today, I would have said, “You're crazy!” But it has held up because we were never that topical — we just went for the laugh.

Choose happiness

My daughter Carrie got into drugs. In that situation, don't be their best friend. When we got her into a third rehab, oh, she hated my guts! You have to love them enough to let them hate you. She got sober before her 18th birthday, and we had a good 20 years — we were joined at the hip for a while there. Carrie died of cancer at 38. But in the hospital she said, “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life.” And that was her mantra.

Divine inspiration

Before the pandemic, I did shows where the audience asked questions. About 10 years ago, in Texas, a lady said, “If you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours, who would you be and what would you do?” And I said a little prayer: OK, God. Whatever comes out of my mouth is going to be your fault. And out tumbled, “I'd be Osama bin Laden, and I'd kill myself.” The audience went nuts.

Don't forget to laugh

I've lost a lot of people — Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner and Ken Berry in just the past couple of years. You learn to cope and also to live in the now. And you have to laugh. —As told to Alanna Nash

Carol Burnett, 87, appears next in the Netflix drama All Together Now. The Carol Burnett Show can be streamed on Shout! Factory TV.

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