Carol Burnett is one of the most celebrated women in television comedy, yet she says only a forgotten clause in her CBS contract allowed her wildly popular variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, to get on the air for 11 years.
Now 79, Burnett recalls her unlikely career track in the third season of the PBS series Pioneers of Television. The first episode, "Funny Ladies," airing Jan. 15, looks at groundbreaking female comics such as Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball — hilarious women in a very male business. AARP talked with Burnett about the obstacles she faced, why some people are funny and who really cracks her up.
Q. Do you think people are born funny or is the art of being funny something that can be learned?
A. Everybody I know who is funny, it's in them. You can teach timing, or some people are able to tell a joke, though I don't like to tell jokes. But I think you have to be born with a sense of humor and a sense of timing.
Q. Were you a funny kid?
A. Not really! I guess it was in me, but I was kind of shy. My grandmother and I would go see movies, and we'd come back to the apartment — we had a one-room apartment in Hollywood — and I would kind of lock myself in this little dressing room area with a cracked mirror on the door and act out what I had just seen.
I was very entertained by Betty Grable and Judy Garland. But I was kind of withdrawn. I didn't really get comfortable until I got to UCLA, and I had to take an acting course because I was studying theater arts.
I had to do a scene for class, and I came out and said one particular line and everybody laughed at it and it made me feel good. So I started to come out of my shell; I blossomed in my freshman and sophomore years.
Q. What do you think of the idea that humor comes from hardship or pain — is there any truth to that in your case?
A. Only speaking for myself, no. My childhood was rough, we were poor and my parents were alcoholics, but nobody was mean. I knew I was loved. We were on welfare, but I never felt abandoned or unloved. There might be some truth to it with some people.