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Carol Burnett, 87, on Her Classic Show and the People She Loves

Beloved comedian, whose TV series is now available online, reveals her secret for a happy life

spinner image Carol Burnett on the red carpet at the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Shout! Factory TV has announced that starting June 1, sketch-comedy fans can view all 11 seasons of the beloved comedy variety show The Carol Burnett Show (1967–78) on a variety of streaming platforms (find out more here). 

What better time to check in with the groundbreaking comedian? Read on as Burnett, 87, tells AARP about her favorite moments and people, handling lockdown, her plans for the future and her key to a happy life.

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First, her favorite guests

Steve Lawrence — not only could he sing, but he was brilliant in comedy. Our first guest, Bernadette Peters, she was 19 or 20. We saw her in a show called Dames at Sea. And Ken Berry, a brilliant, very funny song-and-dance man.

Still funny after all these years

The sketches we did 40 or 50 years ago hold up today. I dare anybody over 45 not to laugh their pants off at Tim Conway and Harvey Korman’s dentist sketch. The only time anything looks dated is what we wore.

A full-scale production every week

There’s nothing like The Carol Burnett Show today, because we did, in essence, a musical-comedy revue every week. It was like a mini-Broadway show, with dancing and singing and comedy and sketches, with guest stars — minimum 65 costumes a week and a 28-piece orchestra. They can’t do that today!

Crossing generations

I’m getting fan mail from 10-year-olds and people in their 20s who weren’t born when we started our show: “As soon as we get home from school, we watch your stuff on YouTube before we do our homework.”

Whatever happened to class?

A lot of television today is more on the mean side than the fun side, so I don’t watch many sitcoms. A lot of them get cheap laughs by talking about bodily functions. I’m not a prude, I like a good blue joke every once in a while, but it’s just too much. It’s just not classy like Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart or Dick Van Dyke, who got great laughs without going low.

Favorite comics now

The ladies. I’m so happy there are so many: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jane Lynch, Maya Rudolph — I could go on.  When I started out, it was Lucy and Imogene Coca, and that was about it. Women would write something and just use their initials because people wouldn’t want to read it if it was written by a woman.

Her big break

When I got off unemployment. In 1959 I was on The Garry Moore Show, and at the same time I’d do eight shows a week in an off-Broadway show called Once Upon a Mattress. It was a double whammy.

Not all roses, and wouldn’t have it any other way

spinner image Carol Burnett holds the Golden Globe television special achievement award named after her
George Pimentel/WireImage

Carol's Credentials

Age: 87

Hometown: San Antonio, Texas

Accolades: 25 Emmys for The Carol Burnett Show, Kennedy Center Honors, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Golden Globes Carol Burnett Award (given to Burnett in 2019 and to Ellen DeGeneres in 2020)

Upcoming projects: A small, key cameo in Netflix’s All Together Now and an in-development film adaptation of her memoir about her daughter, Carrie and Me

Her binge-watching: Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Schitt’s Creek

Life motto: Have a good attitude, and be grateful.

I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t had certain setbacks. They made me open different doors and made me stronger. I auditioned one time, thought I had it, and another girl got it. What saved me was, I thought, It’s her turn. I tell young people who ask how you handle rejection, “It just wasn’t your turn yet, but if you have a fire in the belly and you keep at it, it will someday be your turn.” My turn came from Once Upon a Mattress.

Retirement? What retirement?

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Before [the pandemic] I would go on the road and do 90 minutes in Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection. It kept the old gray matter ticking. I’ve written four books. I may write about the Rehearsal Club [the New York women’s boarding house she lived in, which inspired Katharine Hepburn’s film Stage Door]. It was a sitcom in itself.

Pet tricks

Our Bengal kitty, Nikki, she’s a trip and makes us laugh. She’s more like a dog. When hungry, she takes the phone off the hook, and when we see it light up, she’s by her bowl waiting. It’s like room service.

Life at home, right now

I’m happily married [to Brian Miller, since 2001]. We have our routine: crossword puzzles, Scrabble and good old movies. I get on a treadmill every day, and [we] go for walks around our Santa Barbara neighborhood, wearing masks.

Getting through quarantine

When I think I’m going to get a little stir-crazy, I pull myself up short and say, “Wait a minute; we’re OK. We have food on the table and a roof over our heads.” When I think of people who have lost their jobs and the kids who can’t go school, or they’re wondering where their next meal is coming from, my heart just breaks.

Post-pandemic plan

Throw a great big party for our friends. Everybody gets back together so we can have a group hug.

Watch it

The Carol Burnett Show streams starting June 1 on; Shout! Factory TV’s Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, and Android apps; and on Shout! Factory TV–branded channels, including Tubi, Amazon Prime channels and the Roku Channel.

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