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Sneak Preview: Behind the Scenes at Carol Burnett’s Upcoming 90th Birthday TV Special

See what a cavalcade of stars had to say to the living legend, and the birthday girl's advice for AARP-age fans

spinner image Carol Burnett on the red carpet for the NBC special Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love held at Avalon Hollywood in Los Angeles
Carol Burnett at "Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love" held at Avalon Hollywood in Los Angeles.
Photo by: Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images

Some events are worth the wait. And although Carol Burnett has been richly honored, you could not find a more heartfelt and expansive tribute than Carol Burnett: 90 Years Of Laughter + Love (on NBC April 26 at 8 p.m. ET, and streaming on Peacock the next day).

The special — a live event taped in March at the historic Avalon Hollywood theater — celebrates Burnett’s seven decades of peerless entertainment. The Texas-born, Hollywood-raised star reigned over a room stuffed with showbiz veterans — and a fair number of icons — who were ready with applause and laughter.

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“Tonight,” said Steve Carell, 60, in a fond introductory speech, “you will see an amazing gathering of talented performers, friends and fans from every generation — except babies — who are here to celebrate the hilarious, incredible, one of a kind, no one like her, Carol Burnett.”

He added with a sideways grin, “I know that you are a very humble person. And this all might be kind of difficult for you. And really, all I can say is you got to brace yourself, because we are about to lay it on thick.”

Burnett reacted with smiles and laughter as Bernadette Peters, 75; Billy Porter, 53; Jane Lynch, 62; Kristin Chenoweth, 54; and Glee's Darren Criss honored her with songs from Annie, "Old Friends," and more. Peters' and Chenoweth’s Broadway skills made “Tomorrow” a showstopper, and Katy Perry's rendition of Burnett's theme song "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together" — with a little help from the birthday girl herself — completed the event's multigenerational love-fest vibe.

The two-hour show also features a rich offering of clips from Burnett's career-launching 1959 stage debut in Once Upon a Mattress and her subsequent film and TV hits.

The evening’s heck's-a-poppin’ vibe evoked the spirit of Burnett’s classic decade as centerpiece of The Carol Burnett Show. On the iconic 1967-78 CBS variety/sketch comedy hour, she cavorted in wigs and designer Bob Mackie’s costumes in a sometimes-slapstick fashion reminiscent of mentor Lucille Ball, alongside an inventive ensemble cast (the late Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway; and Vicki Lawrence, 74, who's on hand for the tribute).

Here’s an inside peek from taping night at some of the highlights.

spinner image Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph speaks onstage during the NBC special Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter and Love
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Photo by: Casey Durkin/NBC

Sheryl Lee Ralph admired Burnett's embrace of diversity on the small screen

The Abbott Elementary star who won Best TV Actress at AARP's 2023 Movies for Grownups Awards took the stage to point out Burnett’s natural appetite for diversity. “You changed my nine-year-old life forever,” said Ralph, 66. “You welcomed me into that 12-inch box, oh, yes you did. And I watched you welcome and embrace Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Nancy Wilson — the Black one — and The Jackson 5.”

Lily Tomlin was totally starstruck to meet Burnett, then transformed

When Tomlin, 83, first burst into prominence as the snarky, snorting telephone operator Ernestine on Laugh-In, she was on the CBS-TV lot — then the province of Burnett. “I’d only been on the air two or three weeks, and I was totally rigid with fear that I would run into you and you didn't know who I was,” she told Burnett from the stage. One day, as Tomlin was in the bathroom, “I was just about to leave, and I heard your voice in the hall and I didn't have time enough to fake my own death.” In the next moment, however, “You [said you] knew that I was the phone operator, and you were so kind and so generous to me. You talked to me for a long time, and you gave me all the compliments.​

“You have always been a gold standard to me and to Jane [Wagner, Tomlin’s wife and colleague] in our work,” Tomlin said. “Total commitment to characters.”

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spinner image Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews pose for a picture on the red carpet at the NBC special Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love in Los Angeles
(Left to right) Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews
Photo by: Amy Sussman/WireImage

Great pal Julie Andrews revealed an “I kissed a girl” stunt the pair pulled that went off the rails

Both women were in Washington for the 1965 inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, explained Andrews, 87. Their mutual friend, director Mike Nichols, suggested a drink in their hotel after the gala. The pair posted themselves on a couch facing the elevator bank, and as Andrews said, “I don't remember which one of us came up with it, but one of us said, 'Why don't we just pretend to be kissing?’​

“We thought this was terribly funny, by the way. The elevator at that point went ping and so I flung her across my lap and bent down in a deep embrace.​

“And that elevator was absolutely packed with Secret Service men.”​

Mortified but still game, they again faced the elevators. With the next ping, “We bent over once again.” This time, it was Mike Nichols. “And all he did was say, `Hi, girls,’ and walked on.”

Steve Martin is a lifelong fan, and Cher leaned on her for support when Sonny was gone

Martin, 77, and comic partner Martin Short, 73, offered zealous congrats via video. Said Martin, “We’re sending our birthday greetings to you because you are 90 years old, and we have loved you for every year of our lives [pausing]... to the point where we weren't born.”

Cher, 76, appeared in a glittering gold gown with a matching headdress, saying, “I always think of just her being so kind and helping me because I wasn't really sure what I was doing … on my own. I was really frightened. [Turning to Burnett just below the stage] And you helped me, you know you did.​

“I just love her. I want her to be just like her. And I'm not just like you, but I'm my own version of you.”​

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spinner image Ellen DeGeneres speaking onstage during the NBC special Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter and Love
Ellen DeGeneres
Photo by: Casey Durkin/NBC

Neighbor Ellen DeGeneres called Burnett out as a porch pirate

Fixing a warm gaze on Burnett, DeGeneres, 65, said, “She didn't just pave the way for me and female comedians everywhere, she blazed the trail.” The talk show host added, “When I watched her, growing up, I did not know I would be working in this business. I never could have imagined this. Not only do I know her, I actually get to call her my friend and we actually are neighbors, which I can’t believe.​

“Also,” she cracked, “my Ring camera caught you stealing three packages.”

Bob Odenkirk called out a dicey moment for the legend, who memorably appeared in the final episodes of 'Better Call Saul'

Starting with a shout-out for Burnett’s upcoming Apple TV+ comedy series Mrs. American Pie (costarring Kristen Wiig, 49, and Allison Janney, 63), Odenkirk, 60, recalled what he claimed was showrunner Vince Gilligan’s initial plan for a scene in the penultimate Better Call Saul episode, in which her endangered character faces off with Saul in a hair-raisingly dark dramatic moment.

“[Gilligan’s] exact words to me were, ‘Saul ends up killing Carol Burnett,’” Odenkirk said. “He didn’t say, ‘Kill Carol's character.’” Fixing his gaze on Gilligan in the audience, he added, “He’s shaking his head. No, no, he said ‘Kill Carol Burnett!’”

After the taping, Gilligan said, “Carol is a living legend, one of the finest entertainers America has ever produced. We're just as proud as we can be that we got to work with her.”​

Gilligan’s fellow showrunner Peter Gould, who wrote and directed the finale episode, was quick to add his tribute after the taping. “She’s not just a legend in the world, she's a legend in my heart because she’s so brilliant and fast and fun, and she raised everybody's spirits. We were in the middle of the pandemic, it was a very long shoot, and people were getting very tired. And then Carol showed up and raised all our spirits. I really don't think we would have made it without her.”

spinner image Carol Burnett smiling in the NBC special Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love
Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC

And what did Carol Burnett have to say to AARP?

When asked how she’d counsel fans in the AARP constituency to sustain her brand of vitality in their own lives, she smiled and replied, “Do what you love.”

Watch it: Carol Burnett: 90 Years Of Laughter + Love (NBC, April 26, 8 p.m. ET, streaming on Peacock April 27).

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