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Carol Burnett
Carol Burnett
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Carol Burnett Interview

Television Hall of Fame

September 13, 2014
San Francisco, California

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  Carol Burnett

Could you tell us how The Carol Burnett Show came about?

Carol Burnett: It was a fluke.

After I was leaving The Garry Moore Show, I signed a contract with CBS for ten years. And there was a clause in the contract that has never been before -- and certainly won't be afterwards -- that if within the first five years of the show, if I wanted -- if I wanted -- to do 30 one-hour shows on television, variety shows, they had to put it on whether they wanted to or not. Well I said, "I'll never want to do that. I can't be a host of a variety..." I never thought it. So five years were coming up, and it was the last week that that clause could work, the fifth year. And my husband and I just put a down payment on a house in Beverly Hills and I had a baby -- two babies -- and we said, "Maybe we ought to push that button." So picked up the phone and called New York and I got one of the vice presidents of CBS on the phone. "Merry Christmas, Carol. How are you? Happy New Year." It was that week. I said, "Well, I'm calling because I want to push that button." And he had no... he said, "What button?" And I said, "You know, where I can do..." and he said, "Oh. Let me get back to you." So I'm sure he got a lot of lawyers at Christmas parties that night, called me back the next day, and he said, "Oh yeah, I see, Carol. Well, variety, it's a man's game. It's Gleason, it's Milton Berle, it's Sid Caesar, it's Dean Martin." He says, "I mean, you gals, it's not for you. We've got this great sitcom we would love you to do called Here's Agnes." Can you just picture it? Here's Agnes! I can just see it now. And I said, "No, variety is what I love, music. I want a rep company like Sid Caesar had. I want dancers, I want singers, I want guest stars. I want to do sketches, I want to do different characters." And they had to put it on and they didn't want to. And they thought we would bomb. I didn't know. All I knew is we had 30 shows, pay or play. And it was 11 years.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

One of the greatest shows in the history of television. You had an amazing group of talent.

Carol Burnett: Yes. And I don't like the term second banana. That's a term used as someone who supports the -- quote -- star. Ours was a true rep company. There were no second bananas. There were sketches that we did where Harvey would shine, where Tim would shine, where I would shine, where Vicki would shine. So it was a rep company.

You went on to do a lot of films and to do your own shows, traveling. It seems like you probably could have retired at some point, but you keep going.

Carol Burnett: Well, I like to feel like I'm the Energizer Bunny, but not quite. I think it's important for your brain, for everything. I don't do a whole lot, but I keep busy.

What do you think it was about TV that made it such a great medium for you?

Carol Burnett Interview Photo
Carol Burnett: I can't really answer. I don't know, except what I really love is when people come up to me and say, "We love watching you guys." And it was appointment television, where families would be together, and I get mail about that all the time, too. It's terrific. What I'm really happy about, too, is that since we had our DVDs go out a couple of years ago, and we are on YouTube a lot, I'm getting mail from kids. I mean young. Ten, 11, 12, teenagers, people in their 20s. I've told this, but not long ago I was doing a Q and A -- I forget where I was -- but there was -- and again, it's random. And a little kid in the second row raised his hand, and I said, "Yeah?" He said, "I have a question." I said, "First of all, what's your name?" He said Andrew. And I said, "How old are you, Andrew?" He said nine. I said, "And you know who I am?" He said, "Surprisingly, yes." I just loved him. He was so cute.

Good timing.

Carol Burnett: Fabulous.

We understand that you were born in San Antonio, Texas, and that Carol Burnett is actually your real name.

Carol Burnett: Yes. Carol Creighton Burnett. My mother's maiden name was Creighton.

Isn't that rather unusual in show business, to have your given name as your stage name?

Carol Burnett: Actually, I wanted to change it at one point to Carol Creighton, because I thought that sounded good. But then I realized if I ever was successful, I wanted a boy in school -- his name was Tommy Tracy, I was in love with him in junior high school and high school -- I thought, "Well, if I am ever successful, I want him to know." So I kept my real name.

Did he find out?

Carol Burnett: Oh yes.

How did you come to live with your grandmother?

Carol Burnett: My parents in San Antonio moved to Hollywood, California to follow a dream. My mother wanted to be a journalist, a writer, and interview movie stars, like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper did. So they came out here and then they stayed. I stayed with my grandmother in San Antonio. Then my parents got divorced, so I just hung in there with my grandmother. I remember we were on the WPA at that time.

The Works Project Administration? What did it mean to be on the WPA at that time?

Carol Burnett: It meant that we were poor. Every week somebody would show up and give us a chicken to fry, and hand-me-down clothes for me to wear. It was fine, but it was the Depression, so everyone we knew on our street, and in a block, in the area, we were all in the same boat. So it wasn't like I felt deprived. We ate, and I had clothes and I went to school.

What was your grandmother like?

Carol Burnett: She [my grandmother] was a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. She was a character. She loved me more than anything and she was my rock. I found out years later that she had been married six times, but she only told me about three. I was writing a book and I did some research and boy, found out she was quite the swinger. But we went to the Christian Science church, and I went to the Christian Science Sunday School, but my grandmother was always complaining about her heart skipping beats and that she didn't know if she was going to live another day. So see, in Christian Science you are supposed to, what they call, "know the truth" and the truth is there is no sickness, there is no death. So I would be talking about, as a kid, she would be feeling her pulse and everything, and I would be knowing the truth for her. And then if I didn't know the truth well enough, she would ask me to get the medicine for her. So that is what I mean, a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. But that's who she was.

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