Carol Burnett
Carol Burnett; drawing by David Levine

For the eleven-year run of her weekly comedy show, Carol Burnett was the funniest woman on television. Since being obstreperously funny still goes against the grain and social image of most women, there is something both irritating and deeply exhilarating about the unregenerate slob in Burnett. When she browbeats two entire rows of spectators in a television studio into moving over so that she and Harvey Korman can sit together (a goal that could have been accomplished with a simple exchange of seats), then screeches, “That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?” we shudder—with horror, with pleasure. She’s every aggressive, uncivil harpy who ever tried to elbow her way in front of you at the checkout counter, and you want to clobber her, yet you can’t help envying her sang-froid. She’s impervious to what people will think. Here’s a woman—you might say—who never learned to tidy her room as a little girl, and you’d be right. She never even had a room to keep tidy, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Though a quintessential television performer, she brings a non-McLuhanist heat to the cool medium. She’s cerebral and physical, a meeting ground of the hip and the square. A figure of serpentine elegance and sharp repartee when she appears before the audience to open the show, once it starts she becomes déclassée with a vengeance—red fright wig, garish get-ups; the facial expressions as loud as the voice, and the voice—patient-scraping, glass shattering—is as loud as they come. The voice, in fact, is essential. She’s less effective in pantomime—one of the things that separate her from the Show of Shows gang, who were superb mimes.

Burnett is also, perhaps essentially, our reigning genius of parody—parody not as simple mimicry or impersonation, but as a savage love poem, a tribute in the form of a broadside that plunges into the object parodied and comes out the other side, becoming a thing in itself, a miniature narrative, but always rooted in something real. Though they owed a great deal to a sharp and changing stable of writers, The Carol Burnett Show’s best skits come out of an intuitive, even uncanny affinity between performer and subject: Harvey Korman as Nigel Bruce’s harrumphing Dr. Watson, befuddled by love and ratiocination; Burnett as Mildred Fierce or the even more knowing rendering of Joan Crawford in “Torchy Song.”

The best parody relies on an intimacy with the thing burlesqued, perhaps even an incestuous, addictive identification with the subject. Just how true this was in Burnett’s case—and how remarkable under the circumstances—becomes clear in her autobiographical memoir.

Written in the form of a letter to her three daughters, the book takes us from her birth in San Antonio in 1933 to the years in New York leading up to The Carol Burnett Show, but the longest and most interesting section concerns her life as a girl in Hollywood.

Here she is at age eight, newly arrived in Los Angeles, a silent witness (and pawn) in round one of the ongoing battle between her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White (“Nanny”), and her mother, Ina Louise Burnett. Nanny, the vain, tyrannical bitch, has been giving out-of-work, would-be writer Louise what for: What’n the world did she mean, sending for her and the little girl, and them coming all the way from San Antonio to California to live in a stinky one-room dump?

“Who asked you? [Mama replies and Burnett records] I told you, I wrote you! I wrote you I was broke! You knew it! You knew I didn’t have a job yet. You knew I couldn’t take care of you and Carol yet. I begged you to wait until I could get on my feet! But no! You were the one who wanted to come to Hollywood! It was you! Don’t you blame me. You got just what you asked for, goddammit! Why can’t you ever let up!”

Then Nanny would say, “Why can’t you get a job or a man?”

Mama would shriek, “Because I’m not like you! I’d never marry a man because he’s a meal ticket.”

Then Nanny would say, “Well, see then…I’m right! You don’t love Carol!”

Everything in this passage—the inflections, repetitions, and emphases; the snarling exchange and devastating knockout punch line—could have come right from the Eunice family sketches, one of the funniest and most savagely disconcerting features ever to run on network television. You can hear them and see them: Vicki Lawrence, shrewd and malicious as gray-haired battle-ax Mama, always knowing just where to insert the needle; Burnett as her grown daughter and perpetual wet blanket Eunice, shrilly masochistic, preferring to blame Mama rather than take control of her own thwarted life. At any moment, the door will open—the absent father made present, but barely—and Ed (Harvey Korman), wilted from a long day at the hardware store, will come in and try in vain to scrape the blood off the flower wallpaper and stitch together the pieces of human flesh that lie scattered on the floor from this ritual mutual flagellation of mother and daughter. The center of the family portrait on The Carol Burnett Show is the fierce, greedy one-upmanship battle between mother and daughter, each struggling to impose her own version of their history.


Their relationship is like three-dimensional chess compared to the relationship each shares—and exploits to the hilt—with Ed. From Mama he earns only withering dismissals (which do double duty as indictments of Eunice’s lack of taste in men). There he goes, Mama says of him when they’re all up rummaging in the attic, “on one of his almighty rushes to nowhere.” This is the hilarious Fluffy-the-rabbit episode where Eunice, discovering a snapshot of her favorite childhood pet, reminisces about how devastated she was when he ran away; and Mama finally confesses that the smelly little animal didn’t run away at all: she cooked him for dinner. Traumatized, Eunice declares that now she will have to review her whole life.

Ed and Eunice have two children to whom they are supremely indifferent, and who are wisely kept forever in the wings, lest the already precarious balance between humor and horror tip over to the other side, into the pathology of child abuse. Because who could imagine that a child raised in this atmosphere of failure and spite could survive and flourish? Who could suspect that a girl subjected to such malice, not to mention poverty, alcoholism (a dual heritage), an ineffectual father and an (apparently, to the child) unloving mother, would grow up to be Carol Burnett?

How did it happen? There’s little pause for analysis or introspection in Burnett’s disarmingly breezy, get-on-with-it memoir. With its Forties slang, its letter-from-camp style—it’s obviously not an as-told-to book—it spreads a blanket of mystery as the most forthright statements often do. We are left to puzzle out just what kind of person it took to overcome such odds; whether, in fact, some concatenation of the sort of conditions that would send a social worker reeling, some mélange of love, loathing, show biz, and junk food didn’t actually produce a positive chemical reaction.

The details of the book, like the later skits, are vivid and grotesque—Dickensian squalor transformed by a swaggering Depression optimism, a story that would be appalling if it hadn’t been converted into comedy. Nanny and Carol sharing a tiny room in a residential hotel on the corner of Yucca and Wilcox, its windows a foot away from those of the adjacent building. Nanny, smelling of Ben-Gay, Vicks, and gas, belching and farting (“There’s more room out than in”), a Christian Scientist with a cabinet full of backup potions; a hypochondriac of operatic proportions who spends most of the day stretched out on the Murphy bed for fear of “heart attacks,” with the windows closed for fear of “pneumonia,” nevertheless rising from her “deathbed” (she will actually die at age eight-two, leaving behind a forty-year-old boy-friend) to take Carol to the movies, or drop by the drugstore where she will pinch the occasional bit of silver to supplement the relief check.

Carol adores Nanny and, taking her death threats seriously, lives in constant fear for her granny’s life. She recites her passages from Mary Baker Eddy’s “Scientific Statement of Being,” sleeps on a sofa, hangs her tiny wardrobe on the shower rod, and when she actually attends classes (hardly daring to leave the perpetually dying grandmother) nods off after a breakfast of fried foods, pound cake, and Ovaltine. She spends most of her time listening to the radio and eavesdropping on the occupants of the neighboring building as they argue about booze and money, makes up her own radio show in order to outshout them, takes refuge in imaginary characters.

The father, a tall, lanky charmer and alcoholic, comes to call on the rare occasions when he’s got a dollar or two in his pockets. Mother Louise lives down the hall, tries to cajole the fan magazines into giving her assignments, falls in love with a married man, has his child (Burnett’s half sister Christine), and sinks slowly into an alcoholic stupor, which doesn’t prevent her from rising to the bait when Nanny puts out the battle scent.

It might be a George Price cartoon except that the two women, in Carol’s account, are a little too proud to be slatterns and too talented to be mediocre—sometime-beauties with wide mouths, thin ankles, a history of romantic conquests, none of which has anything like the longevity or intensity of their ongoing feud. This fierce love-hate war (or loving-to-hate war) seems to absorb all the Oedipal rivalry in the family and to leave Carol oddly outside, or perhaps deep inside, in the eye of the hurricane.


Remaining a neutral party in their squabbles, a pawn rather than a participant, she nevertheless absorbs it all, to play it back not only in the Eunice and “Sis” skits, but in her memorable duets with other female stars—Burnett and Julie Andrews as sparring prima donnas or catty violinists; she and Beverly Sills in competition for a starring musical role. Burnett gives dramatic form to many of the truths of relations between women—that it can be both mine field and sanctuary, that women bear one another a complicated ambivalence arising from the mother-daughter knot.

Even as Louise Burnett was languishing in her room—waiting for her lover to leave his wife, waiting for Cary Grant to agree to an interview—Carol was succeeding where her mother had failed. With the idea of doing articles on famous alumnae for the high-school paper, she obtained, and published, an interview with Joel McCrea. It can’t have entirely delighted her mother, seeing her teen-age daughter pick up the ball and run with it. But having already waived her emotional claim on Carol, the maternal ambivalence that can be crippling to daughters had little effect. The lack of a maternal “conscience” may even have freed her from the taboo, so inhibiting to many writers, against exposing family skeletons. In any case, the grandmother who raised her was the shaping force in her life—a bond that is inevitably less intense, less fraught with the possibilities of guilt and betrayal. So that when it came time for Carol to leave—first for college, then for New York—not all of Nanny’s threats and tirades could keep her home.

In a story full of fabulous elements—presents of money by mysterious benefactors that enabled her to take flight—what is more astonishing than the fact of escape is that Burnett escaped her monsters and the specter of failure only to recreate them in a New York studio. Her show is her autobiography, and her early life a run-through for her skits, not in the usual figurative way of the child being father to the man, but much more literally and directly. The images are all there, without disguise or transfiguring: the char lady of logo and skit goes back to the time she and Nanny—out of spoons and relief money, no doubt—worked nights as cleaning women in the Warner executive offices. “Sis” was the kid sister Christine (born out of wedlock, like Eunice and Eunice’s first child) whom Carol brought to live with her and her husband in New York.

Burnett and her family were show biz’s step-children and poor relations, following the lives and footprints of the stars, living in a Hollywood every bit as seedy as the Palomar Arms, among people who, in Nathanael West’s words, “had come to California to die.” Burnett, however, was blessed not only with brains and energy, but with a peculiar double focus, the ability to be on both sides of the barricade. When at a gala première, she and Nanny got within touching distance of Linda Darnell, Burnett was shocked to notice that one of her nostrils was considerably larger than the other. Shocked, but not disillusioned. She noticed and registered the flaw, perceived its grotesqueness, but also saw it as a connecting link with her own awkwardness.

Meanwhile, with the driving “personality” of the non-narcissist, with the light tread of someone whose past was meant to be left behind, Burnett pushed forward. She’d discovered at UCLA that she could hold a stage by making people laugh and had accepted the fact that she was a comic type. By her own account, she only fell on her face twice during her student theatrical career, and both times she had a “straight” part. The first time, reading a scene for the theater arts department from William Saroyan’s Hello, Out There, she “couldn’t get up the nerve to go for the straight stuff.” She was “embarrassed to let go and cry.” On the second occasion, she was performing a torch song in fish-net stockings, slit skirt, and ankle-strap high heels. Having been forced to dress in the dark and grope her way onto the stage in a hurry, she found her spot and was settling into the song, feeling sultry and sexy, only to look down, to the sound of audience laughter, and see that the seams of her stockings were running up the front of her legs. The comic devil, the muse of parody, had taken over and was making hash of the blues.

When she found herself, along with all the other girls living at New York’s Rehearsal Club (the all-women institution charmingly memorialized in Stage Door), pounding the pavements in a vicious cycle of no agent-no audition, she broke the cycle; she organized a talent show and made the agents come to her. What did she have to lose? She couldn’t make a fool of herself if she played the fool.

The Burnett comic persona emerged in 1956, in the song that won her instant notoriety, “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.” This takeoff on the Elvis craze derives its humor from the comical fantasy coupling of Burnett and Dulles, the frumpy and the dour. It was the ultimate lament of the loser, the plain Jane who can’t even develop a crush on a sexy man, much less attract one, and it had evolved naturally from her adolescent sense of herself: gawky, tall, and gangly, all mouth, teeth, pimples, and stringy hair, and with boyfriends rather than beaus.

On the spectrum of comediennes, she stands midway between the gargoyles—Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye; and the pretty blondes—Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, Judy Holliday. The latter trio could throw a custard pie, even screw up their faces in mock ugliness, but they were as soft and as sweet as a nursery all the same, destined for coupledom. Burnett on the other hand, in the adolescent terms in which such feelings can be set for life, is too smart, too tall, too loud. By not being beautiful, she is sprung into the realm of the anarchists and the uglies—bag ladies, charladies, nonladies. Even her frilly or sexy women—the nymphomaniac bride, Charo of the pendulous bosoms and fierce prurience—are joyless and unsexy.

At the same time, she has easy, friendly relations with men. She can lust after the stud-in-residence Lyle Waggoner without turning into a latter-day Mae West. Although Saturday Night Live, or even The Show of Shows, is usually considered more hip, The Carol Burnett Show is far more casually radical in the spirit of role reversal that infuses it. Some of the funniest skits are those in which men take on female qualities, and in fact, the four regulars are all—as the title of one skit had it—“Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde.”

A deep vein of pessimism comes directly out of the humor, out of the sense of people freeze-dried in personality ruts. Unattached women in the Burnett show don’t make themselves over, Cosmo-girl style; they just sink further into misery, spreading hopelessness like cigarette smoke through singles bars. Ugly people are often ugly in spirit as well. Shopping-mall mediocrity will defend itself against frail incursions of literacy and art, the strange, the new, and the challenging. There are problems that can’t be solved, and as family members grow old, instead of rising to the awakenings and reconciliations of family drama, they grow further apart, more rigid, more determined to have the last word before they go. Except for an occasional break in the hostilities, a rare moment of peace as they unite against the world, relations between Eunice and Mama deteriorate. Eunice grows more frenzied and desperate, finally winding up deranged, an automaton on an analyst’s couch.

Eventually the sketches, like the show itself, ran out of energy. People left, it became strained—as any long-running series will do—for the touch was deserting it. Burnett herself decided to close shop, go off the air before CBS canceled the show.

The movie roles she took reflected the actor’s inevitable desire to “break new ground,” but what her filmography (Pete and Tillie, The Four Seasons, The Front Page, Annie, The Wedding; and made-for-TV movies like Friendly Fire) most suggests is a sense of waste. The pathetic Molly Malloy in Billy Wilder’s remake of The Front Page was the sort of woebegone floozy she would have kidded some life into on her show, but she played it straight and her superior intelligence knocked holes in the character rather than bringing it to life. In Friendly Fire she captured the rigid, unlikable side of the mother whose son is missing in Vietnam, but there was no release in black humor. Instead of “stretching,” she shrank. The ugly duckling turned into a dull swan.

Fresno, the sendup of prime-time soap operas, which featured Burnett as the matriarch of a shrinking raisin empire, sounded like a bright idea for her return to satire. But in her sub-Joan Collins portrait of a chicly aging vamp she seemed to have arrived at the point—the social climber’s dream—where all traces of gaucheness have been erased. She was too comfortable in her Hollywood haute couture, so much more inventive than the script or the acting. Gone was what was uniquely Burnett: the wild look in the eye, the unpredictable gesture of a hit-and-run comedian, the sense of some out-rageous Nannyism that would bubble out of her subconscious and sabotage any pretense at elegance.

One biographer, praising her figure, her glamour, her assurance as host on her show, chided her for the persistence of her inferiority complex, but her inferiority complex, like Chaplin’s tramp, was her artistic soul, the persona without which her comedy would lose its conviction. Before Burnett lost her craziness, she was the best kind of pop crossover star—the hip and the culturally sophisticated could admire the precision of her work, while nonintellectuals responded to her warmth. There is, always, a unique double perspective. Inside her most flamboyant creations there is someone straight—a normal, junior-high, PTA, church bake-off, folksy, prudish sort of person. When comedians as sharp as Burnett take on people beneath them, there’s usually an ironic gap between performer and target that widens fatally into cruelty or camp. Burnett identifies too closely with her screechy harridans and soggy failures for contempt to creep in, and she’s too straight for camp. The savagery, or what passes for cruelty, is constantly being redeemed by complicity.

I can say the most terrible things about these people, she seems to be saying, because they’re my family. And she’s right. They are.

This Issue

January 15, 1987