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Happy 80 Years, Carol Burnett!

What better way to celebrate Carol Burnett’s 80th birthday than with an excerpt from Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton’s Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady?

Carol’s first year in the city that never sleeps would’ve given most fledgling performers nightmares. One thing—her father died of complications from alcohol. She had to deal
with that while working the entire year without a gig in show business. Her gig was as a hat-check girl, and they weren’t discovering too many of them for stage stardom. The one bright spot of 1955 for Burnett is when somebody came up with the idea to hold a showcase. She lived in a boarding house and the girls there had similar circumstances. So Carol and company invited agents and industry types to The Rehearsal Hall Revue and displayed their talents. Carol got a gig playing the girlfriend to Paul Winchell’s dummy, Jerry Mahoney. From there she earned a sitcom spot on the Buddy Hackett one-season laugher, Stanley. Despite breaking in as the love interest to a piece of wood, Carol was on the radar. She gained a reputation as a rising talent on the New York night club scene. By 1957, Carol was performing on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and was a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz. It was a red-letter year. It was also the year her mother died.

In 1959, Carol Burnett appeared in the smash Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress and became a regular on The Garry Moore Show. The year 1962 gave Carol the memory of her first Emmy win, for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series. From there it was off to Carnegie Hall to headline along with friend Julie Andrews in Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. The show won an Emmy. In ’63 she hooked up with producer Joe Hamilton and entered into her second marriage. Carol also met Lucille Ball and they became friends until Ball’s death in 1989. The relationship was so chummy that Lucy offered to produce a sitcom for Carol under the Desilu banner. Carol thanked her, but opted to do a variety show instead. A tragic side note to their friendship came in the form of a yearly ritual. Ball would routinely send Carol flowers on her birthday. On her fifty-sixth birthday, Carol got the news that Lucy had died, and as she grieved the flowers arrived with a note that read, “Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy.”

The plan to do a variety show was not met with enthusiastic applause from the suits over at CBS. They’d given Carol a one-year contract to do whatever type of show she wanted; little did they suspect she’d choose the variety format. That was the bastion of male performers. Women were guests on such shows, not hosts. It was going to be a big mistake. Carol didn’t agree and held them to their written agreement. Her big mistake lasted eleven seasons and received twenty-three Emmys with the cast of Lyle Waggoner, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicki Lawrence (who got the job because she looked like a young Carol Burnett).

The Carol Burnett mistake featured parodies of movies, TV shows, and commercials. One sketch was so popular it was spun off into the hit sitcom Mama’s Family starring Lawrence. Carol’s ritual of tugging her ear at the end of each taping to let her grandmother know she was doing fine and happy took on a bittersweet quality when her grandmother died during the show’s run. The success stopped in 1978, and Carol moved on to other aspects of her career. She starred in several films playing dramatic roles, guest starred on sitcoms, and returned to the stage to co-star with Rock Hudson in 1985. She even tried to revive the variety show format, but the ’60s and ’70s were over and so was that genre.

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of women in comedy through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.