Carol Burnett is still standing after all those pratfalls. And she’s working on a pilot for a new ABC sitcom. Hollywood is welcoming her back to TV.
There are lots of giggles in her latest book, In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem and Fun in the Sandbox (Crown Archetype). Serious moments too: “Sadly, variety shows have gone the way of the dodo bird,” she writes. “A variety show today can never do what we did. Why? Money. The cost of clearing the songs would sink the Titanic. Sixty to seventy costumes a week? No way. A 28-piece orchestra? Major guest stars? … Dream on.”
Carol confessed that she always adored chasing after belly laughs. That “best medicine,” as she calls it, got her fame and love and served her well in sad times.
Jeanne Wolf: In your book, you describe how your mother lived down the hall and you hardly ever saw your dad. When you look back, was there a lot of pain?
Carol Burnett: Yes, but Nanny [her grandmother] was my rock. In her eyes I was the number-one person in her world, so I felt safe with her. Even though my dad was an alcoholic, he was never abusive. He was just useless. The greatest pain I ever had came after he had been on the wagon because his mother had leukemia and asked him to stop drinking. That period was joyful. Then she died and Daddy showed up at the apartment, and he was weaving. He said, “I’ve just had one little beer,” and he passed out. I got so angry. I said, “I hate you! You said as long as I prayed for you, you’d never drink again!”
JW: Did your mom or your dad ever get to see you after you became such a success in New York?
CB: No, but Nanny saw me a couple of times on Broadway and TV. Our apartment was in Hollywood, and Nanny knew all the extras in the movies because they hung out in our neighborhood. When I was already doing well, she had a mild heart attack. So she’s in the hospital and there’s this line of extras in costumes lined up at her door to cheer her up. There was a man with a harmonica playing while his daughter, wearing a tutu, was doing a tap dance, twirling a baton, and ending in a split! Once she finished, Nanny said, “Well, thank you very much, I’ll tell Carol about you. Send in the next one.” It was like she was auditioning them.
JW: What fuels your terrific optimism?
CB: I lost my daughter Carrie 14 years ago to cancer. When she was in the hospital lying in pain, bald from the chemo, one of the nurses stopped me and said,
“I have to talk to you about your daughter. She is such an upper. We go in there in the morning, and if I have a long face, she cheers me up.” So I asked her, “Carrie, how come you’re always so up and cheerful despite all of this?” Carrie said, “Every day I wake up and decide today I’m going to love my life.” The key word is decide. That was her mantra. When I wake up in the morning, I say that to myself. It doesn’t always work, but for the most part, I am one fortunate person and I am gonna love my life to the very end.
—Jeanne Wolf is the Post’s West Coast editor