This past Saturday, television icon Carol Burnett (The Carol Burnett Show), 82, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. Born in San Antonio in 1933, Burnett was best known for her namesake variety show from 1967-1978. She spoke to the Current via phone recently about her SAG award, her childhood in San Antonio, and explains why she only watches a small handful of the comedies currently on TV.
You’ve been honored with a number of awards in your career like the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What does it mean to you to receive the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award?
As my chum Julie Andrews would say, I’m gobsmacked. It’s quite an honor to get an award like this from your peers. Each award I’m grateful for, but this is a biggie. It’s up there with the other lifetime achievement [awards] like the Mark Twain Prize [for American Humor]. This is about your whole career, not just getting an award for one thing (laughs), although those are fine, too.
You were seven years old when you moved from San Antonio to Hollywood. What is your fondest memory of living in San Antonio?
Oh my gosh! My fondest memories are when my grandmother and I would go downtown and window shop. I remember the Buckhorn Saloon. There was this stuffed ape in the window. (Laughs) We would walk by there and it would scare the pants off of me! I thought it was King Kong. I swear I thought his eyes were moving and watching us.
What do you remember about your neighborhood on West Commerce St.?
Well, it was a poor section of town. We lived in this nice, old house with a veranda. I would roller skate in front of the house, but the sidewalk was buckled. So, I’d fall down and skin my knees and scream when the iodine started coming. My grandmother said, “OK, come on, you can roller skate inside the house on the wooden floor.” A few years ago, they were going to tear down the house…but it was moved to a different section of Commerce St. and refurbished and it’s now a school for underprivileged children (American Sunrise). They did such a beautiful job. I went back to see it and meet some of the schoolchildren. I looked down on the floor and the skate marks were still there.
Were you a good student at Davy Crockett Elementary School?
I think I was a pretty good student. I was in the first grade. I was kind of quiet. I remember the first time I ever performed was at Davy Crockett. We did a mini-version of Pinocchio. I was cast as the Blue Fairy. My grandmother made me a blue dress. We got a stick and wrapped some colorful stuff around it and put a star at the end of it and that was my magic wand.
You started off as a journalism major when you went to college at UCLA and took one acting class that motivated you to pursue acting. If you hadn’t taken that class, do you think you would’ve found acting later?
Maybe I would have found it later, but it kind of just fell into place. I never dreamed I was going to be a performer. I took that acting class and heard the response from the audience and, oh boy, that felt good. The bug bit.Does making someone laugh today feel as gratifying as it did at the beginning of your career?
Absolutely. Ah, it makes me feel so good. Some of the mail I get talks about how my show cheered someone up when they were depressed or sick. They want to thank me for that. That’s such a wonderful compliment. It does my heart good.
Television has changed so much over the years since The Carol Burnett Show was on the air, from the types of shows we watch to the way we consume it. What hasn’t changed?
That’s a good question because so much of it has changed. What hasn’t changed? Funny is funny. I dare anyone today to watch [The Carol Burnett Show] and not laugh like crazy. It’s over 40 years old! I wish today they would do more stuff [on TV] to get a belly laugh rather than be cynical or edgy. I’m not a prude or anything like that. I know they want to be edgy, but don’t only just do that. Let’s get silly sometimes and have fun.
You did an interview with Dan Rather in 2014 where you said you watch more TV dramas than comedies because comedies “upset you.” Is that the main reason they upset you?
Some of them upset me because they’re not clever. I think I told Stephen Colbert this a few years ago, but some of these sitcoms sound like they were written by teenage boys in a locker room. I think back to how [TV writer] Norman Lear (All in the Family) wrote. I think of Mary’s show (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Bob Newhart. That was clever writing and it didn’t sink to the lowest common denominator. It’s very easy to get a laugh if you say something just for shock value. So, I’d rather watch a good drama on cable.
Are there any comedies you like watching on TV?
I do like Life in Pieces (CBS) and I do like The Grinder (Fox). I also enjoy Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW). I think those are a step above some of the others.
There are so many platforms people can see your show on today. Is being forgotten something you ever worry about?
No. Que sera, sera. (Laughs) What tickles me is when I get fan mail from 10-year-olds. It comes to me on that lined school paper with the three holes. It’s so adorable. I get letters from teenagers and young adults who weren’t born when we did [The Carol Burnett Show]. They’re discovering it on DVD and also on YouTube. They’re enjoying it. That makes me feel good. I do Q&A shows occasionally around the country and the age range of the audience is 8-90.
Of course, most people know you for your work on TV, but you also made a few films during your career. Which would you point people to see if they’re not as familiar with your movies?
I think the one I enjoyed doing the most was the one with [late filmmaker] Robert Altman – A Wedding (1978). He set the atmosphere. It was fun. Everybody was loose. He was good. He knew what he was doing. We all felt that we were contributing. He said something as a director that I’ve never heard any other director say. He got [the entire cast] in a room before we were going to shoot and he said, “If any of you actors have an idea about a scene your doing or some dialogue or anything you want to talk about, come to me with it because some of my best scenes have been written and done for me by my actors.”
At this stage in your career, does the word legacy mean anything to you?
Well, at this point, I would just like someone to say, “She cheered me up!”