Carol Burnett Just Wants to Have to Fun

carol burnett

Before I sit down with Carol Burnett at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, her assistant asks me to text over a photo of a negative Covid test. This would be a courtesy under normal interview circumstances, but Burnett is having a particularly big month and doesn’t want to throw a wrench into things by getting sick. She is up for an Emmy (for Outstanding Variety Special, for a show highlighting her long career; she wins) and presenting one (for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, which goes to Quinta Brunson) and promoting a new TV comedy. In Palm Royale (out on Apple TV+ on March 20), Kristen Wiig stars as a social climber in 1960s Florida, and Burnett plays one of the many grandes dames trying to kick her back down the ladder.

My Covid test comes up negative and I feel fine, but when I get to the suite, I don’t want to shake Burnett’s hand, even when she greets me with her dazzling trademark smile. I can see the headline: “Living Legend Carol Burnett Gets Dangerous Germs From Idiot.”

Did I mention Carol Burnett is 90?

I have a lot of questions about the simple fact that at this age, Burnett is still starring in television shows and giving out Emmys and shaking hands with strangers for press purposes, starting with the obvious: Why?

“I want to have fun,” she says with a shrug, sitting next to me on a cream couch and looking and sounding well rested, clear-voiced, even peppy. “It’s not like I have to be busy all the time!” The peppiness, it should be noted, is unflagging on all biographical fronts, recent and not, from the “hypochondriacal Christian Scientist” grandmother who raised Burnett to whether she’s dealt with ageism as a nonagenarian. (“Not from my own personal experiences, no!”) You’d forgive someone for saying this preternatural optimism seems almost at odds with the world we know, even though it’s a world that continues to contain Carol Burnett.

carol burnett

She will allow that, yes, it’s pretty comfortable to just hang at her house in Montecito, California, with her husband (Brian Miller, principal drummer with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) and cat (name and profession unknown). But she’d “had a ball” during a stint on Better Call Saul in 2022, in which the cast got unusually close. (“It was a family!”) When her agent called about a show starring Wiig, Allison Janney, and Laura Dern, “I said yes before I knew what I was going to do,” Burnett says.

So, there’s some of the “why.” But perhaps what you really want to ask someone who is 90 and still working gamely and joyfully is … how? My friends are all at least 40 years younger, and all we can talk about is how tired we are and how much we hate working. And even if you’re a celebrity who’s getting the “living legend” treatment on the set of a (very expensive-looking!) prestige streamer comedy, the hours are long and physically grueling, the pressure is high, and you have to interact with roughly 70,000 people over the course of a shooting day.

Burnett waves off questions about “having the energy.” “I was always very active, even as a kid,” she says. She tells a story about how she and her childhood friends used to climb the original Hollywood sign. “The Os were my favorite,” she remembers.

It’s maybe a little facile, but it’s hard not to think that her extraordinary career longevity (and, I guess, regular longevity) has something to do with the relentless goodness everybody mentions when you ask about her.

“I want to have fun. It’s not like I have to be busy all the time!”

Palm Royale creator Abe Sylvia remembers being nervous to approach Burnett to talk about the role, albeit only briefly. “I remember psyching myself up for the call,” he says. “I didn’t want her ferreting out my impostor syndrome. When she jumped on the line, greeting me with a ‘Hi there, it’s Carol’ in that unmistakable singsong, I was put immediately at ease, as if we had known each other for years. I was struck by the generosity of this.”

Wiig, her costar, is effusive: “She is warm and kind, and everyone on our show—cast, crew, everyone!—fell in love with her.”

Despite that almost supernatural sunniness, age remains a tough topic for me to broach with Burnett. It’s easy to unthinkingly ask older performers about aging in a way that is clumsy and/or offensive.

But if anybody knows her way around a tricky question, it’s Burnett, who opened most episodes of her eponymous variety show—which ran for 11 seasons, from 1967 to 1978—with an audience Q&A in lieu of a monologue.

carol burnett

“It was my producer’s idea,” Burnett recalls. “I balked at first. I said, ‘What if they don’t ask anything? Or what if they do and I can’t answer it?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ll put some plants in the audience.’ And then I thought about it, and I said, ‘No, it’s got to be real.’ ”

Burnett figured she’d try it for a few shows, and if it bombed, they’d try something else. In the first few outings, there were some awkward silences.

“I started to get comfortable,” she says, “and it turned out to be one of my favorite things that we ever did.” It took both Burnett and the audience a minute to warm up to each other, but it was improbably smooth sailing from that point on—so much so that when The Carol Burnett Show ended, she took the bit on the road with a live stage act that consisted exclusively of audience Q&A. That show ran for more than 20 years.

The questions were never vetted, the audience members never preselected. Burnett would choose on the fly, usually just by picking people out and pointing aggressively at them. On one occasion, on The Carol Burnett Show, a woman asked if she could get onstage and sing a song. Burnett let her, lending the audience member her orchestra and even joining in herself, a few bars into “You Made Me Love You.” Rather than dying of gratitude, the woman laughingly complained that Burnett had “screwed it up” by failing to harmonize during the performance’s big finish. When Burnett tells this story, it’s not “What a bitch” but “What a delight.”

Pick an old episode of the variety show at random and you’ll find a lot of people with tinted glasses and ’70s disco collars saying “gee,” asking mild questions about Burnett’s characters, and going on about how much they love her. (There are a lot of questions that are “more of a comment.”)

But on occasion, someone throws her a curveball or gets raunchy. (Or, ’70s-TV raunchy.) In one instance, a smirking young man asks whom she’d spend one night with if she could choose absolutely anybody. Burnett doesn’t deflect or demur; she takes out her earpiece and tells the audience how loudly the producers on the other end of it are hooting at the question. She teasingly calls them out for being pervy—and then starts the show, getting a laugh from the audience and dodging the question.

It is almost impossible to imagine a late-night host of today opening up the floor to live questions from whoever’s wandered in, let alone inviting an unknown audience member to share the stage. It also seems like—in what I’ll call “less-friendly times”—this bit could get dark and mean in a hurry. You can easily imagine someone waiting in line at The Tonight Show just to tell Jimmy Fallon he sucks in front of a national audience.

But Burnett says she never regretted calling on anyone and can’t recall giving a flop answer. She seems surprised at the idea that people might take it to a dark place. I can’t believe this, somehow. Did it ever go too far?

“I always had a Mickey and Judy idea of ‘Everything’s going to work out.’ ”

She can think of only one time. Someone in the audience asked, if Burnett could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours, who she’d be and what she’d do. She didn’t think for too long before answering: “I said, ‘I’d be Osama bin Laden, and I’d kill myself.’ ”

This was fairly soon after 9/11. The audience went nuts.

Okay, so coming out anti–bin Laden was probably not particularly controversial. But Burnett’s comedy has always been broad, warm, and welcoming. Her sketch show poked fun at movies and celebrities but never punched down, if it punched at all. Nobody ever got skewered. There were mostly a lot of hapless characters, like incompetent secretaries and dentists who accidentally injected themselves with novocaine.

Burnett has been open about her rough childhood: divorce, parental alcoholism, poverty. I ask her if she thinks that to be funny, you have to go through some shit, as a lot of people in the profession believe.

Burnett says that was not her case. She was not funny because she was traumatized; she was funny because she loved the movies. “I think it was the fact that I went to the movies so much that I always had a Mickey and Judy idea of ‘Everything’s going to work out.’ You’re going to put on a show in the barn, and then it’ll go to Broadway.” So that’s what it would be for her. If impostor syndrome existed before the 2000s, Burnett didn’t have it. “It never occurred to me,” she says. “I always felt I was going to be able to do something.”

Burnett was raised mostly by her maternal grandmother, in a one-room apartment just north of a part of Hollywood Boulevard that is now dominated by souvenir shops and the giant T. rex popping out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! But at the time, it was filled with cinemas. Burnett says they used to see six to eight movies a week, maybe more. Her favorites starred Jimmy Stewart, and “the bad guys always got their just deserts.”

One of the first bad guys I ever saw get said deserts was Burnett herself, in the 1982 movie version of the musical Annie. She played Miss Hannigan as a haunting mix of Mae West and Colonel Kurtz, swilling gin from the bathtub between groping the laundry guy and pinching motherless little girls. Her gross orphan mismanagement would probably never fly in a kids’ movie today (the role was softened into a former pop singer with PTSD, played by Cameron Diaz, in the 2014 remake), but little girls have been eating up Burnett’s Depression-era baddie for 40 years now, including my five-year-old daughter, to whom I showed the movie last week. I try to imagine other living personages who can equally delight both my 75-year-old father and my kid. There aren’t many. Maybe Cookie Monster, who I guess isn’t technically living.

It’s a testament to her immense comedic physical prowess that Burnett is funny in the first few episodes of Palm Royale, during which she’s supposed to be in a coma. Later in the series, Burnett and Wiig get to play off each other, and it feels both fated and familiar, as if they’ve acted opposite each other several times before or are from the same family.

It would be near impossible not to draw a line between The Carol Burnett Show and the muggy, often bouffanted characters Wiig played during her seven seasons on Saturday Night Live. There’s an overt zaniness that feels like vintage Burnett­­—the repeated physical tics, the funny walks. Even the gum-chomping of Wiig’s early “Two A-Holes” persona (in the recurring sketch, she and Jason Sudeikis played a pair of insufferable idiots bedeviling service workers of all stripes) seems Burnettian.

Wiig, who left SNL in 2012, concedes: “She influenced me so much when I was younger, with her show and her characters. It always looked like she was having fun, and I always remembered that.” There’s that word fun again.

“[Impostor syndrome] never occurred to me. I always felt I was going to be able to do something.”

There’s a case to be made that comedy in the 21st century is about not having fun. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm springs to mind, as does Phoebe Waller-Bridge wincing through painful sex in the first few moments of Fleabag. The pilot of Veep saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer and staff hoping Tom Hanks might die, to distract the public from her latest gaffe. On a more recent note, The Bear—a show about suicide and people screaming at each other until they cry—is somehow considered a comedy by the Television Academy. A lot of “comedy” today seems to dare the viewer to enjoy it or even not to look away.

Burnett feels like the polar opposite of this. She has never been one to make people watch through their fingers. She wants you to have a good time.

Given that we no longer live in a world where people think putting on a show in a barn is going to fix everything (probably couldn’t do much for climate change—sorry, Mickey and Judy!), and that some TV shows we now consider “funny” actively seek to be alienating and strange, rather than welcoming and warm, I wonder if she feels a disconnect with modern comedy. At one point in our conversation, Burnett tells me that sometimes things did get “pretty heavy” on the set of her variety show. One time, during the 10th season, in 1977, she tried an unusually dark experiment with her cast while rehearsing a skit featuring their recurring characters “The Family” (who would spin off into their own six-season sitcom, Mama’s Family). In the sketch, daughter Eunice (played by Burnett) is going to go on The Gong Show. She thinks she is going to charm host Chuck Barris, that this appearance on the amateur talent show is her big chance. She gets gonged instead—bringing her performance to a close.

“I said, ‘Let’s do it straight. Let’s do it without the accents and without the real histrionics that we would do to get the laughs. And it was 15 minutes long, and we played it straight. It was devastating,” Burnett says, noting that by the end of the exercise, the crew and actors were all nearly in tears. The sketch never aired this way, of course, but the version that did does end with most of the lights going dark and the camera zooming out from Eunice’s disappointed face. “And then the picture got smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.”

It’s almost unpleasant to think of the characters from the Family going through a performance stripped of their comedic arsenal, of Harvey Korman breaking down at the pathos of watching a woman’s dream die while the orchestra cues up “On Broadway.” That’s not really the case in today’s comedy, where you’re equally likely to be tricked into doing improv when you think you’re serving jury duty or dragooned into letting a stranger hire your baby for a depressing meta thought experiment (as happens multiple times in Nathan Fielder’s deeply grim The Rehearsal).

At some point, I have to ask, “Do you know who Nathan Fielder is?” I’m almost relieved to hear it when Burnett smiles and says apologetically, “No.”


carol burnett

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

SUBSCRIBE

Hair: Nancy Barclay for Studio S Salon, Santa Barbara. Makeup: Marja Webster. Special thanks to San Ysidro Ranch.