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Wednesday marks a very special milestone for Carol Burnett, as she celebrates her 90th birthday in style with the help of NBC.
The network’s two-hour celebration, dubbed “Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love,” will take viewers back to some of Burnett’s funniest and most memorable moments — from her Broadway debut in “Once Upon a Mattress,” her early appearances on “The Garry Moore Show,” her hit films “The Four Seasons,” “A Wedding,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie,” and her iconic role as Miss Hannigan in “Annie”; to her acclaimed sketch comedy series “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran for 11 seasons on CBS and played an instrumental role in the evolution of comedy.
The special, which was filmed at Avalon Hollywood in Los Angeles, is produced by Burnett, Brian Miller, Steve Sauer, Paul Miller and Baz Halpin, Mark Bracco & Linda Gierahn of Silent House Productions.
“We went back all the way to 1956 to her first appearance on television, on a show called ‘Omnibus’ straight through ‘Better Call Saul.’ And even her next series for Apple TV+ that she did with Kristen Wiig and Allison Janney and Laura Dern,” Bracco told TheWrap in an interview. “It was hard to go through it all but I think we really well-represented the breadth of her career.”
“Another person would need a dozen lives to have a career like Carol has had,” Halprin added. “She’s paved the way and opened the door for everyone that followed.”
The television and comedy icon spoke with TheWrap about taping the special, and her long and illustrious career.
TheWrap: What was it like getting to celebrate such a milestone in style on NBC?
Burnett: It was absolutely fantastic. What I did not want was a birthday party with a cake and balloons and confetti and all of that. I wanted it really to be what it turned out to be, which was a variety show with live entertainment and clips showing from the very beginning. Not just “The Carol Burnett” show but Broadway and guest shots and various things like that. And also paying tribute to Harvey [Korman] and Vicki [Lawrence] and Lyle [Waggoner] and Tim [Conway] and Bob Mackie. And then to have all these wonderful live performances with a 19-piece orchestra. Live performances by Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenoweth and Jane Lynch and Billy Porter and Katy Perry and Aileen Quinn and Darren Criss and Sutton Foster. So it was very heavy in a great way musically, and it was a variety show as opposed to being a roast or a birthday party.
Were there any particular standout moments for you during taping that you thought were really impactful?
There were so many. All of them were, every single one. So many of them were different too. Kristen Wiig, Alison Janney and Laura Dern were hysterically funny. They came up and they did a bit. I won’t give it away. And then to have Bernadette and Kristin be so sweet towards my chum Julie Andrews and me. Julie was with me the whole evening, sat by my side. There were some very sweet videos that I had not expected from various people such as President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Hader, Steve Martin and Marty Short. It was just lovely because there were so many of those that were a surprise that I didn’t know that they did until they showed it and it was just wonderful. All I can say is I was pretty gobsmacked by the whole evening.
What are some of the major lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Never to take yourself too seriously. Sometimes instead of show business its show business. I’m stressing that, and [business is] not what it’s about as far as I’m concerned. It’s about getting in the sandbox and having fun and playing. That’s why we got into it in the first place. There’s a quote that I love very much which is ‘People may forget what you did and forget what you said. But they’ll never forget how you made them feel.’ I’m hoping that I make people feel happy and that they laughed when they might have felt down.
What is your advice for people looking to break into the entertainment business and specifically in comedy?
Again, don’t take yourself too seriously. And if you’re auditioning and you don’t get it, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen at the next audition. There were times when I was up for something and I thought I had it but I didn’t, the other girl got it — but I never got disappointed. I don’t know why. But what came to me was, well, it just wasn’t my turn yet and that my turn will come.
So if you really are interested and you’ve got the fire in the belly, just keep trying and your turn will come. You have to be ready for it and be prepared, but there are times when you’re not gonna get something but just say, ‘ok, it’s not my turn yet.’
What are some of your favorite moments from your career?
The first would be being chosen to be in a Broadway show directed by George Abbott. That was many years ago, “Once Upon a Mattress” and it was my first big break on Broadway. It was an off-Broadway show to begin with and then later we moved onto Broadway. And then being chosen to be a performer on “The Garry Moore Show,” which was a very popular variety show back in the ’60s and that gave me a lot of television experience.
All I wanted to do was be on the stage. And then I realized once I got “The Garry Moore Show” that I kind of enjoyed doing television even more because I could be different people and perform different songs and different characters every week, as opposed to being the same character eight times a week on Broadway. I never thought television would be my thing, but that’s what it turned out to be.
What was it like getting to work on the final season of “Better Call Saul?“
One of the best experiences of my life professionally. I’m friends with Vince Gilligan and I was a big fan of “Breaking Bad” and then “Better Call Saul.” I was glued to the show and we were having dinner one night, my husband and I with Vince and his wife Holly. And he mentioned, “Well, maybe I might write something for you in ‘Better Call Saul.'” And I said, “I don’t care if it’s one sentence, I’ll be there.”
So they wrote me in and it was wonderful, the whole crew and everything, because most of them have been together for 15 years or so because a lot of the crew was from “Breaking Bad.” And so they knew what they were doing, they were right on schedule, they couldn’t have been nicer and I fell in love with Bob Odenkirk. We bonded beautifully and then I got to work with Peter Gould who was also one of the creators and really wonderful. It was a family like my show and that’s such a good feeling.
Are there any specific shows or projects that you haven’t had the opportunity to do that you would like to?
You never know what’s gonna turn up. It’s not anything I can pinpoint. I just recently finished doing episodes of “Palm Royale,” which was originally titled “Mrs. American Pie,” with Kristen Wiig and Laura Dern and Allison Janney and Ricky Martin. And it takes place in Palm Beach in the 70s of the rich society people. That came along and I read the script and there were 10 episodes. I said yes, so I did that and I think they start to air this coming August or September, and it was a totally opposite character than what I did on “Better Call Saul.” It’s a lady who’s very wealthy and has fabulous clothes and all of that kind of stuff. And she’s a matriarch of Palm Beach society.
So to say, well, what else would I take? I don’t know, I have to wait and see what comes along. And if I like it and I feel like doing it, I’ll jump in.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the television medium?
There’s good and bad. You can do a lot more because there’s a lot less censorship. But on the other hand, there’s so much [television] that it’s hard to choose. Also, it’s not appointment television anymore. Everybody has their own television set and they can TIVO, whereas when we were starting there were three networks. So we did a show for about 30 million people every week, because there were only three networks. And that Saturday night lineup was incredible. People wouldn’t go out because there was no VCR at the time. It was “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” “The Mary Tyler Moore,” Bob Newhart and us and that was quite a Saturday night rundown. I don’t think it has ever been topped.
How about the evolution of comedy over the years?
[“The Carol Burnett Show”] still holds up. You’ll see some of the show’s clips on the special. Some of those sketches are 40 years old, 50 years old and I dare anybody not to laugh at the dentist sketch with Tim and Harvey. That’s over 40 years old and it holds up, what we did; and I think that’s why our show keeps going. We’re on TV, we’re all over YouTube, we have DVDs out and everything because we went for the belly laughs as opposed to trying to be newsworthy, we didn’t pigeonhole ourselves into a certain timeline. It holds up to me because it’s just funny, and there are moments with Tim Conway and Harvey that we show on the special. We had an audience there and they were laughing hysterically at a lot of the stuff.
Comedy, nowadays, it’s gotten a lot edgier and the language is rough. I’m not a prude by any means, the only thing I don’t like is if it’s gratuitous language and gratuitous body parts, where they say something just to get a laugh to shock. I’m not in for that. But it’s OK with me if it’s edgy, but it’s coming out of character, out of truth, where’s there’s a character that would talk like that as opposed to somebody just saying it to get an audience laughing just for the shock value.
What message do you hope audiences take away from the NBC special?
I hope they take away a feeling of really being very entertained, and knowing that you can start from humble beginnings and wind up being successful in whatever you really choose to do. We had to, unfortunately, cut 33 minutes from the evening because it ran long. But then luckily, the full thing is going to run on Peacock the next day. So the full 2.5 hours will be on and we touched on pretty much everything. There’s so much more that I did, so many different movies and different sketches of my own show, different specials. We just couldn’t get to all of it and that’s kind of a good problem to have.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
“Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love” airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC and streams Thursday on Peacock.