Interview: Carol Burnett at 90 - Looking Back on Broadway, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW & More

“Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love” will air Wednesday, April 26 at 8 p.m. ET/PT and will also stream next day on Peacock.

By: Apr. 25, 2023
Interview: Carol Burnett at 90 - Looking Back on Broadway, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW & More
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At 90 years old, Carol Burnett is taking a look back at her illustrious career.

NBC will celebrate the comedy legend with "Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love." The two-hour special will air Wednesday, April 26 at 8 p.m. ET/PT and will also stream next day on Peacock.

The star-studded event features an A-list lineup of musical performances and special guests who will come together to share their love for one of the most cherished comediennes in television history.

We went through we went through the living legend's career to look back on all the laughs she has given us throughout the years, starting with her Broadway debut in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959.

Burnett discusses her "big break," reveals why she likes doing television more than Broadway, and how Bernadette Peters was the first person she asked to be on The Carol Burnett Show.

Starting off, I want to go back to 1959 when you made your Broadway debut in Once Upon a Mattress. When you look back at that point in your career, so early on, what sticks out to you the most?

Well, when I was at UCLA and I got the chance to go to New York someday, I was getting ready to leave college and make my way back to New York, some of my friends gave me a bon voyage party, and they said, "So what are you gonna do, Carol, when you get to New York?" And I said, "I'm going to be in a Broadway show directed by George Abbott." I said that. I felt that. And so look what happened. That was my chance. I got to audition for Once Upon a Mattress, and guess who the director was, George Abbott. So that was like a dream come true, you know? How that happened was just kind of a miracle.

It had been written for somebody else to do, somebody else who was already an established star, and Mr. Abbott said, "No, let's just get somebody new." And so that was my big break, and to be directed by him, he was Mr. Broadway at the time, you know, the top musical comedy director on Broadway. He did Pajama Game Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town. I was just thrilled when I got the job.

Musicals like the Sound of Music and Gypsy also opened around that time, but it really wasn't a period where there were that many Broadway musicals with women leading them. So what was it like to be a leading lady on Broadway back then?

Well, it was a thrill. It was more of a rep company. I was a leading lady, but then the part of the Queen was also. Yes, I was a leading lady, but so it was Jane White who played the Queen. So it wasn't like Sound of Music where Maria was the star, or Unsinkable Molly Brown, that was a big one for Tammy Grimes. But of course it felt great.

It was my first job being in equity, being in the Union. I remember when we signed up and everything and they were gonna give me my contract, I think there was a white contract and a pink contract, if I'm not mistaken. I think the white one was for if you had a lead, and the pink one was if you were in the chorus. They handed me the pink one. I started to fill it out and somebody else said, "No, no, she's one of the leads." But the women didn't know that I was, and I was so naive. I had no idea. I was going to sign anything. [Laughs]

But it was a thrill. I remember Mary Rogers, who wrote the music, and Marshall Barrer, who wrote the wonderful lyrics, they said, "Would you like to come up to the apartment and hear the score?" and wow. To hear Mary play the score and Marshall sing my song. The opening song for me was "Shy," and it was a major, major belting song. I was just thrilled with all of it.

It was only gonna run six weeks because was a subscription at the Phoenix Theater and they were gonna close us. I got the idea and I said, "We've gotta get a lot of publicity and maybe make them move us to another theater so that we shouldn't close." So what we did was go out in front of the theater at the end of the show after we'd taken our bows in our costumes outside, and we were picketing the Phoenix Theater with signs saying "A house, a house, our Kingdom for a house," and all of this, and making such noise about it. We got into the New York Post, not even in the theatre section. It was in like page two about how the cast just picketing its own show to get another theater. And we did.

They gave us the Alvin Theatre, which is now the Neil Simon. Then some show was coming in there, then they moved us to the Winter Garden, and then another show was coming in there and then they moved us to the Cort Theatre, and another show was coming in there, and then they moved us to the St. James. So by then, we had run a year, a whole year, and it was only gonna be six weeks originally.

Wow, you guys were all over the map.

All over it. I remember Neil Simon said, "Have you seen Mattress yet?" And somebody would say, "No." "Oh, well, don't worry. It'll soon be at your neighborhood theater." So it ran a year, and then I did it on television three times.

Looking forward into your career on television, how did your experience on Broadway inspire The Carol Burnett Show?

I think because there was so much music. Musical comedy was my first love. Other than that, The Carol Burnett show mostly was inspired by my watching Sid Caesar on television and being a second banana on The Gary Moore Show, which was a very popular variety show in the sixties. I became a regular on that show and I realized that I actually liked being in a variety show more than I liked being on Broadway, because I could do different characters every week and different music every week, as opposed to doing the same thing eight times a week for a year.

I realized that it's like doing a musical comedy revue, a Broadway musical comedy revue every week on television. So that was more or less my inspiration.

Someone who was a guest on your variety show was Bernadette Peters and she and Aileen Quinn were both recently there for your NBC special. What was it like having your Annie co-stars there after all of these years?

Oh, well, I've seen Bernadette quite a few times. She was the first person we asked to be on my be on The Burnett Show. We saw her, she was 20 years old, and she was in a show called Dames at Sea. We hadn't gone on the air yet, but we saw her and we went backstage and I said, "I'm gonna be doing this variety show that's gonna premiere in the fall, and we would love you to be a guest." So she wasn't on the first show, but she was the first guest that we ever asked to be on the show. So Bernadette and I go way back and we're very, very close. So it was so wonderful of her to be there. I mean, she sings up a storm on The 90th.

That's one thing about this show, The 90th, it's not a roast and it's not a birthday party. It's a show and it shows clips from my movies and early television appearances and guest appearances and specials and so forth and so on and we also have live entertainment. Bernadette and Jane Lynch and Billy Porter, and Aileen Quinn, who was the original little Annie, they do a whole thing on Annie, the movie that I did.

Then, Katy Perry sings my final song, "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together," and Kristin Chenoweth and Bernadette do a scene from when Beverly Sills and I did a special together. So we have live entertainment and a 19 piece orchestra, which is unheard of today. So it's really a show. It's more or less a variety show with some clips, as opposed to a roast or a birthday party. I didn't want a bunch of balloons in confetti and a cake. I just wanted a nice, wonderful variety show, and that's what we got.

Interview: Carol Burnett at 90 - Looking Back on Broadway, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW & More
Bernadette Peters and Billy Porter honoring Annie "Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love."

Hearing about all the different performers there, it's clear that you and your career are such an inspiration to so many people. Is there a story that someone has told you about how you've inspired them that has stuck out to you the most?

Well, a lot of people, young comedians and everything have said something to that effect. And my response is: "If I'd never been born, you'd be doing what you're doing." You know, you didn't need me to set the standard or to give you that encouragement. I did. I mean, if it happened, that's wonderful. But as I say, if I'd never been born, their talent would come forth, you know? I get a little embarrassed by it. I'm flattered, but I'm also embarrassed.

Watch Carol Burnett sing "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together" here:

Photo by: NBCUniversal