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America’s Clown Princess
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She just wanted to make people laugh but she is also an inspiration, a role model and a loving mom. Now a new generation is discovering her half century of comedic gifts and brilliant wit
Carol Burnett on-stage Dec. 2 at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
She Might Have Been A Journalist If....
Carol Burnett, might have become a journalist if UCLA had a journalism department when she was a freshman in the 1940’s.
“If they’d had a major in journalism,” Burnett said, “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now. I would have majored in journalism.”
Instead, she fell in love with performing and became a world renown star comedienne, actress, singer, author, and philanthropist, and the first woman to be solo star of a major TV network primetime comedy-variety series.
On Sunday, Burnett was the 2018 recipient of the Los Angeles Press Club’s Legend Award presented at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
The LAPC Legend Award is given not just for Burnett’s truly legendary achievements in television, movies, recordings, and as a best-selling author, but also for her contributions to society, on both an artistic and humanistic level.
“From her eleven seasons starring in the ground-breaking Carol Burnett Show on CBS to her current work, talking with kids on Netflix’s A Little Help with Carol Burnett, she has delighted and lifted the spirits of generations of Americans as well as serving as an inspiration and exemplar for women in the entertainment business,” the L.A. Press Club said in announcing the award.
Burnett gives back in many ways. She provides scholarships for promising actors at UCLA, donates to Sundance to support emerging filmmakers and contributes to Stephen Sonheim’s new playwright organization, among many donations.
Her top charities include the Hereditary Disease Foundation, which does scientific research.
She likes to repay those who gave her a chance. Her mentors included 50s TV host Gary Moore and another funny redhead, Lucille Ball, who became Burnett’s great friend.
She is a role model for the female comediennes who followed her lead
Now she is a mentor and role model to newer generation.
When Burnett received the first-ever Peabody Awards life achievement honor earlier this year, the group’s executive director Jeffrey P. Jones said, “there would be no Gilda Radner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Tina Fey without her blazing the trail.”
“The Carol Burnett Show” was a big hit on CBS for eleven seasons averaging 30 million viewers a week, and earning an amazing 25 Emmys and numerous other awards.”
In 1979, Burnett walked away from her hit show, as she put it, before being told to leave.
She has continued making award winning TV specials with Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills and others, starring in movies including “Annie,” frequently doing guest spots on TV, performing on Broadway and doing lectures nationwide.
Through the years, Burnett never forgot her love of journalism, as she demonstrated in the 1980’s after winning a bruising five-year libel battle with the National Enquirer.
Her lawyers proved the notorious tabloid published an erroneous, malicious article about Burnett and Henry Kissinger.
“When I won the Enquirer suit,” recalls Burnett, “I just donated all the money to journalism schools. One in Berkeley and one in the University of Hawaii. I did it because of my interest in journalism. That’s what I wanted.”
Even more importantly to Burnett was the precedent it struck.
“The Enquirer used to claim they were a newspaper,” explained Burnett, “which was their excuse for not carefully checking their facts.
“Then it was ruled by the judge who said “No, it’s not a newspaper. It’s a magazine and they have time to check their facts.’ They weren’t happy about that. So now it’s a magazine, which I’m very proud of.”
She rose from a broken home to become a star and a mom
Burnett’s rise from near poverty to being the signature television star of her era wasn’t all glamour and star studded parties. It came as she rose from poverty and a broken home. When she made it, she took care of her family, raised three daughters, married three times, and has two grandsons.
She also lived through any parent’s worst nightmare with her eldest daughter, Carrie Hamilton - twice.
Carol Burnett with her daughter Carrie Hamilton in happier times
First, when Carrie was in her teens, she went from an A to an F student because of drug addiction. She entered rehab three times before recovering.
When her story started to leak out, Burnett feared what the Enquirer and tabloid “rags” might write.
Burnett: “We had a family powwow and said we must out to come out with this before the Enquirer does one of those terrible things, making up a lot of stuff about Carrie.”
They went to People Magazine which put Carol and Carrie on the cover.
“We were the first to do it, but it came out of self-preservation,” said Burnett. “To tell our story and tell the truth”
Carrie and Carol, together and separately, went on TV, made public appearance, visited schools and more to share their experience and warning about the danger of drugs. They helped millions.
Carrie went on to become a successful actress, singer, Broadway star, writer, playwright and more.
The second tragedy for Burnett was that her beautiful, talented daughter, after winning her fight against drug abuse, lost her battle against cancer. Carrie passed away at age 38.
Burnett still values every moment she had with Carrie, with whom she wrote a play and a book, and then wrote the heart-felt and wrenching “Carrie and Me.”
“The life lesson.is that you can cope, “said Burnett, “and just be grateful for the time that you did know her, that she was in my life. As tragic as it is, I knew her and she was so good, and helped me cheer up so many times. That’s who she was.”
Burnett responds to "fake news"attacks on journalists today
Burnett is not political but stands firmly with the legitimate media at a time the journalism profession is under unprecedented attack from the American president and his followers.
“Yes, it bothers me a lot, said Burnett. “Because it’s not fair. It’s not right. All the reporters are doing are reporting and then to call them fake is ridiculous. That upsets me. One of my first loves was journalism.”
So now along with her shelves full of Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, Kennedy Center Honors, Mark Twain Award, Peabody Awards and more Burnett gratefully adds this recognition that she is a legend from the press.
“It means a lot to know that after all these years I’m still viable,” said Burnett.
“I’m still on the road. I still act. I’m at the end of twenty appearance on my “Laughter & Reflection” question and answer tour,” said Burnett with a self-depreciating laugh. “I know I’m an old person but I don’t feel it inside, my goodness. “
“I do these things because it keeps the old gray matter ticking,” she added, talking about her tour. “When I get out there …I can’t be thinking about what I did yesterday or what I’m going to do tomorrow. I have to be in the now. So, that keeps me young.”
That is appropriate at a time Burnett’s many talents are being re-discovered by a younger generation. They watch DVD’s of her shows, streaming reruns, videos on YouTube and entire episodes daily on MeTV, a digital channel.
She says her old shows continues to delight new audiences because the humor wasn’t too topical, political or very racy.
“I was a clown and we just wanted to do funny stuff,” said Burnett.
“Now I’m getting fan mail from ten-year-olds. Teenagers write me. And so do people in their 20s and 30s who weren’t born when we did our show. I’m getting audiences now that are from young kids to peep in their 90s.”
Awards matter but for Burnett that continuation of interest by fans may be the most important recognition of all. That is why she is a legend.
Author Alex Ben Block with Carol Burnett at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards on Dec. 2, 2018 in Los Angeles.