Aired Monday November 5th, 2007 at 8:00 pm
Just about any American watching TV past 10 p.m. between 1967 and 1978 has a favorite moment from "The Carol Burnett Show": "Starlet" descending the Tara staircase, Mrs. Wiggins fiddling with the intercom, Eunice bickering, Mama nagging and any number of Tarzan yells.
By brilliantly playing with stereotypes of glamorous women, dumb broads and goofy girls, Carol Burnett smashed some of the most limiting female images and created an empowering new one: the woman who is as feminine and likable as she is talented and powerful, and whose message isn't any more radical than a simple invitation to laugh. Her on-stage joyfulness and fearlessness remain an inspiration to performers such as Tracey Ullman, Ellen DeGeneres, Kristin Chenoweth and Jenna Elfman.
AMERICAN MASTERS pays tribute to the entertainer who transformed herself into a one-woman army of comedic characters and seduced countless Saturday night friends to fall in love with her finest character of all: Carol Burnett.
AMERICAN MASTERS "Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character" airs Monday, November 5, at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7. The film is directed by Kyra Thompson, who also directed the award-winning AMERICAN MASTERS "Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned."
"She played the consummate clown, whether in frumpy shift or sparkling evening gown and, through force of will and talent, forged a bond with her audience - we believed she was always ‘our' Carol Burnett," says Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. "We're so happy to showcase her spectacular talents and to honor her as an American Master."
Burnett is best known for her long-running comedy variety show on CBS, but she was also a regular attraction on stage, television and, later in her career, films. "A Woman of Character"includes clips from a wide variety of sources that testify to Burnett's breadth as a singer, actor and comedienne. Through castmates and colleagues, the film also addresses the "Chaplinesque" star's impact on television, comedy and women's roles in the media.
As her beloved grandmother (her "Nanny") once told Burnett, "Comedy is a tragedy plus time." The child of divorced, alcoholic parents, Burnett was raised in a less-than-glamorous environment by her eccentric grandmother. She describes her neighborhood as "a block north of Hollywood Boulevard, but a million miles from Hollywood." She discovered a sense of self by pretending to be others, and through the movies she attended with Nanny eight times a week.
In her early 20s, Burnett went to New York, where she quickly proved she had star power, a great voice and strong comedic instincts. Appearances on "The Garry Moore Show," "The Tonight Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" led, in 1959, to a starring role on the off-Broadway (and soon Broadway) hit Once Upon a Mattress.
An Emmy Award-winning concert special with Julie Andrews in 1962 drew critical acclaim and in 1967 Burnett was ready for her close-up with "The Carol Burnett Show," which offered high-quality, original sketch material performed by one of the tightest, most talented comic ensembles ever to grace the small screen.
When the show moved to Saturday nights, it became a ratings powerhouse, one of the few series that appealed to young and old alike. As other variety programs were being cancelled, Burnett's thrived, pushing the envelope just enough to keep things interesting. Burnett's deep connection to her hilarious characters gave the sketches dimension.
As the '70s wore on, Burnett also became active in the feminist movement and often indirectly began to bring that sensibility into sketches.
After more than 280 episodes, Burnett decided to quit while she was ahead. On March 17, 1978, she walked onto the stage in her charwoman costume and delivered a moving speech about her colleagues, her years on the series and her reasons for ending it.
"This is an evening of mixed emotions for me," she told her audience. "It's a lot classier to leave before you're asked to ... Now is the time to put the show to bed."
As she did at the end of every program, Burnett sang the traditional closing song "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together," tugged on her ear (a gesture originally meant as a greeting for her grandmother) and closed a chapter in TV history.
But Burnett's story was by no means at an end. She earned raves - and high ratings - for her dramatic turn in Friendly Fire as the mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam. She went on "The Dinah Shore Show" to discuss her daughter's battle with drug addiction and later successfully sued the National Enquirer for writing that she got into a row with Henry Kissinger in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. She donated the settlement from the suit to two universities to underwrite studies on ethics in journalism.
Several successful feature films (including The Front Page, Pete 'N Tillie, Annie) showcased Burnett's diversity and enduring appeal. She also confronted her past and wrote a best-selling memoir. As she was working with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, to develop the book into a play, Hamilton died of cancer. Hollywood Arms debuted on Broadway October 31, 2002.
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