LOS ANGELES — Carol Burnett, who went from Hollywood High School to Hollywood stardom, was honored with SAG-AFTRA’s highest tribute Jan. 30, given annually by the performers’ union to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession.”
Burnett, 82, received a standing ovation at the Shrine Auditorium as she became the 52nd recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, presented to her by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Actor Steve Carell escorted her to the stage.
She told the crowd she remembers growing up just north of Hollywood Boulevard and going to double-features every week, and after the movies she and a friend would act them out. And when she got her famed variety program, “The Carol Burnett Show,” she said it was like the same recreation of films — but with an orchestra, guest stars and elaborate costumes.
“In essence we mounted a musical comedy revue every week and oh God did we have fun,” she said. “And at first the network didn’t want me to do one. They tried to talk me into doing a half-hour sitcom called ‘Here’s Agnes.’ Can you picture, ‘Here’s Agnes?’ I can just see it.
“But I had a terrific and unheard-of contract that said all I had to do was push the button and the network would have to give me 30 one-hour variety shows, and I told them that’s what I wanted to do. But they said, ‘Carol, no no no, look, all the comedy-variety shows are hosted by men. Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle. … It’s really not for a gal. Comedy-variety is a man’s game.’”
Burnett smiled and shook her head, and said, “No.”
She also thanked her co-stars from the show — Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway.
“Their comedic chops made it all work and I was able to do what I did because of what they brought to the table,” She said. “Not only their talents, but their love. And I’m so happy I pushed that button.”
She ended her speech with the line from her show’s theme song: “I’m so glad we had this time together.”
SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard called Burnett “a creative dynamo and a comedic genius.”
“She embodies the generosity and courage that the greatest actors use in creating enduring and memorable characters,” he said. “From her heartbreakingly hilarious Starlet O’Hara to the adorably inept Eunice and alarmingly funny Miss Hannigan, Carol has delighted and inspired millions of viewers and thousands of comedic actors.
“She took risks as a performer and through her courage, encouraged fellow actors to try new things and always, always reach for the sky,” Howard said. “Her innate love of actors led to the creation of an ensemble cast that made ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ a masterpiece of variety programming.”
Backstage after receiving her award, Burnett said she doesn’t mind edgy comedy, but “there’s room for plain, old, happy, belly laughs and you don’t see much of that anymore.”
“I sound like an old fogey,” Burnett acknowledged, but said she missed shows like “M*A*S*H” and sitcoms by Norman Lear, who wrote and produced “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” among others, that had “no pandering to base instincts.”
“I would like to see cleverness come back,” the comedian and actress said. “That does exist in some shows, but not enough.”
But she hailed young female comics like Fey and Poehler, who presented her with the award, and said she was happy they are getting more respect for their work “writing and producing and all of that.”
“Look at Kristen Wiig, what does she do? She’s fabulous!”
Characterizing herself as a sketch performer and not a stand up, Burnett told the press room, “I like to be on stage with other people, so I can lock eyeballs.”
“I can’t tell a joke to save my soul,” Burnett claimed.
She added: “Comedians are actors. They are. We can do anything.”
“Look at Steve Carell, look at Michael Keaton,” Burnett said. “We were all pigeon-holed at some point.”
As for advice for young female comics hoping to build a career, Burnett had a short message.
“Just do it!”
Burnett also talked about her long-running friendship with legendary comic Lucille Ball.
“The first time I met her was the second night of ‘Once Upon A Mattress,’” Burnett said, recalling how nervous she was waiting in her “funky little dressing room Off-Broadway with a coil that came out of the couch.”
They talked for a while and when Ball left, she told Burnett, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, give me a call.”
Ball came through on that promise, immediately agreeing to appear when Burnett called her to be a guest on a comedy special.
Burnett said Ball sent flowers every year on her birthday.
“She died on my birthday,” on April 26, 1989. “That afternoon I got flowers from her that said ‘Happy Birthday Kid,’” Burnett said, choking up.
Burnett’s show ran for 11 years, averaging 30 million viewers a week and receiving 25 Emmy Awards, making it one of the most honored shows in television history.
Burnett’s many career accolades include multiple Emmys, a special Tony, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Mark Twain Prize for Humor.
She has established several scholarships, including the Carol Burnett Musical Theatre competition at her alma mater, UCLA.