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Everything You Need to Know About Carol Burnett Before Her 90th Birthday Special
The icon will be celebrating her 10th decade with friends during Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love.
When Carol Burnett hosts her own birthday party—Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love—on April 26th on NBC, she'll be joined by a plethora of friends, old and new, to celebrate her career and perform for fans.
Those coming to celebrate include Bernadette Peters, Billy Porter, Jane Lynch, Katy Perry, Kristin Chenoweth, Aileen Quinn, Allison Janney, Amy Adams, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Cher, Ellen DeGeneres, Julie Andrews, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Lily Tomlin, Lisa Kudrow, Marisa Tomei, Sofia Vergara, Steve Carell, Taraji P. Henson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and many more.
But if you're a little young to have seen Burnett's iconic, Emmy-winning eponymous show in the 11 years it originally aired (or during its many years in syndication), you might not realize what a powerhouse she has been throughout her career, as a singer, actor, comedian, producer and more.
Let's help you catch up on her life and her amazing work before her birthday special airs
First, a little about the living legend herself!
How old is Carol Burnett?
Carol Burnett turns 90 on April 26. She was born in Texas in 1933.
Where was Carol Burnett born?
Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas, and lived with her grandmother in a house on West Commerce Street until the two moved to Los Angeles when she was seven. The home is now a designated historic site and is used for special events by a non-profit serving at-risk children in the city.
Carol Burnett's daughters
Carol Burnett had three daughters: Carrie Hamilton (an actor), Erin Hamilton (a musician), and Jody Hamilton (a producer and podcaster). Carrie died of lung cancer in 2002, according to PEOPLE, at the age of 38.
Carol Burnett's husband
Burnett has been married to Brian Miller since 2001. She was previously married to director-producer Joe Hamilton (1963-84) and actor Don Saroyan (1955-62).
How many grandchildren does Carol Burnett have?
Burnett has two grandsons: Zachary Carlson and Dylan West. Her daughter, Erin, is their mom.
Carol Burnett's sister
Burnett has one half-sister, Chrissie, according to Burnett's biography. The two were largely raised by their maternal grandmother in Hollywood in a boarding house.
How Carol Burnett got her start
Burnett's life is one of Hollywood's biggest rags-to riches stories: After graduating from Hollywood High School, she went to the University of California, Los Angeles and ended up majoring in theatre. UCLA was also where she met her first husband, actor Don Saroyan—and the still anonymous benefactor who she says changed her life in her junior year. The businessman, whom she never identified in her autobiographies, gave her and her then-boyfriend each a $1,000, interest-free five-year loan to help them get to New York City with the proviso that, if they made it big, they should help other people like them. The two left college in 1954. (Burnett eventually established scholarships at UCLA and the University of Hawaii to assist low income students, she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.)
Carol Burnett's early years in New York City
Despite her talents, Burnett didn't immediately become a hit when she arrived in NYC! She ended up putting together a revue for agents with a number of other actresses, ultimately two landing television roles: First, as a foil to a ventriloquist's dummy on the The Paul Winchell Show in 1955; then as Buddy Hackett's gawky girlfriend on the short-lived sitcom Stanley, which ended after one season in 1957.
She continued to work and, in 1957, she had a show at the Blue Angel Club where her show-stopping song was called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," the very dour then-Secretary of State. As she told the Paley Center in 2016, she was invited to perform it on Tonight Starring Jack Parr—the precursor to today's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—on a Tuesday, then asked by Dulles' press team to perform it again on Thursday. The Ed Sullivan Show asked her to perform it on their show on Sunday. The following week on Meet the Press, Dulles was asked about Burnett and told the host, "I make it a policy never to talk about matters of the heart in public." (Dulles died in 1959.)
In 1959, Burnett got her big Broadway break starring in Once Upon a Mattress, a musical version of the fairytale The Princess and the Pea. Burnett played the aforementioned pea-averse royal, Princess Winnifred, for which she was ultimately nominated for a Tony.
As a result of her acclaimed performance, she became a regular performer on the primetime variety program The Garry Moore Show in 1959. She won her first Emmy as a result of her work, but left in 1962.
Her second Emmy came for her 1962 television special with Julie Andrews, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall.
She then had a series of guest starring roles, including on The Twilight Zone, The Lucy Show (she and Lucille Ball were close friends), Get Smart and Gomer Pyle: USMC.
Then, she became bigger than anyone had imagined.
The Carol Burnett Show
The Carol Burnett Show premiered in September 1967 as part of a contract Burnett had previously negotiated with CBS that she could make at least one season of a variety show within five years of The Garry Moore Show ending—a contract that, by the time the five years was up, CBS executives didn't want to honor, according to CBS News.
It ran until March 1978 and won an astonishing 25 Emmy Awards.
Starring Burnett, Vicky Lawrence, Harvey Korman (who Burnett once infamously fired mid-season), Lyle Waggoner and, eventually, Tim Conway, the show pioneered characters—like Burnett's Eunice Higgins and Lawrence's Mama—that outlasted the show itself when they premiered on the later show Mama's Family.
Carol Burnett's Gone with the Wind parody, "Went With The Wind"
One of their most famous sketches was a 20-minute parody of Gone with the Wind they titled "Went With The Wind" in which Burnett's Starlet O'Hara entertains Korman's Ratt Butler in a Bob Mackie-designed curtain dress with the curtain rod still attached.
Carol Burnett's Tarzan yell
One of Burnett's other infamous bits from her eponymous show was her "Tarzan yell," which she even performed on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen in 2016, as seen above.
She used to perform the yell in response to audience member requests during an unrehearsed question-and-answer session during the show. She's said in interviews that she learned the yodel at the age of nine after seeing the Tarzan movies with a cousin.
"After the film, we’d go back to her house and we’d play out what we’d seen,” Burnett told USA Today in 2015. “Naturally, she was Jane. I was Tarzan. So, I taught myself to do the Tarzan yell.”
She told TODAY in 2014 that she'd used the yell to scare off a would-be mugger when she was a young woman.
Why does Carol Burnett tug her ear?
Burnett famously ended every show by tugging on her left ear. Burnett has said that she developed it as a way, during her early television appearances in New York, to signal to the grandmother who raised her—who was still back in Los Angeles—that she was doing alright.
Post-Carol Burnett Show career
After ending the show on a high note, Burnett went on to make a short series of movies and then a long string of television appearances. She mostly famously played Miss Hannigan in the big screen version of Annie (opposite now long-time friend Bernadette Peterson), and was nominated for an Emmy for her work as an anti-Vietnam War activist in the 1979 television movie Friendly Fire.
In the 1980s, she appeared in one episode of Fame, playing a school lunchlady alongside her daughter, Carrie, in 1987; in two episodes of Magnum, P.I.; in several TV movies; and, of course, as Eunice on Mama's Family alongside Vicki Lawrence.
In the 1990s, she won an Emmy for her guest role on Mad About You as Theresa Stemple, Jamie Buchman's (Helen Hunt) mother. She played herself on an episode of Evening Shade, appeared on Touched By An Angel and The Larry Sanders Show, and was nominated for a Tony for her role in Moon Over Buffalo.
In the aughts, she appeared on Desperate Housewives, was nominated for an Emmy for her appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit, played Sue Sylvester's (Jane Lynch) mom on Glee, Victoria Chase's (Wendy Malick) mom in Hot in Cleveland, and Steve McGarrett's (Alex O'Laughlin) mom on Hawaii Five O.
Most recently, she reprised her Mad About You role and appeared in four episodes of Better Call Saul.
Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love airs Wednesday, April 26 at 8/7c on NBC and will stream the next day on Peacock.