Carol Burnett Dishes on Her New Memoir, 'Carrie and Me'
Carol Burnett's three daughters had it pretty good: Every Friday after school, they went to the set of "The Carol Burnett Show" and watched TV comedy history get made. Burnett had her own variety show at a time when men ruled the airwaves, and she paved the way for generations of actresses and comic writers like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. She also passed on the acting gene to her daughter Carrie Hamilton, who was starting a career as an actress when she succumbed to cancer in her 30s. "Carrie and Me" is Burnett's touching, funny memoir of life with her talented daughter. Here, Burnett tells Bookish about her early ambitions to be a writer, her daughter's way of inspiring other recovering addicts, her ongoing friendship with Julie Andrews, TV shows that are "scraping the bottom of the barrel," her own favorite characters from "The Carol Burnett Show" and more.
Bookish: You've written several books now. Who are the authors you look to, to guide your own writing?
Carol Burnett: I prefer biography, but I like it when somebody has written their own--as opposed to "as told to." One of my first ambitions was to be a writer, and I got sidetracked when I went to UCLA and got into performing. But I've always written, and I love writing. But I don't think I would be any good at fiction.
Bookish: Why not? Does it have to be based on real life?
CB: Yeah. My first two books: One was a memoir about growing up with my grandmother raising me, and my mother and my father here in Hollywood, and growing up in the '30s and '40s and '50s in Hollywood. That was really an open letter to my three daughters, to fill them in on their mother's background. The second one, which came out a couple years ago, was an anecdotal book about people I've worked with in the business, about ["The Carol Burnett Show"], and just funny little chapters, where you could pick up just one chapter and read it. It wasn't a story, in other words.
["Carrie and Me"] is probably the most personal [book] I've ever written. It's really about my daughter Carrie, who passed away in 2002--she was quite the character. She wrote, she directed, she produced, she starred in some television shows, and a particular movie that she got fabulous reviews for. And she was a singer, she wrote music--everything. Before she was diagnosed [with cancer], she was writing a story--actually, it was a screenplay about a bohemian girl's funny, strange journey to Graceland with a mysterious cowboy. She was calling it "Sunrise in Memphis." And then she decided to take the road trip herself that her character takes, from Hollywood down to Memphis. She would email me not only some of the scenes that she was writing along the way, but she would also email me some of the adventures that she had on her road trip--people she met, observations and so forth--and then I would send my emails back to her.
So when Carrie was in the hospital for the last time, she had almost finished it, but she needed to add to the middle part of the story. She asked me if I could finish it for her. I said, "I don't know, honey. They're your characters to write." And she understood. So, her request had been living with me for about 10 years, and then I started to put down in writing our emails, because I saved them. I showed them to my literary agent, and we got a publisher interested--if I could add more of my relationship to Carrie. So, I take it from the earliest days, when she was born, up through her death. Then, part two of the book is her half-finished story, "Sunrise in Memphis."
Trish Todd at Simon and Schuster said, "Carrie, from her emails and writing, was so interesting and funny. I want to know more about Carrie and what her relationship with you was." We had a rough period when Carrie was in her teens, with the drug situation, and she thought that was important to put in, because Carrie got sober before she was 18 and went on to have a wonderful, remarkable career--and it was cut pretty short.
Bookish: One of Carrie's roles was Maureen in "Rent," is that right?
CB: Right, in the first national company.
Bookish: Drugs play such a key plot point in "Rent," and Carrie had her own personal struggles with drugs. What was it like watching her in that role?
CB: Well, I could disassociate because she was such a good actress, and those days were long behind us. But there's a very interesting thing about that: When we were opening "Hollywood Arms," our play in New York with Hal Prince, my husband and I took in a matinee one day in New York. We were coming out of the theater, looking for a cab, and this young man approached me and said, "Excuse me, are you Carol Burnett?" And I said, "Yes." Now, I'm thinking that he's going to ask me about our show. But he said, "I just want to tell you that your daughter Carrie saved my life." I said, "What?" He said, "I was in the national company in 'Rent,' and I was doing drugs. And Carrie would come in early every night to get ready, and she didn't preach to me--I'd been in a few rehabs and it didn't work--but she came in and just shared some of her war stories with me. I gradually realized that I wanted to be like Carrie. I wanted to be happy."
Carrie once said that she got off drugs when she told a therapist in rehab, "I want to be like Janis Joplin." And the therapist said, "Well, she's dead." And Carrie said that really was one of the wake-up moments. She mentioned that to this young man. And he said, "I put myself in rehab. Nobody forced me or anything, and I've been clean for six years."
Bookish: You mentioned that one of your earliest desires was to be a writer, and then you got into acting. Did you actively encourage Carrie to pursue the path of a writer or the path of an actress?
CB: She was more a Renaissance woman. She said, "Mom, I don't know if it's attention deficit or just unclipped wings or what, but I want to do it all." Once she had finished one little thing that she was writing, she said, "Now I feel like getting up and singing somewhere. I miss that." And then, at other times, she said, "I love writing because you don't have any other cooks in the kitchen." But I think, had she lived, she would have probably wanted to be behind the camera, and write and direct. I have a feeling that was where she was headed.
Bookish: Did your daughters love "The Carol Burnett show"? How much of a part of their childhoods was it?
CB: Every Friday they would come to the dress rehearsal at 5 p.m., after they got out of school. We did two shows on Friday, one at 5 p.m. and one at 8 p.m. And they would come backstage afterwards, and they would have their photographs taken with our guest stars. There's a great one with the three of them with the Jackson Five. And Carrie always loved hearing the music, the band. We had a 28-piece orchestra. So from, say, '68 or '69 to '78, that was their growing up, and they would come every Friday.
Bookish: Not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon!
CB: No! And it's funny, Carrie fell in love and got engaged, and was going to get married, and, being the bohemian kind of girl that she is, she didn't want a traditional kind of a wedding. So the wedding took place in Studio 3 on the stage where we did my show, and the guests sat in the audience. I wanted to get her a wedding dress, but she didn't want the traditional kind, so we went to a vintage store and got this nice little thing with lace, cream-colored. I liked it because it had a jacket, which would hide her tattoo, because I wasn't thrilled with her having a tattoo.
Bookish: I bet she looked fantastic.
CB: She did, but you could see the tattoo, and I thought, "Well, you know, that's okay. That's my girl."
Bookish: Were the other cast members at the wedding, as well?
CB: Oh, yeah. We had a lot of friends there, and relatives. The reception was next door on the set of "The Bold and Beautiful." But that was Carrie. She was always pretty unconventional.
Bookish: You were such a pioneer in comedic acting, especially for women at a time when men ruled the roost. What do think about comedy today? What do you think about Tina Fey and Lena Dunham?
CB: Oh, well I think they're great. And Amy [Poehler], and all of them, I think they're terrific. My interest has always been sketch comedy, as opposed to being up there alone, [doing] stand-up. So, naturally, the ones that I cotton to are the comedic actresses. I remember way back, in the covered wagon days, when I was on "The Garry Moore Show," we had a guest one day--he was an old Vaudevillian, his name was Ed Wynn. He would regale all of us with stories of comics and the Ziegfeld Follies and things like that, where he got his start. And he said, "There's a difference between a comic and a comic actor: A comic says funny things, and a comedic actor says things funny.'"
Bookish: I like that.
CB: It's like Bob Hope, who was a brilliant comic, could reel off all these jokes and wonderful stuff, whereas Jack Benny could get a laugh out of a sentence that was just, "Well, where have you been?" You know what I mean? And he could make that, with a situation, be a scream. Because he said things funny.
Bookish: And would you put yourself in the latter category?
CB: Yes. I can't tell a joke to save my soul. (Laughs.)
Bookish: But you can take a random sentence and make it funny.
CB: Well, that's always been the goal.
Bookish: What have you enjoyed recently on TV, onstage, in the movies?
CB: Usually I watch the dramas more than I do the comedies. Situation comedy, for the most part--and I don't want to say which ones--but for the most part I think they're just easy, easy jokes, because they're scraping the bottom of the barrel with scatological humor and stuff that's easy to write, but it's not clever. You know, when I think of clever sitcom writing, I think of "All in the Family." Brilliant writing. "Mary Tyler Moore," "Newhart." I mean wonderful, wonderful situations, where they say things funny, as opposed to getting down and dirty. And I'm not a prude at all. It's just that sometimes it sounds like a bunch of teenagers got in a locker room and wrote a script.
Bookish: What sorts of dramas are you watching?
CB: I love watching "Nashville." I think Connie Britton is terrific, and the other girl, Hayden Panettiere. And I love "Once Upon a Time," because when I was a kid, all I did was read fairytales. I'll watch some HBO stuff, and mostly cable. So, I'll go back and get some of the classics that I grew up with.
Bookish: What classic movie would you recommend to a young person today?
CB: Well, there are different ones. Certainly for a musical I'd say "Singing in the Rain." And for dramas, I would say "Casablanca." There are some others with Bette Davis. The Warner Brothers movies, [James] Cagney, all of those were great. And for the musicals I would say MGM. Look up "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Brilliant choreography!
Bookish: Speaking of other actresses, are you still close with Julie Andrews? Are your families close?
CB: Julie and I are. Her daughter, Emma, lives back east, in Sag Harbor, so I seldom see her. But Julie and I see each other as often as we can. She's traveling a lot now, too. As far as actresses go, I'm not that involved with every week talking to somebody or whatever. I have other friends that are not in the business that I see more often, with the exception of Tim Conway. We see him quite often. That's always fun.
Bookish: What were you surprised by when you became a grandparent? What are the biggest differences between being a grandparent and being a parent--in light of being raised by your grandmother?
CB: Well there's a great difference because I don't live with [my grandchildren]. [Laughs.] So, it's always more fun for the grandparent because they don't have the responsibility that the parent has, but they get all the fun with the kids. They can spoil them.
Bookish: Are there lessons that you learned from your grandmother that you have passed on?
CB: Well Nanny, my grandmother, could be very funny, and so I like to kid the kids a lot. We kid around and play games and things. Even with my own kids, when I'd put them to bed I'd turn around and I walk into the wall, to get a laugh. I do that with my grandchildren, too, and make faces. And I've tried to teach them the Tarzan yell.
Bookish: How do they do?
CB: They do pretty good!
Bookish: I guess you're the noted expert of the Tarzan yell.
CB: (Laughs.) Well I'm certainly one of them, I think.
Bookish: If you had to pick one or two of your favorite sketches from your show, or one of your favorite characters that you created, what would you say?
CB: Oh, gosh. Well, I would say Eunice, with the family. She was quite pitiful and fun to play, because I could vent with her. I'm not a yeller. I'm not a screamer. It's funny, because the body doesn't know, when you're yelling and screaming, that you're pretending or not. But it releases a lot of endorphins. So, Eunice was always fun to do. Mrs. Wiggins I loved. That was always a challenge, to be with Tim, because you never knew what he was going to say or do. And then all the movie takeoffs. One especially that's remembered very well is the "Gone with the Wind" takeoff.
Bookish: Yes, with the famous curtain-rod dress.
CB: Yes. That was Bob Mackie's genius.
Bookish: If you were going to vent about something in Eunice's voice, could you do it right now?
CB: (Laughs.) No. But thank you.
Bookish: Okay, fair enough. I just thought if you had something you wanted to get off your chest….
CB: No, no, I'm fine. (Laughs.)
Carol Burnett is widely recognized by the public and her peers for her work on stage and screen, most notably the long-running "The Carol Burnett Show," which won 25 Emmy Awards. Carol has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a Kennedy Center honoree and has been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Carol has also penned two New York Times bestsellers.