Funny Is Funny: Comedian Carol Burnett Returns to San Antonio to Reflect on Her Life and Career

Courtesy of Carol Burnett
It’s been more than 40 years since comedian Carol Burnett’s namesake variety TV show went off the air, but the San Antonio native still knows what it takes to make audiences laugh. Burnett, who grew up on the city’s West Side before moving with her grandmother to Hollywood in the late 1930s as a child, will return to her roots when she makes a stop at the Tobin Center on March 19 to reflect on her life and career and take questions from fans. The Current caught up with Burnett, 85, a few weeks ago to talk about her early years in San Antonio and how much TV has changed over the last four decades.

I know you lived in San Antonio for only a few years as a child, but are you OK with us flying the Carol Burnett flag high and still claiming you?
Oh, I love it! Once a Texan, always a Texan! I would love it even if I had left when I was six months old.

How did you feel when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) not only honored you in January with their first-ever lifetime achievement award for TV, but also named the award after you?
I was pretty surprised by it. They told me a month prior that they were creating a new award for television and that I was going to be the first recipient. The next thing I knew, they said they were going to name it after me! I was amazed!

Who would you like to see become a recipient of your namesake award in the future?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be an actor, just as long as they have a body of work. That could be someone in front of the camera or behind the camera. It could be a writer or a producer. I think of someone like [writer/producer] Norman Lear who has done so much. Then, of course, Betty White!

In the past, you’ve talked about how going to the movie theater with your grandmother inspired you early in your life to pursue a job in the entertainment industry. Did that include movie theaters in downtown San Antonio during the late 1930s?
Yes! I remember I was three or four years old and my feet didn’t touch the floor in the movie theater. I was in a San Antonio theater the first time I saw [actor] James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and I fell in love with him. I told my grandmother, “Nanny, I know him! He’s my friend.” She said, “That’s nice, dear. Drink your Ovaltine.”

Do you think a comedy variety show like The Carol Burnett Show could be successful today or is it simply a show for a different time?
I feel like it could make it today. I can testify to that because [The Carol Burnett Show] comes out on reruns on TV and it holds up. The only thing that dates the shows are the clothes. I’m getting fan mail from 10-year-old kids and teenagers who watch the DVDs or the reruns or YouTube. Funny is funny. I think the reason it holds up is because we weren’t topical. We weren’t talking about what was going on in the news at the time. We just wanted to go out and do a fun, musical variety show every week. I dare people today to watch the dentist sketch with Tim [Conway] and Harvey [Korman] and not laugh. And that sketch is over 40 years old!

Is there anything you did on your show that you don’t think you could get away with today?
No network would let me hire Vicki Lawrence today. She was 18 years old and fresh out of high school with no experience. Today, the networks have their hands in casting and in everything else. I’ve done guest spots on sitcoms where I’ll be reading the script and there are 50 people there from the network judging the reading. That’s what they do nowadays. I remember William Paley, who ran CBS when we started, would say, “You guys are the artists. I’m the businessman. You do what you do and I’ll do what I do. I’m leaving you alone.” Nobody would leave you alone today. They all gotta have their say to make their jobs worthwhile.

Something that’s also different today is that families don’t watch TV programs together. Everyone is watching different shows on different screens and platforms.
People tell me all the time about how they remember their family would sit together to watch the Saturday night lineup (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show). There were only three channels, so we had 30 million people watching us every week! They tell me how it was such a great time to spend with their family watching TV and laughing.

Carol Burnett
$69.50-$179.50, 7:30pm Tue, Mar. 19, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, H-E-B Performance Hall, 100 Auditorium Circle, (210) 223-8624,

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