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Carol Burnett Offered Her 90th Birthday Celebration Show to CBS, But They Said No Thanks

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: Steve Granitz / FilmMagic / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Steve Granitz / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Carol Burnett is a triple threat: she can act, she can sing, and she is hilarious. For over six decades, she’s been entertaining audiences with her magnetic personality, loud slapstick comedy, and undeniable talent. Now, at 90 years old, she’s reflecting on her life and career, and she can’t believe how “fast” it has all gone by. Read on to learn about the television special aired in her honor on the big day.

Burnett calls herself a ‘late bloomer’

Headshot of Carol Burnett.
Carol Burnett, American actress, singer, dancer, and comedian, circa 1970. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

For a star as popular and beloved as Carol Burnett, one would think she’s been in the business her entire life. However, this isn’t the case. Burnett calls herself a “later bloomer” as she didn’t really find her flair for comedy until she reached college. This is unlike other members in show business, as “so many performers… started when they were 3 and 4 and 5 years old.”

“I was pretty much of a quiet student all through grammar school, junior high and Hollywood High,” she explained. “I would kid around with my friends, the neighborhood kids, stuff like that. But I never really thought about it until I got to UCLA and I was in an acting class. A lot of the kids at the class were doing heavy, dramatic stuff and I thought, I can’t do that. So I picked something light and they laughed. That’s when the bug bit.”

She used to pretend she was on the radio

Carol Burnett performing with Julie Andrews in 1965
circa 1965: American actor and comedian Carol Burnett (left) and British actor Julie Andrews sing in formal gowns in a promotional still from the CBS television variety special ‘Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall,’ New York City. The special traced the history of musical comedy. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

That’s not to say that Burnett didn’t always have the talent. She explained how, while growing up in Los Angeles, she “used to pretend to be on a radio show. I would yell out the window, ‘Now ladies and gentlemen, we have a young girl who is going to sing here without any musical accompaniment.”

She was so good at imitating the radio, that the people around who could hear her believed it was real. “One time, a man next door said, ‘Will you turn that… thing off?’ And I thought, ‘I’m a hit. They think it’s real.'”

When she finally tried her hand at acting, her career began to take off

Carol Burnett dressed as a char-woman dancing on her television show.
Comedian Carol Burnett in her iconic characterization of a char-woman on her TV show, The Carol Burnett Show. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

After Burnett moved to New York City to pursue acting, she was met with some obstacles. She struggled to find any substantial gigs, and one emcee even told her “‘You’re too loud for television,'” to which she “disagreed.”

However, her acting career finally began to gain traction during the late 1950s, as she was landing roles on television shows as well as on Broadway. Actress Lucille Ball became a mentor to Burnett, and audiences fell in love with Burnett’s acting and comedy. By 1962, she had earned a spot co-headlining the special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, alongside her friend Julie Andrews.

She moved on to host her own television show, The Carol Burnett Show, which first aired in 1967 and was so successful it carried on for 11 seasons. The show was such a smash that it eventually earned 25 primetime Emmy Awards. Following this, Burnett went on to star in a four-episode show called Carol Burnett & Company.

Burnett featured in a number of other roles outside of the comedy variety shows she was so famous for. These included appearances in All My Children (1970), Annie (1982), Fresno (1986), Mad About You (1992), and Better Call Saul (2015). She has an upcoming appearance in the Apple TV+ series Palm Royale.

Carol Burnett has won multiple awards over the years including six Emmys, six Golden Globes, and a Grammy.

She lost a daughter in 2002

Carol Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton.
Carol Burnett in a photo with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, in New York City circa 1983. Carrie passed away in 2002. (Photo Credit: PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty Images)

As successful as her career was, not everything in her life went as planned. After seven years, Burnett’s first marriage came to an end in 1962, and she wed Joe Hamilton in 1963. The two shared three daughters together: Jody, Erin, and Carrie.

Carrie followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming an actress best known for her appearance in the 1982 Fame television series as Reggie Higgins. She joined Burnett on an episode of Carol & Company in 1990, and even co-wrote a play with her mother called Hollywood Arms, based on Burnett’s memoir.

Carrie was a recovering addict, and in 2001, she was diagnosed with cancer. It originally began in her lungs, but eventually spread to her brain. In January 2002, she died from her affliction at the age of 38. “There’s not a day or almost a moment goes by that she’s not with me,” Burnett said. “We worked together, we laughed together, we cried together. She was a force.”

Burnett explained that even through her illness, her daughter still managed to remain positive. “When she got sick, I remember she was in the hospital and I would go to see her every day,” she shared. “One day, a nurse at the hospital said, ‘Carrie cheers us up.’ I asked Carrie why she was always cheerful, and her reply was, ‘Everyday I wake up and decide.’ That’s the key word, decide.”

Burnett continues to carry that wisdom with her. “I say that to myself every morning,” she said. “It’s taking [it] one day at a time. You don’t know. Life can change on a dime. So just be grateful for today what you have.”

NBC hosted a special in honor of the comedian after CBS turned it down

Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews at the birthday festivities
Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews attend NBC’s “Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love” Birthday Special at Avalon Hollywood & Bardot on March 02, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo Credit: Amy Sussman/WireImage)

Burnett celebrated her 90th birthday on April 26, 2023. NBC ran a touching two-hour special called Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love, which featured guests like Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell, and Katy Perry, as well as old friends like Julie Andrews. Surprisingly, NBC wasn’t the first network she approached about the show.

“We first went to CBS, but they passed,” Burnett told Variety. “I did my show with them and all my specials, so naturally we went to them.” The special scored a whopping 7.6 million viewers and is now favored to pick up an Emmy nomination. “NBC couldn’t have been greater,” Burnett said. “They’ve been so supportive right from the get-go.”

More from us: Lucille Ball Sent Carol Burnett Flowers The Day She Died

Burnett hopes her legacy is that “I made people laugh, made them feel good when they might have been down.” She continued, “In my fan mail, many say it was the only time the family would get together, to watch and laugh. And that sometimes they were lonesome and were cheered up by our show. That’s a good feeling.”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!