Celebrating women in television: Carol Burnett

By: Start TV Staff     Posted: September 22, 2019, 6:00AM

One of television’s early comedic icons is Carol Burnett who, in the 1960s, became the first woman to host a TV variety show. And even before The Carol Burnett Show first aired on CBS in 1967, Burnett had received two Emmys for her work; in 1962 she won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series for The Garry Moore Show, and the following year won the same award for Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and An Evening with Carol Burnett.

In her interview with StartTV, Burnett revealed that she was raised in Los Angeles by her grandmother, and although they were poor, they saved every penny so they could go to the movies. Later, as a student at UCLA, Burnett majored in theater arts and quickly caught the acting bug. She discovered early on that she loved making people laugh. “I had to get up and do a scene for the class. All the other kids had done very heavy, dramatic scenes, and I just picked something light, and they laughed where they should have,” Burnett recalled in her interview. “And I thought whoa, that's kind of a nice feeling.”

At the end of her freshman year, Burnett received the award for best newcomer. “I still have that framed,” she laughed. “It’s in my office.”

Despite all of her early success, Burnett still had to fight her way to the top. Although she signed a contract with CBS that guaranteed her a comedy variety show, network executives tried to dissuade her from pursuing it. “Musical comedy variety is a man's game,” said one. “It’s Sid Caesar, it's Milton Berle, it’s Dean Martin, it’s Jackie Gleason. It's not for you gals.” He offered her a sitcom called Here’s Agnes instead. “I don't want to be Agnes every week,” Burnett responded. “I want to have costumes, I want dancers, I want guest stars, I want a rep company, and I want an orchestra. I want all of that. And they had to put us on the air,” she told StartTV triumphantly. 

Today, Burnett still receives affirmation that she helped pave the way. “I get mail from people saying ‘you know, because you did it, I feel that I can try out for this part or be in this play,’” she said. “It gives them courage.”

In January 2018, Burnett received the first-ever Golden Globe television special achievement award, named in her honor, from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In her acceptance speech, she reminisced about what television was in her day, saying she was “incredibly fortunate” to have been there when she was “because what we did then couldn’t be done today. The cost alone would be prohibitive.” The Carol Burnett Show can now be seen on weeknights at 11pm/10c on MeTV.

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