Question: Why did Carol Burnett tug her ear at the end of her show? Was it a stage cue or something? Thanks. — Ron U., Providence, R.I.
Televisionary: The Burnett ear tug first made famous during the 1967-79 run of CBS's Carol Burnett Show was a message to her grandmother, a way of saying, "Hello, I love you." (And recently, Burnett said that when she performs now it's also a greeting to late daughter Carrie Hamilton, who passed away earlier this year. See the last answer of my March 13 column for more on that.)
Burnett credited Mae White (whom she called "Nanny"), the grandmother who raised her, with teaching her to greet life's difficulties with a sunny outlook. And Burnett had a lot of difficulties to face early on. Her parents came in and out of her life as she lived with White, and they both succumbed to alcoholism. Later, when Burnett was just starting out, she found herself caring for her younger sister. "Here was a girl who was struggling for her own existence in New York — and God knows it was rough, I can tell you — and she took her sister, who was 12 or 13, and raised her," old friend and former actor Lou Christopher told TV Guide in 1982. "Carol must have been in her 20s. She didn't moan about it."
No, she didn't; she just kept plugging away. Organizing a revue to showcase her talents and those of her fellow actresses living in New York's Rehearsal Club hotel landed her an agent, and from there she found herself playing opposite Paul Winchell's puppets in 1955 on The Winchell-Mahoney Show. After that came, among other things, appearances on The Tonight Show and Toast of the Town, Broadway-musical work, a popular TV special and then her legendary show.
All of which might make you think she enjoyed her success from the start, but much of her time in the early years was spent being hard on herself or hiding her singing ability and other talents behind goofy characters. "Where she came from you just don't let it all hang out — that way you don't get it all knocked off," her sister Christine said of Burnett's insecurity.
And Burnett had plenty of experience with getting it knocked off. As a student at UCLA, for example, she majored in journalism but found herself drawn to theater. "Stick to journalism," her disapproving mom said at the time. "No matter what you look like, you can always write."
Ouch. And comments like that were to plague the comedienne for years, even well after she was established. "You've got to remember, she's a homely woman, by Hollywood standards," a technician on her show told a reporter in 1970. "But she's made it work for her over the years. A lot of homely women make faces, you know. Especially if they're intelligent. That way no one can ever say, 'You're funny looking.'"
"You could spank her sometimes," said Burnett Show choreographer Ernie Flatt in 1967. "She can look fabulous, and you'll tell her how pretty she looks, and she'll go, 'Ugh!' and pull off her hairpiece."
Well, is it any wonder, given all the "compliments" she received? A friend once told her M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart described her as "almost very pretty." Burnett considered that and said, "Tell Larry that's almost very nice." In a coffee shop the late '70s, a fan approached her table. "I want to tell you what's so wonderful about you," the woman gushed. "You're — you're — so common." Burnett graciously thanked her.
And underlying all of that was the event that taught her how quickly acclaim could turn to derision. One night in 1957 she stepped into the spotlight at New York's Blue Angel after successful TV appearances with Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan and faced an audience primed to love her. "I just thought I was it," she recalled in 1982. "I went out and started my hot 20-minute act, and not one... person... laughed. Flop time. Flop sweat was coming down my neck. It wasn't that they were disorderly or drunk. They were listening — which made it worse. The applause didn't even last until I was off-stage.
"Well, I went up the back stairs and was standing in this real narrow hallway crying, 'What have I done? I've lost whatever I had!' This drunk was coming toward me, to the men's room, and he stopped and said, 'Hey! Aren't you the little lady who was just downstairs?'
"I never, ever, had that confidence again."
Maybe not, but she sure proved the drunk wrong, and she even met a tough standard she set for herself back in 1967, when she laid out what it would take for her to consider herself successful. "[T]here are maybe 10 stars in the whole world — people like Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant — and the rest of us are professionals in show business, but not stars," she said. "I think it's a matter of longevity; I'll be a star only if I'm still around 20 years from now."
Well, she picked up an Emmy for her Mad About You guest work 30 years later, and earlier this year 30 million people tuned into her TV special.
I'm betting even Burnett has to see a twinkle in that.