Carol Burnett: Raised By Alcoholic Parents, She Finds A Path To Comedy

Carol Burnett may be one of the most prominent well-loved comedians in the world, but the trailblazing woman had an upbringing that was no laughing matter.

Long before she became the first woman to host a variety show with The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett lived in a household with two parents who suffered crippling alcoholism, and was sent to live with a grandmother who she described as a theatrical hypochondriac.

Carol detailed her childhood in a 1986 memoir, One More Time, and opened up to NPR about how she actually found her love of humor from her mother and grandmother.

“They had great senses of humor. And people who read the memoir and have read it, they think, oh, my gosh, that was a real tough upbringing. But I never felt that,” Carol said. “We were poor, and both my parents died, eventually, of alcoholism, but I was kind of in the same boat with a lot of the kids in the neighborhood.

“Everybody was poor, and a lot of their folks had drinking problems. But we found a way to survive and to play and to laugh and thrive in a funny way.”

While her parents struggled with alcoholism, Carol was sent to live with her grandmother, who she describes as a devout Christian Scientist who tended to be a bit over the top with her hypochondria.

“And she could kind of look like she was going to faint, you know, and lie down and fan herself, you know, with her hand and put a washrag on her forehead,” Carol said. “But then if somebody came in or said, hey, let’s go to the movies, she’d be up and out.”

Her career has certainly come far since then. The Carol Burnett Show won 25 Emmy awards during its 11-year run, and Carol already earned a host of honors including a Peabody Award, Golden Globes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In October, Carol Burnett received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, earning praise from her colleagues in the comedy world including 30 Rock creator Tina Fey.

“A lot of female comediennes are going to come out and say that ‘I love you so much,’  ” Fey told Carol, “but I’m saying it first!

Tina said that Carol Burnett was actually her inspiration for getting into comedy.

“I fell in love with sketch comedy watching your show, and you proved sketch comedy is a good place for women,” Fey said. “Only in sketch comedy does a woman get to play Cher, Scarlett O’Hara, the Queen of England, a Girl Scout, Mrs. Wiggins — all in one night.”

The award ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize will be aired Sunday, November 24 on PBS. It features a number of celebrities honoring Carol Burnett, including tributes from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Martin Short. and Vicki Lawrence.