Back In The Spotlight
Decades after first making people laugh, larger-than-life entertainer Carol Burnett returns to the place she once called home for two shows.
Comedy legend Carol Burnett, who used to live in Hawai‘i part-time, returns to the island for two evenings of laughter and reflection. Her shows are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 6 and 7 at Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres may have described what you can expect best during her acceptance speech for the Carol Burnett Award at last month’s Golden Globe Awards in Hollywood. DeGeneres was the second recipient of the award, presented to an honoree who has made outstanding contributions to television on or off the screen.
“I feel like we all think we know someone. There’s a connection when we watch someone on TV for as long as we are on TV, and that’s what it was like for me with Carol Burnett,” said DeGeneres. “I felt like I knew her. I felt like she showed us who she was every week. She was larger than life. We counted on her to make us feel good and she delivered — every single week. She never let us down. She was hilarious in all the sketches that she did, and when she did the Q&A with the audience, she was just genuine and personal, and I always felt like she was speaking to me.
“When, at the end of the show, every time she pulled her ear,” DeGeneres added, “I knew she was saying, ‘It’s OK, I’m gay, too.'”
Well, all right, she almost had it right. Yes, the audience will get to experience Burnett’s charm and wit through her signature Q&A format that is sure to be memorable, funny and nostalgic.
“It’s very similar to what I used to do on my show when I would open the show, so I start with eight or nine minutes of clips of some of my favorite Q&As,” explains Burnett. “Then I come out, we bump up the lights and it’s all random. There are no pre-planned questions at all.
“I have no idea what anybody is going to say or do. It’s a conversation with the audience. That’s the fun of it; you’re kind of flying without a net.”
As for that iconic ear tug, it was actually for Burnett’s grandmother (sorry, Ellen), who she affectionately called Nanny.
“My grandmother raised me, so when I got my first job on television, I called her,” recalls Burnett. “I was in New York and she was in California, and I said, ‘Can you watch me? I’m going to be on television next Saturday morning.’ She said, well, you got to say hello to me. I said, ‘Nanny, I don’t think NBC is going to let me say, hi, Nanny.’ So, we worked out this signal that I would pull my ear, which was, ‘Hi, Nanny. I love you, everything is fine.'”
Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas, and moved with Nanny to California, where she was the editor of her junior high and high school newspapers. She later went to University of California, Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a journalist — except that the school didn’t offer journalism as a major.
“So, I looked through the catalog and there was one called theater arts and English, where I could take play writing courses, and I would still take the journalism courses,” she remembers. “I majored in that, and then I had to, as a freshman, whether you want to write or direct or produce or design scenery or what, you had to take an acting course. I was very nervous about it …
I had to do a scene in front of the class, and I picked something that was light. I didn’t want to get heavy and dramatic, and the class, they laughed, and I loved that feeling. So I totally switched and wanted to be an actress.”
One can only wonder what would’ve happened or not happened if UCLA did have a major in journalism — such as this interview with Burnett and her storied career stretching seven decades, including 11 seasons of The Carol Burnett Show, along with numerous appearances in feature films, TV shows and on Broadway. She also has been honored with countless awards, including Emmys, Golden Globes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and more.
So what keeps this queen of comedy going?
“The fact that people say, ‘Come to Hawai‘i,'” she jokingly says. “That keeps me going. I’m looking forward to it.
“I really have no other particular goals. I take work as it comes. Actually, Focus Films has optioned a book I wrote to make it into a movie. It’s called Carrie and Me, and it’s about the relationship with my oldest daughter. So, that’s in the process of being written as a film.”
In her free time, Burnett enjoys doing crossword puzzles (she likes The New York Times and LA Times crosswords), walking (which she does for a half-hour every day) and meditation (she recommends the Headspace app).
Home now is in Santa Barbara, but Burnett used to be a part-time resident of Hawai‘i, living on the islands off and on for a few years in the 1980s.
“I had a condo on Maui and then I moved over to O‘ahu, where my sister and brother-and-law were with the museum there,” she says. “And, of course, my dear friend, Jim Nabors, lived there forever, so it was nice to be neighbors.
I miss him so much.”
Burnett also was in the original Magnum P.I., and in recent years found her way back to Hawai‘i with a guest role in CBS’ reboot of Hawai‘i Five-0, playing McGarrett’s aunt Deb.
“It was fun,” she says about the show. “It was a great crew. I love the actors. It was a lot of fun, and I know O‘ahu pretty well, so it was kind of like coming home.
“So, I’m excited about doing my show over there.”
There also is the Carol Burnett Fund for Responsible Journalism at University of Hawai‘i, made possible by a $100,000 endowment from Burnett in 1981 that continues to recognize and award students who have demonstrated a strong sense of journalistic responsibility and integrity.
“It’s wonderful, I’m very happy about that,” she says.
Among her favorite memories of O‘ahu are her stays at the The Kāhala Hotel & Resort and swimming with the dolphins there, hanging out with Nabors, and dining at Michel’s.
“Almost every time I’ve been there is a favorite memory,” she says. “I think my first
time to Hawai‘i was when the kids were little. We stayed at the Kāhala Hilton and fed the dolphins.
“There’s really that aloha spirit there. People are kind,
and it’s less stressful than on the mainland.”
When asked what the title for a movie on her life would be, Burnett answers, “Maybe, Laughing Matters.”
And the actress who would play her? “I don’t know, why not Angelina Jolie, what the hell?,” she laughs.
Joking aside, the queen of comedy continues to reign as
her humor doesn’t seem to ever get old.
“I’m so grateful that I got to do and am still doing what I love to do, and that’s I hope make people laugh,” she says.