It may be true that most comedy comes from personal difficulty, but it doesn’t mean that you yourself actually have to be the one to cause the problems. In 1981, Carol Burnett won a judgement against the National Enquirer because of a story they published claiming she’d been seen drunk in public (with Henry Kissinger, because why not?), a story she took particularly personally given the fact that she was basically raised by her grandmother because both her parents had been alcoholics. And in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her performing in something with the trope of the wacky drunk.
Wacky, though, definitely. She is best known, of course, for her variety show, which ran from 1967 to 1978. The list of guest stars is truly dazzling, everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to George Carlin to Ronald Reagan to the Jackson 5. There are a number of recurring characters that are still prominent in pop culture memory, probably even among people who’ve never seen the show. And not just because Mama’s Family was spun off from it.
One of the truly great things about the show, though, was that she was willing to work with everyone if it would make for a better show. The most famous sketch, “Went With the Wind,” is of course a parody of Gone With the Wind. But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how it came to be. The idea didn’t come from the writers, the other performers, or guest star Dinah Shore. No, according to Burnett, the idea came from costume designer Bob Mackie, who had a brainstorm of the famous line “I saw it in the window and just had to have it.” He also knew that the curtain rod was essential.
But of course, there’s more to Carol Burnett than eleven seasons of a TV show a generation ago. She hasn’t done a lot of movies, true, but Noises Off! Has long been one of my comfort movies; the argument scene where the only dialogue is people’s lines onstage is one of the funniest things she’s ever done. And between Broadway, TV, and the occasional movie, it does seem clear that she’s gotten the work she’s wanted over the years. Maybe not all of it, but she’s definitely been consistently working one way or another.
Does Burnett’s gift for comedy stem from her traumatic childhood? I don’t know; I think that’s awfully simplistic, since childhood trauma can also produce Stephen King and people who don’t get creativity out of their pain. It seems obvious to me that there were those channels in Carol Burnett no matter what had happened to her as a child. She’s just a funny woman, and claiming she wouldn’t have been if she’d had, say, Dick Van Dyke’s childhood suggests to me that she’s just not as funny as he is. And by the time you get as funny as they are, shadings get pretty fine as to who’s better.