Often ranked highly in the “Top TV Shows of All Time” lists, The Carol Burnett Show was something unique for its time. Headlined by Carol Burnett and a regular cast of lovable comedy geniuses, this sketch show ran for 11 seasons between 1967 and 1978. With characters such as Mrs. Wiggins, Mr. Tudball, Shirley Dimple and The Family, The Carol Burnett Show became a firm favorite with fans across America. And the rest of the world, too! Even if you’re a mega fan of the show, we’re willing to bet you don’t know all of these rather unusual (and sometimes hilarious) behind-the-scenes facts.
To get this juicy list started off with a bang, we’ll leave you with this fun fact: Vicki Lawrence, well known for her hilarious characters on The Carol Burnett Show, was only 18 years old when she was first on the show. And seeing as she was on it the entire time it ran, from 1967 to 1978, you could say that Lawrence essentially lived out her young adulthood on the show. Keep reading to find out more secrets about the behind-the-scenes world of the show.
The Secret Truth Behind Caroll Burnett’s Ear Tug
Who can forget the famous ear tug, which Carol Burnett used to sign off at the end of each show? While it may have just seemed like a quirky way to say goodbye, it actually had way more meaning than you’d think.
The ear tugging was a message to her grandmother, Mae White, who raised her when she was a child. It was her way of saying, “Hello, I love you” which she carried on even after her grandmother passed away. Later on in life, it also became the same message to her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who passed away in 2002. Read on to find out who Burnett always wanted on her show, but could never get.
Carol’s Mother Wanted Her to be a Writer
Carol Burnett had a difficult upbringing, with her parents both dipping in and out of her life; one of the reasons her grandmother raised her. When she was a teenager, Carol expressed an interest in the theater which was certainly not to her mother’s taste.
She would often try to dissuade her daughter from a life on the stage, convincing her that she would make a better writer instead. Funnily enough, Carol’s mother was a writer herself (we wonder why she was so keen on that career choice). It’s a memory that pained Carol Burnett for years to come, feeling as though she never had her mother’s approval.
A Stranger Helped Launch Her Career
Trying to launch a career in the acting world is never easy, particularly without the help of your parents. However, a kind stranger gave Carol Burnett (pictured standing) the leg up she would need to get her started. Performing at her UCLA professor’s leaving party led to a chance encounter with a man who asked her what she wanted to do in life.
She admitted she wanted to move to New York for a career on the stage, but that she barely had enough money to get her back home. The stranger offered her $1,000 on three conditions; she had to pay him back within 5 years, with interest, she should never reveal his identity, and finally, that if she was ever in the same position, she should repay the favor. After much deliberating, she accepted his check.
Vicki Lawrence Wrote Carol Burnett a Fan Letter
When Vicki Lawrence cut her hair ‘pixie-cut’ short, friends and family couldn’t help but notice her resemblance to Carol Burnett. Vicki’s mother encouraged her to write a letter to Burnett and to include a photo, along with a newspaper clipping about her upcoming entry into the “California Miss Fireball Contest.”
To the surprise of many, Burnett actually turned up to the performance, heavily pregnant, and cheered Vicki Lawrence on. When Burnett’s baby arrived, Lawrence took flowers to the hospital and was mistaken for Chrissie, Carol’s real half-sister, and was ushered into the room to meet the new arrival. It seems like fate had a big part to play in their lives together.
She Then Became Carol’s Sister on the Show
A little later on down the line, Carol was holding castings for The Carol Burnett Show. It was at this time she remembered the teenager, who she thought would be perfect for the “Carol and Sis” sketches, seeing as they looked so similar.
Despite Vicki having very little experience, she was hired and nurtured by the team into the star she is today. Harvey Korman played a big part in shaping Lawrence and her comedy career; taking her under his wing and teaching her about timing, working with props and even different dialects. Between him and Burnett, they created the comedy genius that is Vicki Lawrence.
Harvey Korman Was the First Hired Cast Member
When the producers were looking for Carol Burnett’s top banana, they said they wanted someone like Harvey Korman. However, as he was a regular on The Danny Kaye Show they didn’t even bother asking him. After all, who wants to leave their steady income for a new show?
Apparently, Burnett and Korman met in the CBS parking lot, where she practically “threw him over the hood of a car,” pleading for him to join the show. Little did she know, but The Danny Kaye Show was about to be taken off the air so Korman happily snapped up the chance to join The Carol Burnett Show.
But He Was Also Technically Fired…
Korman may have been one of the key components to the show’s success, but according to Burnett’s tell all memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, his “dark moods” and occasional rude behavior rubbed guests the wrong way. Burnett felt she had no choice but to fire him.
It didn’t last, of course, and Korman quickly made up with Burnett, promising to be on his best behavior and hanging a “Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky” plaque on his dressing room door. The two remained close friends until Korman’s death in 2008
The Q&A Was Burnett’s Husband’s Idea
Along with being her husband, Joe Hamilton was also the executive producer of her show. There was much debate over including a traditional warm up act at the beginning of each show, as Hamilton was worried that act would be funnier than the show. Instead, he came up with the idea of a Q&A session at the beginning of the show.
It was intended to be a fun ice-breaker, but there was one question that was asked more than anything: “Can you do your Tarzan Yell?!” We have a feeling Burnett obliged more than once. After all, it was her thaaang.
Tim Conway Ignored His Script
Conway was hired to replace Lyle Waggoner in 1974 after Lyle left for feeling underused. He was already a frequent guest star, and so it made sense for him to make the transition into full-time player. One of the things that made him so spectacular was his love of ad-libbing and veering off script.
While this went down a treat with some (Korman, for example), others found it more than annoying. In fact, Lawrence was adamant Conway was trying to steal the limelight off of her. So much so, she ended up adding in her own off-script moment while Conway was rambling on about an elephant. It was one of the funniest moments on the show but is rather NSFW, so we’ll let you hunt it down.
Burnett Once Used Her Tarzan Yell as ID
Talking of that famous Tarzan Yell! Turns out it got Carol Burnett out of a sticky situation once upon a time. While shopping for stockings in Bergdorf Goodman, in New York City, the saleswoman recognized her and asked for an autograph for her grandkids. When she went to pay for her stockings, Burnett didn’t have her card so offered a check instead.
The saleswoman asked her for ID, which Carol also didn’t have, so it looked like her purchase was about to be declined. However, the floor manager offered to accept her check if she did her Tarzan Yell. She did, but the sound roused a security guard who kicked down a door and pointed his gun at her.
Lyle Waggoner Was the First Centerfold in Playgirl
When on the hunt for someone dashing and Rock Hudson-like, Joe Hamilton stumbled across Lyle Waggoner. Lyle used to be an encyclopedia salesman before the world noticed how good looking he was. Hamilton liked him because not only was he a real dream boat but also because he had a sense of humor about his looks.
Being the first ever centerfold in Playgirl’s premiere magazine led to an awful lot of teasing from his cast mates, but Waggoner took it all in his stride. Being tall, dark and handsome led to plenty of roles in TV and film, including playing Steve Trevor in the Wonder Woman TV series.
Conway Refused a Mr. Tudball Spin-Off
Everyone loved Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn a spin-off series was considered in the 1980s. Unfortunately for the producers, Conway was not interested. Firstly, he couldn’t see the story line potential with just one character; even if that character was pretty incredible.
Not only that but one of the biggest killers of the whole idea was that Carol Burnett wasn’t going to play Mrs. Wiggins. You can’t have a Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins show without the main star. So, the plans were scrapped, and Mr. Tudball, the spin-off show, was mentioned no more.
Mrs. Wiggins Should Have Been an Elderly Woman
Tim Conway wasn’t just a co-star in The Carol Burnett Show, he also let his creativity flow. He created both Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins; the latter who was actually supposed to have been an elderly woman. When Conway created the character, she was intended to be ancient and forgetful.
However, costume designer Bob Mackie said that Burnett had played way too many old ladies on the show and wanted to go down a different route. He created something far more voluptuous and figure hugging, stating his source of inspiration as “ditzy CBS secretaries.” We’d like to know how that comment went down in the CBS offices!
Wiggins’ Walk Was Thanks to a Wardrobe Malfunction
‘Wiggins’ Walk’ became a bit of a trademark in its own right, but it wasn’t always supposed to be that way. There was nothing in the character notes that suggested Mrs. Wiggins should walk that way, but then fate decided to get involved.
According to cast members, the skirt that Burnett had been given was too large for her. This meant that she had to kind of waddle when she walked, to stop it from falling down. While it may just have been a wardrobe malfunction and not a carefully thought out mannerism, you can’t deny that it became comedy genius in its own right. Mrs. Wiggins wouldn’t have been the same without her trademark walk.
Bob Mackie Created the “Went With The Wind” Curtain Rod Dress Idea
Quite possibly one of the funniest scenes from the show has to be the Gone With The Wind parody in which Carol Burnett comes down the stairs wearing green, velvet curtains complete with curtain rod. The line “I saw them in the window, and I couldn’t resist” never gets old. The script originally called for Burnett, playing Starlett O’Hara, to wear the curtains draped (excuse the pun) over her shoulders.
However, Bob Mackie thought it would be funnier to create a real dress out of the curtains, leaving the rod still attached. The one downside to creating such a hilarious costume is that it’s become his signature piece, despite creating incredible costumes and gowns for celebrities over the years.
Tim Conway, RIP
On May 14, 2019, Tim Conway’s representative announced that the beloved actor had passed away. He was 85 years old and had been suffering from a condition called Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. Daughter Kelly released this in a statement to Fox News: “The love he gave us, and the laughter he gave the world will never be replaced, but will be remembered forever.”
In the years after The Carol Burnett Show, Conway provided the voice of Barnacle Boy on Spongebob Squarepants and also appeared in an episode of 30 Rock. He published an autobiography, What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life, in 2013.
Mama’s Family Started As a One-Off (Much Weirder) Sketch
Mama’s Family became its own syndicated series in 1986, but it stemmed from something a little bit different. A sketch on The Carol Burnett Show named “The Reunion” featured characters who would soon be known as “The Family”.
In the first ever sketch, Roddy McDowall played a character called Philip Harper who was the brother of Eunice. He returned home after winning a Pulitzer Prize to a cranky, argumentative family that it was quite clear he didn’t belong in. “The Family” were far more realistic, shouting over each other all the time, and far stranger, than who they eventually became in Mama’s Family.
Burnett Wanted Eunice and Her Family to be Southern
Writers Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon came up with the original idea for Eunice and the Harper Family, imagining them to be your typical Midwestern family. This made a lot of sense to McMahon who was born and bred in Kansas City, Missouri. However, when Carol Burnett began reading the script, she imagined her own family instead; a family from Texas and Arkansas.
As she read the script out loud, she did so with a stereotypical Southern drawl. Lawrence soon followed suit and so the Harper family, and their Southern ways were born. We can’t imagine what it would have been like with anything but that Southern drawl!
The Famous Dentist Sketch Was Based on Real Life
They say that some of the best comedy comes from real life… When Conway was in the Army, he visited the dentist to have some work done on his teeth. The dentist accidentally injected his own thumb with Novocain leading to the dentist skit we all know and love (if you don’t know it, hunt it down, now)!
Of course, the scenes were exaggerated rather a lot for comedy effect, which, according to Conway in an interview years later, led to Harvey Korman wetting himself with laughter. We’re not sure how true that statement is, but we do know Korman absolutely adored the skit – as did we!
Dick Van Dyke Was a Flop
When Korman left for his own show, at the end of Season 10, Dick Van Dyke stepped in as a replacement. Unfortunately for him – and The Carol Burnett Show – he didn’t exactly fit in. He couldn’t capture the same elements as Harvey Korman and audiences weren’t too impressed either.
Burnett once commented that when Korman dressed as a woman you believed it, whereas Dick Van Dyke was just himself in a dress and wig. Add this to the monthly 4000-mile commute to work for DvD, and it was bound to end in disaster. He lasted just three months before being released from his contract.
Only One Celebrity Turned Burnett Down
The Carol Burnett Show was renowned for having some of the very best celebrity guests, over the 11 seasons it was running. Comedy greats such as Steve Martin joined in with sketches, alongside actresses like Julie Andrews, and even Ronald Reagan who was the governor of California at the time. There was one celebrity Carol Burnett was desperate to book, but who turned her down every time.
Bette Davis. While she did finally agree to be on the show, she wanted far more money than their budget could allow. Burnett’s husband warned her that if they gave into this demand, it would be a slippery slope. What a shame!
A Tell-All Memoir
In 2016 Burnett wrote another memoir titled In Such Good Company: Eleven Years Of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, which provided readers with a behind the scenes look at the Carol Burnett Show and how the major Hollywood players reacted to it. For example, Hollywood legend Cary Grant allegedly hated the sketch titled The Family because of its blue-collar characters that were “yelling and fighting all the time, and utterly without any redeeming qualities”
In another juicy piece of gossip, Burnett reveals that through the shows 11 years of being on air there was only one guest she truly couldn’t stand, calling him “a belligerent little SOB.” While she didn’t reveal the stars identity, she did describe him as “very short” and “on something.”