Humor Helps Carol Burnett Cope

Alcoholic parents. A drug-addicted daughter. Divorce. And now, her daughter's death from cancer.

The trials in Carol Burnett's life are definitely not the stuff of comedy. Nonetheless, Burnett's humor-driven resilience has carried her through a spectacular career as one of America's most beloved comic actresses.

Burnett established herself as the queen of television comedy during the 1970s, leading a hilarious ensemble cast in The Carol Burnett Show, a variety show that ran for 11 years on CBS. During that run, Burnett and cast regulars Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway put together a sketch comedy show that garnered a phenomenal 22 Emmy Awards.

Each show ended, with Burnett's closing song and her trademark goodnight — a gentle tug on her ear. Burnett says she began that signature signoff at the start of her television career as a secret way to say "Hello, I love you" to her grandmother, Nanny, who raised her.

It's been a generation since Burnett's variety show went off the air in 1979, but the success of her recent television special — which drew a phenomenal audience of 30 million — showed just how much America still loves Burnett's classic sketch characters, sight gags, and endearing, innocent silliness.

A Daughter's Struggle

Burnett recalls the years on the set of her weekly show in the 1970s as a wonderful time. Her three daughters — Carrie, Jody and Erin Hamilton — practically grew up on the set, she says. But while Burnett was having a blast with Conway, Korman and Carr on the set, she was grappling with some serious personal problems at home. Her marriage to producer Joe Hamilton was in trouble, and the couple ended up divorcing in 1984. And Carrie, her eldest daughter, had become heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol when she was just 13 years old.

When she became aware of Carrie's addiction, Burnett blamed herself. "I thought … was there something I should have seen, something I should have known, something I would have spotted? You know, what did I miss? Was I not strong enough?"

Carrie's battle with addiction was a four-year struggle. With Burnett's help, she ultimately won that battle. One of Burnett's closest friends, opera singer Beverly Sills, remembers Carrie as a sweet girl who went through a tough, rebellious adolescence and felt that her mother's stardom was a burden. Sills recalls Carrie telling her, "It's not easy being Carol Burnett's daughter."

As Burnett helped Carrie battle, and ultimately triumph, over addiction, the two became closer than ever.

Mother-Daughter Collaboration

Like Burnett, Carrie grew up to be an actress. While Burnett performed Stephen Sondheim music on Broadway; Carrie performed in the rock opera Rent. While Burnett played Helen Hunt's high-strung mom on Mad About You; Carrie portrayed a struggling young performer on Fame.

Their artistic paths diverged until Carrie suggested they collaborate on a very special project. She proposed writing a fictionalized play based on her mother's 1986 autobiography, One More Time.

With Carrie's rebellious teenage years and her painful addictions behind them, Burnett had developed a new respect for Carrie as a writer. Finally, they were working as equals on a project close to their hearts.

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