One of most iconic, trusted, and universally beloved voices in comedy and in the history of the performing arts in general, Carol Burnett, recently turned 90 years old — a milestone celebrated with a televised tribute that aired on NBC on Wednesday, April 27, 2023. Well, we thought it would only be appropriate for use to pay our own tribute to the talented legend by discussing some of our favorite performances of hers throughout the years of her storied career. The following is a collection of our choices for the most essential highlights in our favorite Carol Burnett movies and TV shows — starting with her most esteemed, eponymous hit.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
After years of building up a reputation for her incomparable skills as a performer, Carol Burnett went on to headline her own variety show, featuring laugh-out-loud sketch comedy, stunning musical performances, and a stellar rotation of guest appearances by Hollywood’s biggest names at the time. There are far too many classic, gut-bustlingly hilarious moments from The Carol Burnett Show’s 279 episodes to choose from — from wearing a dress held up by a curtain rod in an iconic Gone with the Wind spoof, to her many appearances as the boisterous Eunice — so we’ll just say that we’re so glad we had this time together, all the way through.
The Four Seasons (1981)
While Burnett is best known as a TV legend — with six Emmy awards to show for it — her career on the big screen has not and should not go unnoticed. One of her best cinematic comedies is The Four Seasons, which follows three adult couples (Burnett, writer and director Alan Alda, Len Cariou, Sandy Dennis, Rita Moreno, and Jack Weston) struggling to put up with each other as they vacation together four times out of the year. Burnett and Alda lead the cast as one of the married couples, who, in one key scene, engage in an argument that is as painfully realistic as it is cleverly witty.
Once Upon A Mattress (1964, 1972, 2005)
More underrated than her career on the big screen and on the small screen is Burnett’s time on the stage, having made her Broadway debut and earned her first Tony nomination for the original 1959 production of Once Upon a Mattress — a comedic, musical retelling of the classic fairytale story, “The Princess and the Pea.”
She would reprise the lead role of Winnifred — which is quite the balancing act, both in terms of her remarkable physical comedy chops and her character’s struggle to sleep atop a stack of 20 mattresses — in two made-for-TV adaptations in 1964 and 1972. However, for ABC’s 2005 adaptation, she brought out her dark side to play the ruthless Queen Aggravain, who tries to prevent Winnifred (then played by Tracey Ullman) from marrying her son with the sleeping challenge.
If there is one cinematic performance of Burnett’s that, undeniably, should be considered iconic, it is her role as Miss Hannigan — the abusive caretaker to a group of orphaned, young girls in New York City — in the 1982 feature adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Annie, which also stars Tim Curry as her con artist brother, Rooster.
She plays wildly against type here — not just in the way she delivers dialogue with a coldhearted, unforgiving griminess — but also in the way she sings during certain numbers, playing up Hannigan’s boozy demeanor particularly strong in her performance of “Little Girls.” It is not the last of her antagonistic roles, and perhaps not even the most fearsome, but certainly one of the most brilliantly wacky.
Noises Off (1992)
Burnett’s brilliance and signature wackiness was also key to pulling off what technically counts as a dual performance in yet another film based on an acclaimed stage production — the late Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Michael Faryn’s hilarious farce, Noises Off.
She plays TV star Dotty Ottley, whose top-billed performance as chattery, Cockney-accented housekeeper Mrs. Clackett in the play-within-the film, Nothing On, is under constant scrutiny by the troubled production’s uptight director, Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine). Burnett elevates the already hysterical material with her signature wit and dedication to its slapstick elements, really selling the chaotic nature of the production as it all goes horribly wrong.
Mad About You (1996-2019)
Later in her career, Burnett’s iconic status leant to some very special guest spots and among the most acclaimed was her Emmy-winning performance as Theresa Stemple — the mother of Jamie (Helen Hunt) — on Mad About You.
Out of the 11 times she appeared on the hit sitcom (the more recent of which was on the 2019 revival season), her best work in the role, arguably, comes in her first episode from Season 5. She and her husband, Gus (fellow TV legend Carol O’Connor, known best for Norman Lear’s sitcom, All in the Family), visit the Buchmans in a cramped winnebago, which makes their family meal an increasingly frustrating affair that makes Theresa uproariously frantic.
The Trumpet Of The Swan (2001)
Burnett gets animated in either sense of the word in The Trumpet of the Swan, which is based on the E.B. White novel about a swan named Louie who, despite a lack of a voice, is an exceptionally talented musician. Burnett voices elementary school teacher Mrs. Hammerbotham, who Sam (Sam Gifaldi) asks to help teach Louie to read and write. She takes her voice to a somewhat familiar high-pitched squeak that never reaches an irritating decibel, and only adds to the genuinely delightful appeal of her performance.
Horton Hears A Who! (2008)
The only particularly delightful thing about Burnett’s performance in Horton Hears a Who! is her invaluable dedication to bringing one of her, otherwise, most ruthlessly villainous characters to life. Kangaroo is blindly and vigorously against the titular elephant (Jim Carrey) and his attempts to preserve a small speck she refuses to believe is inhabited by a community of microscopic people, led by Steve Carell. However, it is still, easily, one of her best voice acting performances and one of the key reasons why it is considered to be one of the best movies based on a Dr. Seuss book.
Glee (2010, 2015)
While there are many examples to choose from, I think that Carol Burnett did some of her all-time best singing for a duet of “Ohio” with Jane Lynch in her first appearance on Glee in the hit musical dramedy series’ second season. She brings out a darker comedic edge to play Doris — Sue Sylvester’s estranged mother, who shows up in Lima for her daughter’s “bizarre” marriage… to herself.
Better Call Saul (2022)
Burnett’s most recent acting role also became one of the more acclaimed of her entire career, but, surprisingly, it is nothing particularly comedic. While she does manage to invoke a unique shade of her signature wit as the elderly Marion for the final season of hit Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, she also delivers some of her best dramatic work — especially in an intense, confrontational scene with Bob Odenkirk’s “Gene” that we will not give away if you have not seen the last batch of episodes yet.
Carol Burnett’s performance as Marion would soon inspire a campaign to get the TV legend to host Saturday Night Live for what would be the first time. I must say, it is very surprising that this queen of sketch comedy has never hosted one of said category’s most essential series. If it were to happen, I am sure we would find a reason to add it to this list.