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The Carol Burnett Award

When it was announced in December that Carol Burnett would receive the inaugural (and forever to be named after her) Golden Globes lifetime achievement award for television, my mother excitedly started telling everybody she met about it.  Shockingly to her and myself, many people didn’t know who she is.  (Carol Burnett, that is, not my mother.  Everyone knows my mother.)

The idea that a media-savvy generation doesn’t know the talents of one of the greatest ladies in television is both horrific and sad to me.  The Carol Burnett Show was a sketch-comedy series that ran from 1967 to 1978 and won 25 Emmys and five Golden Globes.  And I was dedicated.

There was no VCR or PVR to record an episode.  No YouTube videos to watch.  So each week, I’d wait patiently for the show to start in my parents’ room, fearing I’d miss the opening.  And I wouldn’t budge, even during commercials, until she sang her signature closing song and tugged on her ear.

It was her twisted take on Rhett and Scarlett that made me want to see Gone With the Wind.  My friends and I would mimic her “old lady” and ditzy secretary, Mrs. Hah-Wiggins characters, not to mention her Tarzan yell.

By today’s standards, her skits and jokes would seem cheesy.  After coming down the stairs wearing a dress made from curtains (with the rod still intact across her shoulders), her Scarlett O’Hara claimed the outfit was some she “saw in the window and just had to have.”

No, Ms. Burnett’s wry humour would have little place in today’s sitcom punchlines that focus on insults, sex, and flatulence.  And as she admitted in her acceptance speech at the Globes, television networks would never take a risk on a show like hers today.  It was too expensive.  On a weekly basis, her core cast of five performed with guest artists, a dozen dancers, a 28-piece orchestra, and 65 costumes – most of which created by famed designer Bob Mackie.

Yet even as 30 million viewers per week lauded her (yes 30,000,000!), Ms. Burnett was always accessible.  She regularly put up the house lights and took questions from the live audience.  And you never knew what would be asked or how she would answer.

She was a trailblazer and won more awards than any woman in television.  She was the first female to host a variety sketch show and to win both the Mark Twain Prize for Humor and the Kennedy Center Honor.

But I was a young girl, ignorant of the norms and the politics of the day.  And the world she created where both men and women were equally strong and funny became part of my everyday experience.

Of course, that show was the just the tip of the iceberg.  Carol Burnett’s career has spanned 60 years, covering both drama and comedy on television and the big screen.  However, to me, she’ll always be Mrs. Hah-Wiggins.

And I’m so glad we had that time together.

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