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Carol Burnett Raises Her Glass to a Life Spent in TV, from ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ to ‘Palm Royale’

In Entertainment
June 03, 2024

On June 6, the 2024 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate thirteen creators and stars responsible for some of the most stellar work of the TV season. Curated and selected by IndieWire’s editorial team, this event is a new edition of its IndieWire Honors event focused entirely on television. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews leading up to the Los Angeles event.

Carol Burnett can’t wait for you to get her drink right.

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At 91 years old, the radiant history-making actress and producer of variety television isn’t so much an impatient icon as she is excited to see you shine. Ask “Palm Royale” executive producer and star Laura Dern, who by casting Burnett in the glittering period comedy for Apple TV+ snagged a front row seat to watch one of Hollywood’s most legendary scene partners at play.

“Carol doesn’t just have a favorite cocktail, she’s had a business card made up,” Dern told IndieWire. “On it is the recipe for exactly how she likes her cocktail, and then it’s signed by her. Any bartender that ever meets her gets the instructions on the business card, but it’s also the most fantastic memento anybody could ever receive. I love people who are engaged in the fun of the life they’ve been given, and they also understand that it’s fun for others.”

“It’s a rarefied position to walk through the world and just have love coming at you all the time,” said “Palm Royale” creator and showrunner Abe Sylvia. “What Carol does in those moments is she sort of picks up this invisible hand mirror and reflects it back at whoever is talking to her, and it is the most beautiful, disarming, gracious act I have ever witnessed.”

Whether Burnett is opposite another performer, a filmmaker, or someone on the wait staff, the Vanguard Award recipient for IndieWire Honors 2024, taking place June 6, is consistently described as a “generous” and “luminous” presence on and off set. A multi-hyphenate talent of stage and screen, Burnett has won Emmys, Golden Globes, Tonys, and a Peabody but she is an outright “gift to mankind” if you ask Sylvia.

That effusive praise stems from the comedienne’s once-in-a-generation genius: a rubber-faced knack for entertaining that’s racked up a list of credits as long as her once Twiggy-esque lashes stacked end to end. Burnett displays a warmth, patience, and affable enjoyment amid her excellence, as born out in a dazzling life lived in a perpetual celebration of performance.

“I’m as busy as I ever was,” Burnett told IndieWire, calling direct on a long weekend, sunny and sans publicist. “I do love to act and write,” she beamed, alluding to future projects and the potential for “Palm Royale” Season 2. “I just want to keep on working, as long as I’m healthy and as long as I think it’ll be fun.”

Carol Burnett and Laura Dern of 'Palm Royale' speak at the Apple TV+ presentations at the TCA Winter Press Tour held at The Langham, Huntington on February 5, 2024 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images)

Carol Burnett and Laura Dern for ‘Palm Royale’Variety via Getty Images

Since before debuting “The Carol Burnett Show,” which shattered ceilings at CBS from 1967 to 1978 and always started with a live Q&A, Burnett has made a career out of taking questions. She has appeared in classic movies like “Annie” and “The Four Seasons” as well as enjoyed a more recent renaissance with parts in “Better Call Saul” and “Toy Story 4.” Nearly 70 years on — and a few hundred performances as Princess Winnifred in “Once Upon a Mattress” later — the musical funny gal still isn’t tired of audiences coming to her for answers.

“It’s like when people ask, ‘Do you ever get tired doing the same show every night for eight shows a week on Broadway?’” Burnett said. “You have to remember that you may be used to this, but the person asking the question or sitting in the audience, it’s their first time. You have to always treat it like that.”

For her part, Dern told IndieWire that she recalled “Palm Royale” headliner Kristen Wiig crying the first time she and Burnett met at a table read. It’s a common reaction among fans, but women in comedy share a special kinship with Carol. “All I could do was hug her,” Burnett said. “I was so, so moved.”

A sparkling tribute to the campy cattiness of country clubs, particularly as they existed in the late ‘60s, “Palm Royale” anchors its story in the anxieties of a wannabe socialite stuck on the outside of high society in southern Florida. Wiig stars as the scrappy Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons while Burnett guest stars as Maxine’s mythic, semi-comatose, aunt-in-law Norma. It’s a seriocomic caricature for Burnett that leans heavily on her strongest suits: physical comedy and improvisation. And yet, the story was almost beside the point.

“All I had to hear was who was in it: Kristen Wiig, Allison Janney, Laura Dern, Ricky Martin, Josh Lucas, on and on and on,” she said. “I actually said I wanted to do it before I ever read it. The story was just the cherry on top.”

Even unconscious and mostly silent, Norma looms large over the series as an existential threat to Maxine’s rickety standing in Palm Beach. Burnett, who is quick to laud Wiig’s performance as a “masterclass in acting,” seems to regard the extravagant gig for Apple less as an opportunity to prove herself in a stacked ensemble and more as an excuse for great TV talents to make friends.

When Burnett met costume designer Alix Friedberg, whose effervescent creations found inspiration in the very fashions the actress would have worn on her own variety hour, Burnett took note: “Alix is young and her idol is Bob Mackie.”

Later, she said, “I sent Bob some pictures while we were shooting in some of the costumes, and he said, ‘She is just a genius!’ So when there was a party for ‘Palm Royale’, Bob came and we saw to it that she could meet him. Alix burst into tears.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 14: (L-R) Carol Burnett and Kristen Wiig attend the world premiere of Apple TV+'s

Carol Burnett and Kristen Wiig attend the world premiere of ‘Palm Royale’WireImage

That willingness to give — combined with Burnett’s uncommon certainty about the magical moments Hollywood can still provide — has drawn the entertainer close to big names ever since she was a child. At the movies growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Burnett recalls seeing Jimmy Stewart towering on the theater screen, her then four or five-year-old feet hanging high off the auditorium floor.

“I fell in love with him right then, and I said to my grandmother, ‘Nanny, he is my friend. I don’t know him yet, but I will. He is going to be my friend,’” Burnett said. “I visualized it as a child and it turned out that we did become friends later. It came true.” (For years, the actress has compared Stewart to her father Joseph, if only in appearance.)

Missed connections and kindred spirits are repeated themes in Burnett’s life. The natural-born storyteller grew up wanting to be a cartoonist or possibly a journalist like her mother, Ina Louise, who moved her daughters (Carol has a sister, Chrissie) to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. Working for publications such as PIC Magazine, Burnett’s mother wrote profiles of celebrities like Bob Hope and Rita Hayworth.

Attending Hollywood High School, a teenage Burnett had the chance to interview movie star Lana Turner through her student newspaper. That opportunity got squashed, Burnett said, because “I was going to have to cut a class and they wouldn’t let me do it.” Years later, Turner and Burnett met anyway when the starlet appeared as a guest on “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“Things like that, I don’t know,” Burnett said, citing numerous serendipitous encounters from throughout her storied career. “If you throw it out there in the universe and believe in it, maybe it’ll come true.”

Burnett has worked with scads of other luminaries from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including legendary composer Leonard Bernstein whom she remembers fondly. That strength of reputation has in turn drawn formidable younger talents into Burnett’s orbit. Allison Janney, another star in the comically giant constellation that is “Palm Royale,” announced to Jimmy Kimmel in an interview taped more than four years ago that she “knew” she was going to work with her idol, Burnett, at some point.

“I have a feeling that I will because I want it so badly,” Janney said then. Now, according to Burnett, she and the Oscar winner are in a “Palm Royale” group chat and play Wordle every morning.

“Oh, yeah, we Wordle,” Burnett said. “I just feel very lucky because I’ve been very busy at this time of my life and here I am, at my age, with all these new girlfriends.”

It all appears effortless: the connection, the craft, the kindness. That makes sense coming from a woman who once prided herself on ensuring her staff blissfully short Hollywood work weeks. Plus, gently ribbing even the most difficult moments in life is part of a time-honored tradition for Carol fans. Writing “Palm Royale” Episode 10, Sylvia couldn’t help but sneak an Easter egg about Burnett’s life into a jaw-dropping reveal about her complicated character. [Spoilers ahead!]

When viewers learn that Norma is in fact Agnes — “a diabetic woman who falls into the Palm Beach life” after the real Norma takes an ill-fated tumble down some boarding school stairs — they are also getting a tiny nod to the radical self-belief that underpins much of Burnett’s accomplishments in television.

“I laughed when I read that script because at first I didn’t know Abe had a reason behind it,” Burnett recalled. “Way back when I first wanted to do my variety show, CBS didn’t want me to do the hour. They kept saying, ‘It’s a man’s game. It’s not for you gals.’ But we have this sitcom that we’d love you to do called, ‘Here’s Agnes!’”

Burnett pushed back, Agnes bit the dust, and instead “The Carol Burnett Show” premiered. The first-ever variety hour hosted by a woman, it went on to a whopping 276 shows over 11 years. Asked how she might like to be remembered as a producer, Burnett is quick to turn the compliment on her “Palm Royale” colleague, Dern.

“I hope my reputation will be as good as Laura’s,” Burnett said. “I hope I do even as close to as well as she has done.”

As for that cocktail? It’s a Cosmopolitan.

“There are different bartenders who make it a different way each time, it can be with triple sec or Cointreau,” Burnett said. “There was one restaurant here where I live that makes the best one. So I said, ‘What’s the ingredients there?’ And they told us. My husband made up the cards so that when I got on the road and we would go into a restaurant, I would just give the card to the waiter. That was it. It’s fun. He also put a little cartoon of my character from my Mark Twain Award on the card. It’s called Carol’s Cosmo.”

For Burnett, it’s the perfect drink to toast a life spent in television and comedy, but most importantly among friends.

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