Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter & Love Is a Fitting Tribute to a Living LegendPhoto by Trae Patton Comedy Reviews Carol Burnett
Our culture has a horrible tendency to only say the loveliest things about people after they’ve died, while taking those same people for granted when they’re still alive. Thankfully, NBC are bucking the trend with a star-studded celebration of living comedy legend Carol Burnett’s 90th birthday today, April 26, at 8pm ET/PT, and which will later be streaming on Peacock.
Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter & Love commemorates Burnett’s life and career with a series of talking head interviews with Carol, pre-recorded clips from celebrities, archival footage, and live(ish) performances. The special was filmed at the Avalon Hollywood, and the general aesthetic—gilded stage, stars sitting at little tables, bland graphics—gives it an early noughties Golden Globes type of vibe, but less drunken. The formulaic and old-fashioned feel is appropriate, though, harkening back to a time when everyone flicked on their television and were united by whatever program happened to be showing that night. And in many cases, it was The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for over a decade (1967 to 1978).
90 Years of Laughter & Love begins with Burnett’s unlikely start as a nervous undergrad at UCLA, only able to pursue her showbiz dreams in New York thanks to a mystery benefactor (probably one of the most intriguing stories touched on—he just asked her to pay him back in five years, pay it forward, and never reveal his name). The lion’s share of the time is spent on the many facets of The Carol Burnett Show, and these are by far the most engaging parts of the special. Vicki Lawrence, the teenager Burnett plucked out of obscurity to star on the show with her, is greeted with a standing ovation when she takes the stage, and seeing her embrace and reminisce with Burnett is so heartwarming. Fellow regulars Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway are sadly no longer with us, but each receive a fitting tribute through clips from the sketch show. One of the most unexpectedly charming moments involves Marisa Tomei, dressed as Burnett’s character Mrs. Wiggins, chatting with costume designer Bob Mackie about his work on The Carol Burnett Show—if only it had lasted a little longer.
We’re also treated to some spectacular performances from Broadway belters Kristen Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters, and Sutton Foster, among others. You can tell they’re having so much fun singing up there and celebrating Burnett, and as a result their numbers are genuinely a joy to watch—as opposed to the stilted attempts at comedy from various celebrity hosts (apologies to Steve Carrell and Amy Poehler, but they were not cutting it). The rotating cast of A-listers are clearly there to show how beloved Burnett is, but seeing Charlize Theron or Katy Perry with Burnett is not nearly as moving as seeing Aileen Quinn, who played Annie in the 1982 movie musical, serenade the comedian with “Tomorrow.” Give me more of that, and fewer pre-recorded videos from President Biden, Oprah, and Jimmy Fallon.
Besides her obviously electric sense of humor, the trait of Burnett’s that shines through most in the two hours is her incredible warmth. She’s the type of person who would invite an adoring fan girl backstage for a photo (Melissa Rauch) or make sure to know the rookie on the CBS lot (Lily Tomlin). I dare you not to shed a tear as you watch the video honoring her over 60 years of friendship with Julie Andrews (sitting at Burnett’s table, looking classy as ever).
Let’s raise a glass, and tug an earlobe, to Burnett. There’s no one like her.
Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter & Love airs on NBC on April 26 at 8pm ET/PT and will be streaming on Peacock the next day.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.