Actress-comedienne Carol Burnett

Originally aired on May 7, 2013

The award-winning entertainer discusses her relationship with her late daughter, as detailed in the book, Carrie and Me.

One of the most admired actresses in the business, Carol Burnett has displayed her talent for more than five decades. The beloved comedienne's television variety show won a remarkable 25 Emmys in an 11-year run, and she's demonstrated her dramatic chops on such series as L&O: SVU. Burnett began her career on the New York night club circuit, but it was Broadway that put her on the road to stardom. An equally gifted writer, she's penned two memoirs: a reflection on her rags-to-riches story, This Time Together, and a tribute to her late daughter, Carrie and Me. She's received a Presidential Medal of Freedom and is a Television Hall of Fame inductee.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: It is, of course, a well-worn cliché to say that someone doesn’t need an introduction, but look at this face. (Laughter) I mean, does she really need an introduction? I’m delighted to have Carol Burnett on this program. She’s a brilliant comedienne whose comic antics for more than 50 years have entertained us.

She, of course, has also had, like the rest of us, significant heartache, most particularly, unlike most of us, with her daughter Carrie, who, after overcoming addiction, lost her battle with cancer, and Carol Burnett has written about that in a very courageous new book called “Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.” That’s exactly what it is.

Carol Burnett, as you well know, and if you don’t, let me tell you once again how delighted I am to have you on this program.

Carol Burnett: Oh, thank you. Well, I’m so thrilled to be asked back.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad to have you back. (Laughter) Glad to have you back.

Tavis: I didn’t think – I hoped, of course, the last time you were here, as I do every time, that you’ll come back again. I didn’t think you’d come back for this book, and I didn’t because I went the other day to look at our last conversation when you were here for your second memoir.

There’s a chapter in that book – you well know, you wrote the book – there’s a chapter in there where you start the chapter off by reprising the obit for Carrie.

Burnett: Yes.

Tavis: I asked you about that when you were here last, in your book, and looking at that tape I could still see the pain on your face. Of all the questions I asked you, it was the shortest answer you gave me.

So I sit here every night, and I’m relatively good at this. I could tell that that place was still causing some discomfort and some pain for you in the way that you approached the answer to that question.

So that’s a long way of saying I didn’t expect that you would come back on our program with this particular book, but I’m so glad you did.

Burnett: Thank you.

Tavis: Which is a long way of saying why.

Burnett: Well, Carrie, before she was diagnosed with cancer, she had been working on a story. She was a writer, a performer, a singer; she did all kinds of things. So this particular time she was writing a story called “Sunrise in Memphis,” about a young girl, not unlike Carrie, kind of bohemian, who takes a road trip to Graceland with a mysterious cowboy.

So she was writing that, and then she was, she actually decided she would take the road trip herself, to soak up for research purposes and so forth. So she got in her Jeep and all by herself left from Hollywood and took the same trip that her character in her story took.

So at that time, she would email me scenes from her story, and then also email me just things about who she met on the road and her own little private adventures when she was on the road herself. I saved all the emails, and I was emailing her back and forth, so that’s what we did.

So when she was in the hospital – she was diagnosed right after that road trip that she took. So when she was in the hospital for the last time, she said, “Mom, can you finished ‘Sunrise in Memphis’ for me, my story?” She had the beginning, the end, and most of the middle, but she wanted me to fill it out for her.

I said, “Honey, I don’t think I can, because they’re really your characters to write. I’m not sure where you would want me to go with things,” and she said, “That’s okay.” Well, her request had been living with me for 10 years, and I thought, what can I do to bring this?

I tried to finish her story for her, and it just wasn’t happening. Then it was suggested by the publisher that Carrie was such a force and such an interesting young woman that I write about our relationship, because we had quite a relationship as a mother-daughter, ups and downs.

Tavis: Like most mother-daughters.

Burnett: Like most, yeah, sure. (Laughter) Yeah. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I think maybe, because Carrie, I wanted to bring the essence of her personality and her optimism and the way she looked at life and how she loved people.

So I just decided to write about us, and even from before she was born up through her little young years, and then when she was into drugs, briefly, when she was a teenager, what we went through with that, and then how she came out, got sober, when she came out of rehab, and then went on to have quite a career.

She did movies, she did television, she wrote, she wrote music, she sang, she did all kinds of – in fact, (laughs) she did a movie years ago when she was 24 called “Tokyo Pop,” and it was filmed in Japan and it came out and it was a lovely little move. It’s kind of like a cult film now in Japan.

She got fabulous reviews for it, and I thought well, great, I’m going to have a little budding actress on my – and Marlon Brando called her after he saw her in this movie. He wanted to talk to her about a project he was working on. She turned him down. (Laughter)

Tavis: Marlon Brando.

Burnett: She turned him down. I said, “Carrie,” now I became a stage mother.

Tavis: Right. (Laughter)

Burnett: I’m saying, “Are you nuts? Marlon Brando – at least have a meeting with him. This ain’t going to come knocking at your door all the time like this.” She said something very interesting. She said, “Mom, I don’t care about being a star. I don’t care about being famous. I want to do it all. I did the movie; I’ve done all of that. Now I want to get up on stage and work with my music,” which she did.

Then after that she said, “Now I think I’m going to pick up my writing again.” She said, “I just want to do it all.” So she was marching to her own drummer.

Tavis: There’s nothing like engaging your right to self-determination.

Burnett: That’s right.

Tavis: That’s a beautiful thing. You’ve got to celebrate that, even if Marlon Brando’s calling.

Burnett: Well, after she said that, I became so proud of her. I thought, well, she’s right. She’s doing what she wants from the heart, not because I might want her to do it or she wanted that fleeting thing called fame.

Tavis: There’s so much in this book. I know that even in a full show tonight I can’t do justice to this. So let me just pick a few things out that jumped out at me in the reading of the text, and some things you’ve mentioned now -

Burnett: Okay.

Tavis: – and see if I can’t make some sense of it. In no particular order, you talked about Carrie’s drug use when she was a teenager.

Burnett: Yeah.

Tavis: One of the most fascinating entries in this book is when you acknowledge the revelation that you had when it finally occurred to you that for all the access and the exposure and the lifestyle that your children were exposed to, in many ways they had it harder than you. You know the part I’m talking about?

Burnett: Oh, yes.

Tavis: In some ways, that opens up the door for kids to have access and exposure to stuff you don’t want them to have that you didn’t have. I’ll let you explain, but tell me more about that entry.

Burnett: Well, it was actually we were going to fly back for a family week, because Carrie was in the second rehab that I got her into. So I was with the other two, my other two daughters. They were little. We were flying back from Hawaii to go to family week at this rehab Carrie was in.

But I woke up at like 4:00 in the morning. I kept a diary. I was thinking about how I had it very, a difficult childhood. By that, I knew I was loved. I wasn’t ever really abused or anything like that, but we were very, very poor, and so in a way, I had nowhere to go but up.

People talk about rags to riches and all. That is very nice and commendable, that people make something out of themselves. Then I got to thinking that what of the people who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, yet they still do something with their lives that’s positive, rather than sitting back and just letting everything come to them, or whatever.

But those that go out, when they’re wealthy, when they have all the advantages, and still want to make something of themselves, I find that even more difficult, for somebody like that to have ambition. By that I mean a really honorable goal, let me put it that way. So in a way I came to the conclusion that Carrie kind of had it harder than I did.

Tavis: Well, there is – I find myself in these conversations – I’m not a parent as yet, but I find myself in these conversations with my friends, and I’m talking now specifically African-American friends, who come from a tradition, obviously, where we have struggled.

You grew up poor and we all can trade poor stories, but certainly the numbers are clear. Black people have been disproportionately poor in this country.

Burnett: Exactly, yes.

Tavis: So when African-Americans tend to make it and they can send their kids to private school and afford the iPad and the fashionable clothes, and these kids are driving to school in Rolls-Royces and Mercedes and Jaguars, and when they’re flying, oftentimes they don’t even know what a commercial airliner is because they’re flying on private planes with their famous parents.

There’s always this battle that parents have about what’s too much and how do I draw the line. So I take your point about kids of the elite in that regard having it even more difficult, because you can’t – your kid has to live with you, and you’re not going to live in a shack.

Burnett: Right. (Laughter) That’s true. I did already. (Laughter)

Tavis: Exactly. So there’s always this interesting balance that parents, I feel for them, trying to strike about how to raise a kid and not give them too much, but at the same time, expose them to what happens in the world.

I say all that to get to another entry in this book, which is now Carrie writing to you.

I was hit by the empathy that she had as she was driving through the South, and she emails back to her mom, “Mom, I can’t believe the conditions and the racism and the prejudice that even still today African-Americans and others are subject to.” This is her writing back to you about the experience and exposure that she’s witnessing.

Burnett: Yeah. There was never any kind of – thank God, with any one of my daughters there was never any kind of prejudice or anything like that, because I didn’t have that, and so they certainly weren’t privy to that awful kind of upbringing.

I love when she said, too, she said she just finds the Southern hospitality so fabulous. She loved the mountains and she loved that kind of “down home” stuff, the music and all. I think had she lived, eventually she might have settled some place like that.

Tavis: She loved the blues, loved listening to the blues.

Burnett: Oh, the blues, oh, yeah, yeah, that was – and foot-stompin’. Foot-stompin’, the religious -

Tavis: Oh, yeah, the church the Black church.

Burnett: Yeah, oh, she just fell in love with that.

Tavis: My point is, to have that kind of empathy comes from somewhere, number one.

Burnett: Yeah.

Tavis: Number two, to appreciate that kind of soulfulness, that kind of -

Burnett: Yes.

Tavis: – and to connect to revel in the humanity of people.

Burnett: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Tavis: You did your job in that regard. It came from somewhere.

Burnett: Well, actually, my (laughs), my background, my parents, my dad was – my mother was a little prejudiced – Arkansas and Texas. My kid sister and I never, we never picked up on that. So I don’t know. When you say you did your own job about that, yeah, Carrie knew how I felt, and so – but she could have gone the other way. Who knows?

Tavis: Yeah.

Burnett: But she had that love of humanity. I loved when she said, “I don’t know why people, when they enter a room, don’t smile enough, because when you do that, the whole world opens up to you.” She said, “I can honestly say I feel joy on a daily basis.” That was who she was.

Tavis: How does a mother process having a daughter ask her to finish her work? Because that is, in and of itself, an admission that I ain’t going to make it.

Burnett: Right. Yup. Ooh. Well, I wanted to be able to say to her I can do it, but I had to be honest. As I say, her request had been living – it had been a burden until I figured out we can do even more with this by showing, by letting the reader in on who Carrie was, rather than just finishing her story, which is interesting in its own -

Tavis: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Burnett: Yeah. So once I got the key of how to do this, and so I just started on my computer – I write on the computer – and I swear I felt her on my right shoulder. I just felt. I know she was in here. I felt her on my right shoulder, and it was like now you know what you’re going to do, and it’s okay, Mom.

So I felt – it freed me, because it had been this cloud over me for 10 years, I have to do something about that, with her.

Tavis: So you felt freed and you felt liberated to do the project, but was the doing, the completing of the project in any way – my word, not yours – therapeutic? Did it – you don’t close on the death of a loved one like you close on a house. I’m not going to say “closure,” but what did completing the project do for you once you were free to actually do it?

Burnett: It made me happy. I was happy writing it, and as I’ve said, I was thrilled when I found all those emails, because it just opened itself up to what I could do with her. So I felt good.

Tavis: Is there anything in your life – I’ve heard it said a thousand times, and I know that you would never wish this on any parent, because the word is that there’s nothing more difficult that a parent will ever do than bury his or her child.

Burnett: Yes.

Tavis: How do you contextualize that? With all that you’ve been through in your own life, is there anything that even comes close to having to walk that walk?

Burnett: That’s the worst. I think it is the worst pain that a parent can go through, because it’s not supposed to be that way. But I’ve been asked, well, how do you cope or how did you – Carrie and I were also writing a play together that did make it to Broadway, but she never lived to see it make it to Broadway.

When she died, I didn’t want to get out of bed. Finally – we were in the middle of writing the play that was going to premiere in Chicago at the Goodman Theater before it went to Broadway. My husband, Brian, said, “You have to finish this play for Carrie,” and for Harold Prince, who was going to produce and develop it and direct it.

That gave me the reason to get out of bed, that I had to finish this for Carrie. So that was how I could cope. Now what I do is when people say – of course, every day I think about her. Of course. But what I try to do is dedicate every day to her memory with whatever it is I do, that I’m doing this for her in essence, and things that I – but the one thing that she had that I loved so much was when the last time she was in the hospital and a nurse came to me in the hallway.

She said, “I just have to tell you something about your daughter,” and I said, “What?” She said, “Well, when we go into her room, she cheers us up. I asked her,” – this is the nurse talking – “Carrie, how come you’re always so up and cheerful?” Carrie said, “Every day I wake up and decide,” that’s the key word, “Every day I wake up and decide today I’m going to love my life.” So that’s the kind of girl she was.

Tavis: How did and does, because I think it’s both, how did and does your journey with Carrie impact and affect your relationship with your other two daughters?

Burnett: Well, they were like the Three Musketeers, and Carrie, she was in the hospital, Jody and Erin were with her when she passed away. They adored her, she adored them, and they just had this great relationship. When I told the girls I was going to write this, they were all for it, and they contributed to a couple of things in the book about their feelings about their sister.

Tavis: Tell me a bit more. We’ve kind of gone back and forth and it’s kind of weaved in here at various points, but tell – I love the way the book’s laid out. So the second half of this book really is her story.

Burnett: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me a bit more – top-line a bit more of the story for me.

Burnett: Oh. (Laughs) Well, it opens with a plane crash, and this kind of bohemian girl is in the plane, and she’s kind of asleep. Then she wakes up and she’s in a car headed for who knows where, and she looks over and there’s this cowboy driving the car.

So she feels that she got drunk in Hollywood that night and got picked up, and now she’s in the car with this guy, and what happens is that she doesn’t like him, she wants him to take her back to Hollywood, where she was the night before. It turns out that he’s – nobody wants to talk to her anymore, the girl, Kate. She’s burned her bridges behind her.

So he says, “We’re going to go to Graceland.” So she said, “Okay,” so she goes. But she didn’t like him that much at all, but they have these different adventures on the road together, and she starts to take to him and like him, and then it goes back and forth where she’s kind of in a reverie, and you see what she was before she started this trip and the kind of gal she was and so forth, and how she changes over the course of the road trip.

It turns out that she was indeed in that airplane, and that this whole trip with him was her way of finding herself, and he is her angel. At the end, they get to Graceland and the gates open, and he says, “Are you ready?” and she says, “As I’ll ever be,” and they walk through and disappear. Then you realize that she was in the crash, in the plane crash.

Tavis: My time is almost up, and I could do this for hours. Let me circle back to Carrie again. No parent wants to see their child suffer, and yet I suspect it is the case for all of us parents or children that people learn things about you that they might not have known when they see you go through a crisis.

Is there something or some things you learned about your daughter that you didn’t know, or came to appreciate in a different way, when you saw her go through crisis?

Burnett: I just couldn’t get over how, up until the very end, how positive she was, and how, even when she was in pain sometimes and she would come out of it, she’d be there with a smile.

That was, it was amazing. Everybody in the hospital, the nurses on the floor, they just adored her, and no, I expected her to be that way.

Tavis: That’s good, though. That’s good. A little birdie told me that in August of this year, we’re going to see you and Mr. Conway -

Burnett: Oh, yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: – reunited. Is there truth to this story?

Burnett: Yeah, on “Hot in Cleveland.”

Tavis: On “Hot in Cleveland.” I love TVLand. (Laughter) So you and Mr. Conway got back together again for an episode?

Burnett: Yeah. Oh, it’s just one little scene in the end with Conway and me, but it was fun, and Betty’s an old buddy of mind. She was on our show quite often. So it was fun to go over there and get in the sandbox with that group. They’re all very sweet.

Tavis: Yeah.

Burnett: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m sure you probably know this. On any given night you can flip channels and see the boxed set or the best of Carol Burnett, those outtakes.

Burnett: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: I’ve seen it, like, a gazillion times, (laughter) and yet at 1:00 in the morning, I still stop.

Burnett: Oh my gosh. (Laughter)

Tavis: I watch those clips all over again.

Burnett: Our DVDs are in the stores now, which is great. So people are buying them and watching some of the full shows that nobody’s seen since they were first aired. So that’s a neat thing, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. I assume that you’re very comfortable with this, but if that were the only thing that you were judged by, was that show and high quality comedy, if your career were defined by that, you’d be happy with that, I take it.

Burnett: Oh, definitely.

Tavis: Yeah.

Burnett: Definitely. That was one of the best times of my life, those 11 years. We just laughed for 11 years. (Laughter)

Tavis: How many people get a chance to say that, that they just laughed through 11 years of their life?

Burnett: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah. It’s great stuff, then and now, as is this new book, speaking of great stuff. The book is called “Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.” Came out and immediately jumped on “The New York Times” best-seller list. So if you can find a copy somewhere, you might want to pick it up. It’s a wonderful read, particularly right around this time of the year, as we celebrate mothers and daughters and relationships Carol Burnett, always delighted to have you on.

Burnett: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks for coming back.

Burnett: Thanks for asking me. Aww.

Tavis: Appreciate you so much.

Burnett: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: August 12, 2013 at 12:54 pm