As a tribute to the legendary Carol Burnett on her ninetieth birthday, I’m repurposing and tweaking this piece, which I wrote on April 1, 2020.
It first appeared here that day. About a year later, I expanded it for I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of essays.
Thank you, Carol, for your enduring sense of humanity and a lifetime of laughs.
I’m so glad we had this time together.
A Custodian, A Scrub Woman, and Me
At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970–fifty years before the contagious Covid-19 stunned our world–a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.
Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show. My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.
Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)
Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.
Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.
At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets.
It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.
But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps.
I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.
To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.
As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.
I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit.
Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.
Like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.
In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.
In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.
“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”
At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.
I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.
Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.