Carol Burnett Had a Difficult Childhood, a Secret Benefactor, and an Iconic Mentor

Today, Carol Burnett is best known for her long-running variety show, The Carol Burnett Show. The sketch comedy series ran for 11 seasons, from 1967 until 1978, and featured some top-tier guest stars. Liza Minnelli, Art Carney, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Dionne Warwick, and many more all got to play in the sandbox with Burnett. 

Carol Burnett
American actress and comedian Carol Burnett stands outside the Dorchester Hotel in London on 14th May | Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The show kept viewers hooked for seasons on end. Burnett would waddle as Mrs. Wiggins or turn around and play Alice Portnoy — a member of the Fireside Girls of America who blackmailed adults into making contributions to her troop. Burnett has since become an icon — a living legend whose comedy shtick has influenced many performers who have followed in her footsteps. However, her trek to the top is quite fascinating, and it all began with a difficult childhood. 

Carol Burnett didn’t have the easiest childhood 

Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1933 to Ina Louise and Joseph Thomas “Jodie” Burnett, both of whom had an acute alcohol addiction. As a child, Burnett was left in the care of her grandmother, as IMDb reports.

Grandma Mabel White raised Burnett and her sister in a small, dingy apartment in Hollywood, California. They struggled to get by. Finances were tight and White reportedly stole silverware so her granddaughters would have utensils to eat with, as Biography.com reports. 

Though life was difficult, Burnett and her grandmother shared an appreciation for the golden age of cinema. Burnett quickly discovered comedy — likely as an escape from reality — and she became quite the class clown in high school. She attended the University of California, where she quickly switched majors from journalism to theater. Burnett yearned to make it to The Great White Way. 

Carol Burnett had a secret benefactor who paid her way to New York City 

Burnett had dreams of starring on Broadway, but she felt that such aspirations were out of reach. She couldn’t afford the commute from California to New York City. Lucky for her, someone willing to lend a hand caught her performing at a home in San Diego during her junior year of college studies. 

RELATED: ‘The Carol Burnett Show’: Carol Burnett Called This Co-Star a ‘Selfless Mentor’

A businessman and his wife approached Burnett, learned of her difficulties, and offered her and her future husband, Don Saroyan, $1,000. Yet, there were three conditions, as Burnett has since revealed: 

“First of all, you must never reveal my name; second of all, you must use the money to go to New York; third, if you are successful, you must promise to help others out…”

Biography.com

Comedy legend Lucille Ball was there to land Burnett a hand 

At 25 years old, Burnett landed an Off-Broadway role in Once Upon a Mattress; she later reprised the role on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for her performance. On the musical’s second night, Burnett spotted Lucille Ball in the audience, who came to chat with Burnett backstage later that night. 

Ball, after chatting with Burnett, told her to give her a call if she ever needed anything. And, Burnett took her up on the offer when CBS said she could do a one-hour special, if and only if she landed a megastar as a guest. Guess who she called? Ball and Burnett went on to appear in each other’s shows, boasting a friendship and mentor-mentee-like relationship for years to come.