Carol Burnett blazed a trail for women wanting to break into comedy when she launched The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. Playing a wide range of characters on the variety show, Burnett delighted audiences for 11 seasons on her series.
A tradition the famous redhead adopted was her sign-off from the show each week. Burnett would give a gentle tug on her ear to send a message to someone very special.
Carol Burnett was raised by her grandmother
Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1933. Her parents were alcoholics and ended up divorcing, prompting Burnett to be sent to live with her grandmother, Mabel White.
“My parents came to Hollywood from Texas ,and left me there with my grandmother,” Burnett told NPR in November 2020. “They were hoping that they were going to strike it big out here in Hollywood. And then they divorced. So my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940.”
Always referring to her as Nanny, Burnett and her grandmother moved to California but could only afford a low-income apartment.
“She got us a single room, which faced the lobby of the building,” Burnett recalled. “And momma was down the hall, so Nanny and I lived in this one room. But the doors were always open, and momma was in our place as much as we were down the hall with her. But I did live and stay and sleep in the same room as my grandmother. We had a Murphy pull-down bed from the wall, and I slept on the couch.”
‘Nanny was my rock’
Burnett credited her grandmother for her love of show business, where the two often spent their time at the cinema.
“I was raised going to the movies in the ’30s and ’40s when there was no cynicism,” Burnett said, according to Biography. “I think those movies may be what did it for me — an imprint on a young mind and a young girl growing up that everything’s possible. You can be happy.”
The legendary comedian commented on the unbreakable bond she shared with White.
“Nanny was my rock,” Burnett told the Daily News, as reported by Biography. “In her eyes, I was the number-one person in her world, so I felt safe with her.”
How Carol Burnett’s signature sign-off started
Earlier in her career, Burnett was given the opportunity to appear on The Paul Winchell Show. She called her grandmother to share the good news.
“It was going to be live on a Saturday morning,” the variety show star explained. “My grandmother lived in California, and I’m in New York. I called her, and I said, ‘Nanny, you’ve got to watch me; I’m going to be on television next Saturday morning’… And she said, ‘Well, you got to say hello to me.’ I said, ‘Nan, I don’t think NBC’s going to want me to say, hi, Nanny’.”
Burnett and White came up with an idea of how Burnett could communicate on the air with her grandmother.
“We worked it out that I would pull my left ear, which meant, ‘Hi, Nanny, I love you, I’m fine,'” Burnett shared. “So that became our signal. And then after I became more successful, it meant, ‘Hi, Nanny, I love you, I’m fine,'” adding with a laugh, “‘your check’s on the way’.”
Even after White’s death in 1967, Burnett continued the tradition of tugging her ear for her grandmother.
“After she passed away, I just kept doing it,” she commented. “I said, ‘OK, it’s for my kids and for Nanny’.”