What Vicki Lawrence learned from Carol Burnett about acting

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Carol Burnett (R), star of the "Carol Burnett Show," laughs with co-star Vicki Lawrence after they accepted the legend award for their show at the third annual TV Land Awards in Santa Monica, California March 13, 2005. Photo by REUTERS/Fred Prouser FSP via Reuters Connect.

Carol Burnett burst onto the comedy scene in the late 1960s with her CBS variety show that ran for more than 10 years and won more than two dozen Emmys. Her six-decade career also involved performing on Broadway, playing an alcoholic caretaker in the original “Annie” movie, and portraying a recurring role in the final season of “Better Call Saul.” Her awards include a Grammy, two Peabodies, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Plus, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame bears her name.

In honor of her 90th birthday, NBC is airing a star-studded special today called “Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love.” KCRW talks with actress and comedian Vicki Lawrence about Burnett’s legacy. 

Lawrence made her debut on “The Carol Burnett Show” in fall 1967 when she was a teenager — after writing a fan letter to Burnett, inviting her to the Miss Fireball contest at Hollywood Park (which is now SoFi Stadium).

“The local newspaper gal did an article about two weeks prior and ran a picture of all of us girls, and said that I bore a striking resemblance to a young Carol Burnett,” Lawrence tells KCRW. “She took my dad's name out of that article, looked us up in the phonebook, and called me and made arrangements to come and see that contest.”

During the early days of the show, Lawrence would sit on her car’s hood after a taping finished and watched Burnett and the week’s guest star come out of the stage door entrance. One time, she asked Burnett why everyone called her Carol instead of Miss Burnett, which seemed appropriate for a movie star. 

“And she said, ‘Oh, sweetie, they're lying at home in bed watching you between their toes. … They know you. You are in their bedroom. … So we’re friends, we’re close, it’s very personal.’” 

Lawrence is best known as Mama, a sketch character that was originally written for Burnett. The role was so popular that she was adapted into a six-season sitcom. She also played the character of Sissy in an iconic sketch that parodies “Gone with the Wind.” 

L to R: Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence and guest star Dinah Shore appear in a scene from the ongoing "Went With the Wind" sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show,” 1977. Credit: CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons.

In looking back at her decades-long friendship with Burnett, Lawrence says she often put the comedian on a pedestal. 

“​​I was a kid. I was a teenager. These people were married, they had children. They had lives. They would double date. They go on vacations together. I was the little kid wet behind the ears who was going to the Harvard school of comedy in front of America,” she explains. “It was a lot of years before I felt like I was up here at all. Certainly, it took at least until the time Mama came along, for me, to feel like I had earned the right to play with the grown-ups in the sandbox.”