The legend recently celebrated her 90th birthday party—in which everyone from Cher to Amy Poehler feted her groundbreaking career.
If it’s any consolation, even Carol Burnett gets emotional when she hears “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.”
The song, which Burnett would sing each night to end The Carol Burnett Show, has become her signature. It’s what plays as her entrance music each time she appears on a talk show. It accompanies clip packages any time she’s feted at a fancy Hollywood tribute. It’s personal—to her, and to us.
In the lilting piano keys of that song, and the earnestness of Burnett’s voice while singing it, carries decades of memories: kids watching The Carol Burnett Show with their parents or grandparents; women watching the series and being inspired to follow its star’s rambunctious spirit; all the love, loss, and relationships that embed themselves in a song that’s become so indelible.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love ends with a performance of the song; of course it does.
The star-studded TV special, airing Wednesday night on NBC and streaming the next day on Peacock, is a retrospective on a national icon’s illustrious career. It’s a look back at the jaw-dropping way her ferocious talent blazed trails and changed the entire landscape of entertainment, emceed by the very people whose careers are indebted to her.
After the likes of Cher, Julie Andrews, Lily Tomlin, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Kristin Chenoweth, Bob Mackie, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, and Allison Janney—and so many other names one wonders if Hollywood sets were simply forced to go dark the day the special was filmed—all delivered their heartfelt, hilarious tributes, Katy Perry took the stage to perform “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.”
Towards the end of the number, Perry comes down from the stage and sits next to Burnett, who sings the last four bars: “…comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.’”
“I kind of choked up,” Burnett tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “I have to say, it was such an evening. It was two-and-a-half hours of joy, and also tears. That was the way to end it, I know that.”
You should hear Carol Burnett rave about her birthday party.
When we speak, the special had just been filmed (its airing Wednesday night is timed to Burnett’s actual 90th birthday). And, as I learned, she’d probably take issue with it being called a “birthday party” at all.
“When they talked about doing this, I said I don’t want a birthday party,” she says. “I don’t want a cake. I don’t want balloons and confetti. I want it to be just a funny show and have lots of music.” The result: a 19-piece live orchestra, and a roster of talent bookings the producers of the Academy Awards would seethe with jealousy over.
She begins listing off the names of the people who appeared, her voice sounding increasingly flattered and giddy with each one. Her description of each act is followed by an awe-struck superlative: “It was just so sweet.” “That was so much fun.” “There was just a lot of, oh…” she says, taking a breath, “heart. A lot of heart.”.
Bernadette Peters, Billy Porter, and Jane Lynch sang a medley from Annie, joined at the end by the film’s Annie herself, Aileen Quinn, who performed “Tomorrow.” “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Burnett says. “It was incredible.”
Tomlin spoke about an interaction they had on a soundstage when Tomlin was just starting out on Laugh-In. “You gave me the most confidence in the world,” she tells Burnett. “Carol—it is Carol, right?” she continues, as the audience cracks up, “The love that we’re all sharing with you tonight is small payback for all the love you’ve shown us through the years.”
Peters and Chenoweth sang an homage to the TV specials Burnett staged with opera singer Beverly Sills and, of course, the ones with her good friend, Julie Andrews. Andrews—“my chum,” as Burnett calls her—sat next to Burnett the entire evening, flying in for the occasion from New York. “I cannot believe it’s been 62 years, if not more, since we first met, chum,” Andrews says to her in the special. “We’ve gone from landlines to cellphones to texts, and, oh, have we laughed along the way.”
“It was just lovely,” Burnett says, still sounding overwhelmed. “I got a little teary-eyed.”
Cher, dressed in a gold, shimmering gown and ornate, circular headpiece, told a story about how, when The Sonny and Cher Show was starting, Bob Mackie realized she and Burnett were the same size, and borrowed clothes from Burnett’s wardrobe to dress Cher. Later, when Cher struck out on her own, Burnett was a close confidante. “She is the kind of woman, the kind of star, who if you meet her, you’re never going to be disappointed,” Cher says in the special.
One of the things that struck Burnett most was the attention that was paid to her entire career—her entire life, really. There were clips of her Broadway debut in Once Upon a Time Mattress, of her first star-making appearances on The Garry Moore Show, and even one of her in 1956 on the variety series, Omnibus, performing a Leonard Bernstein song.
Of course there was much time spent on The Carol Burnett Show, including a touching tribute from surviving cast member Vicki Lawrence. Marisa Tomei arrived on stage dressed as Burnett’s inept office secretary character, Mrs. Wiggins, and then interviewed Mackie about all of The Carol Burnett Show’s most iconic costumes—concluding with a surprise appearance by Maya Rudolph in the legendary Went With the Wind curtain-rod gown.
The segment introduced by Cher, of the show’s history of iconic duets with major musicians and stars, especially touched Burnett.
“I remember going to the movies with my grandmother when I was little,” she says. “We saved our pennies.” Fast-forward a decade or two, and the celebrities they’d fawn over and gossip about together—Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney—were appearing as guests on her own show.
“My favorite actor of all time, Jimmy Stewart, surprised me on our final show,” she continues. “I just wish that my grandmother had been alive to see all of this, because it was a dream come true. We’d go to the movies, and I’d come home and play-act them with my best girlfriend in the neighborhood. We’d do Tarzan and Jane, and we’d do Betty Grable and June Haver—all of those. And then to have a show where I could be these people in costume and have music and lighting…let me put it this way: I think I am one of the luckiest broads in the world. I just had such fun.”
It’s an overwhelming experience to hear from some of the most famous people working today how much you mean to them—some strangers, some close friends. But the truth is, people have been saying these things to Burnett for decades now. Does a night like this one, however, hit differently? Is Burnett able to see the ways in which her work in the industry affected the way that these people who are gushing about her on-stage perform?
“Maybe,” she says, letting out a laugh. “What I always say—and I say it to them—is, ‘If I’d never been born, they’d be doing what they’re doing. So yes, if I’ve helped in a little way, I’m happy. But the impact isn’t that necessary, because talent will win out. Whether I’ve been around or not, they would be doing what they’re doing.”
She does, however, indulge the answer to one final question: On occasions like this, when she sits and looks back at her entire career, is there something she’s most proud of?
“It would have to be the variety show running 11 years, when at first CBS had no interest in doing it,” she says. “They had to because I had it in a contract to do 30 shows, so they had to put me on the air. I had no idea that we would run this long.”
She remembers the first taping with original co-stars Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Lawrence. “I just said, ‘You know what? We’ve got 30 shows we’re going to do, and we don’t know what the future will be. So let’s just go out there and have fun.’ And that’s what we did. Instead of 30 shows, we ran for 270-something. Actually, they wanted a spec for a 12th year, but I decided we should leave before we’re asked to leave.”
That’s always a good idea, I suggest. “Yes, before they start flicking the lights on and off, we should get out of there.” With that, we say goodbye—and, naturally, that we’re so glad we had this time together.