With her groundbreaking television series The Carol Burnett Show — the first sketch comedy program to be hosted by a woman — Carol Burnett helped pave the way for a generation of female comedians and showrunners. But long before she became a household name, she was a 25-year-old actress in New York, in need of someone to look up to herself. After a chance meeting one night in 1959, Burnett found that in Lucille Ball — and a lifelong friend.
Burnett and Ball met backstage in New York City
Burnett grew up in Hollywood and studied theater at UCLA before arriving in New York in 1954, with the goal of becoming an actress. After a few minor roles on TV shows, and a very popular parody song “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” which she performed on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, 25-year-old Burnett landed a part in the off-Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress. (She would go on to earn a Tony nomination when it later transferred to Broadway.)
On the musical’s second night, as Burnett recounted in a speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, she peeked out from behind the curtain and saw a distinctive red-headed woman sitting in the second row: Lucille Ball. Ball, of course, was the star of the hit sitcom I Love Lucy, which had ended its six-season run just two years earlier. “I was more nervous seeing her than I was opening night,” Burnett said.
After the show, Ball came backstage. The two chatted in Burnett’s dressing room for 30 minutes. “She called me ‘kid’ because she was 22 years older than I,” Burnett recalled. “Just as she was leaving, she said, ‘Kid, if you ever need me for anything, give me a call.’”
The comediennes frequently appeared on each other’s shows
A few years later, Burnett made that call. CBS asked her to do an hour-long special, but only if she could get a big-name guest star to appear alongside her. At her producer’s prompting, she called Ball to ask if she would make an appearance. “She said, ‘I’ll be there. When do you want me there?’” Burnett recalled. “And that was it.”
Carol +2, which also featured actor Zero Mostel, was broadcast in March 1966, to great acclaim. Thanks in part to the special’s success, CBS offered Burnett what would become her ticket to stardom: her very own show.
By then, the two zany comediennes had become close friends. In 1967, The Carol Burnett Show premiered, and Ball would go on to guest star numerous times. In exchange, Burnett appeared on Ball’s I Love Lucy follow-ups The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974).
Burnett looked to Ball for guidance
Even as Burnett was achieving huge success on her own, she still looked up to Ball —especially as a fellow woman in the male-dominated entertainment industry. While doing guest spots on The Lucy Show, Burnett marveled at how Ball was able to assert herself to the crew. “She was able to say things that she felt like a guy would,” Burnett said on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2015. “Like, ‘This sketch stinks, let’s fix it.’”
Once, during a rehearsal for The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett and Ball went out to dinner. Burnett recalled how Ball told her a story about a difficult moment she experienced with her writing staff on The Lucy Show. Ball, according to Burnett, “told them in no uncertain terms what was wrong with that script and how to fix it,” Burnett said. “Then she took another drink and said, ‘And, kid, that’s when they put the ‘s’ on the end of my last name.”
Even after The Carol Burnett Show ended in 1978 (after earning a whopping 23 Emmy awards), and Ball had largely receded from the limelight, the two remained close. In a sad coincidence, Ball died, at age 77, on April 26, 1989 — Burnett’s birthday. “She would always send me flowers on my birthday,” Burnett said. “That afternoon, I got flowers from her that said, ‘Happy Birthday, kid.’”