This is why Carol Burnett is eternally grateful to her friend Lucille Ball…

Carol Burnett’s groundbreaking television series The Carol Burnett Show, the first sketch comedy program to be presented by a woman, cleared the way for a generation of female comedians and showrunners. She was a 25-year-old New York actress looking for someone to look up to before she got famous. Burnett discovered it in Lucille Ball following a chance meeting one evening in 1959 with a lifetime companion.

Burnett was born and reared in Hollywood and earned a theater degree at UCLA before traveling to New York in 1954 to pursue a career as an actor. After a few little TV appearances and the extremely well-known parody song, «I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,» which she sang on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, the 25-year-old Burnett landed a role in the off-Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress. (When it was eventually relocated to Broadway, she was nominated for a Tony.)

In a speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Burnett recalled peering out from behind the curtain on the second night of the event and seeing Lucille Ball sitting in the second row. Ball, of course, had featured in the beloved comedy I Love Lucy, which had completed its six-season run just two years before. «I was more nervous seeing her than I was opening night,» Burnett acknowledged.

Ball arrived backstage after the performance. For 30 minutes, the two talked in Burnett’s dressing room. Because she was 22 years older than me, Burnett claimed, “She called me ‘child’.” She said, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, give me a call,” as she turned to leave.

Burnett made the call some years later. CBS asked her to do an hour-long special, but only if she could bring in a well-known guest star. She called Ball to see whether she would appear at the producer’s request. She said she’d be there. «When do you want me there?» Burnett recalled. That was the end of it.

Zero Mostel also appeared in Carol +2, which was broadcast to tremendous acclaim in March 1966. Because of the special’s success, CBS awarded Burnett what would become her golden ticket to fame: her own show.

The two outlandish comedians had become great friends. Ball would go on to perform as a guest star on The Carol Burnett Show several times after its launch in 1967. Burnett took over Ball’s I Love Lucy replacement show, The Lucy Show (1962-68), in exchange for Here’s Lucy (1968-1974).

Despite her immense success on her own, Burnett continued to look up to Ball, especially as a fellow female in the male-dominated entertainment industry. Ball’s ability to command respect from the cast and crew when making guest appearances on The Lucy Show surprised Burnett. During an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2015, Burnett remarked, «She was able to say things that she felt like a guy would.» «Like, let’s change this sketch because it stinks.»

Burnett and Ball went out to dinner once while Burnett was filming The Carol Burnett Show. Burnett stated that Ball told her about a difficult time she had with her writing crew on The Lucy Show. Ball, according to Burnett, «told them in no uncertain terms what was wrong with that script and how to improve it.» After another drink, she said, «And, youngster, that’s when they added this to the end of my last name.»

The two stayed friends even after The Carol Burnett Show ended in 1978 (after garnering a record-breaking 23 Emmy awards) and Ball had largely faded from the spotlight. Ball tragically passed away on April 26, 1989, Burnett’s birthday, at the age of 77. On my birthday, she would always send me flowers, Burnett recalled. I received flowers from her that afternoon that said, “Happy Birthday, kid.”

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