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September 16, 2016

Nights to Remember

A little pomp and circumstance — and some good belly laughs — create priceless Emmy memories for a comedy queen.

Carol Burnett
  • On stage at the Emmys in 1974, Tim Conway looked longingly at the award that went to his friend and costar, Harvey Korman, for The Carol Burnett Show.

  • Vince Bucci/PictureGroup
  • Vince Bucci/PictureGroup
  • In 2011, Emmy winner Melissa McCarthy was crowned Miss America–style by Rob Lowe and Sofia Vergara, while her runners-up reveled in the moment.

    Vince Bucci/PictureGroup
  • Vince Bucci/PictureGroup

Emmy night was big for us in 1974.

Our show won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series. Our director, Dave Powers, won for directing. Our writing team — Bill Angelos, Roger Beatty, Stan Hart, Robert Hilliard, Woody King, Arnie Kogen, Buz Kohan, Gail Parent, Tom Patchett, Larry Siegel and Jay Tarses — won for writing. And Harvey Korman won as Best Supporting Actor in a Variety Series.

After the ceremony, we all went to our favorite restaurant, Chasen’s, in West Hollywood to celebrate. The place was packed with several folks who had also been at the telecast, all in gowns and tuxedos.

As we were clinking champagne glasses, I looked across the room and spotted, sitting in a booth - Barbara Wittlinger! She and I had gone all through Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High together. She was a year ahead of me, so we were never in the same class.

I never really knew her. Our paths only crossed when we were in the halls on our way to our classes. She was the most beautiful girl, ever. In fact, she and her two sisters, Alice and Madelyn, graced the cover of Life magazine one week, billed as the most beautiful teenage sisters in America.

My adolescent mind figured Barbara had to be pretty stuck-up. I used to wish my stringy brown hair would shine and fall into silky waves the way hers did. I would suck in my cheeks hoping my bone structure would come close to looking like hers. I wished my two front teeth didn’t stick out so much. I wished my skin was free of zits.

For six years, from grades seven through 12, she was the epitome of physical perfection, and I was… a toad.

Looking at her now — across the restaurant — sitting in a booth, she was, if possible, more gorgeous than ever, and I found myself feeling like I was that 14-year-old nerd all over again with stringy brown hair and buck teeth and covered in pimples.

My then-husband, Joe Hamilton, saw the look on my face and said, “What’s the matter?” I gave him the whole scenario. He said, “Why don’t you say hello?” Lord no. I wouldn’t know what to say. “Hi, Barbara, do you remember me?” Fat chance.

I managed to get back into the swing of things with our gang, and as the evening was coming to a close, I knew that upon leaving we would be walking by Barbara’s booth. Gulp. We were almost out the door when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked straight into that lovely face.

She said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but we went to school together,” then congratulated me on our Emmy wins. She couldn’t have been sweeter or more down-to-earth.

Years later our paths crossed again, when she and my daughter Carrie lived on the same block in Los Angeles. They struck up quite a friendship, and Barbara attended Carrie’s wedding. At the reception, she and I (also) struck up quite a friendship, and she didn’t make me feel like a toad at all.

Harvey, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence were all honored with Emmy Awards over the years, and I puffed up with pride every time their names were called.

One of the funniest moments in Emmy history was provided by — you guessed it — Harvey and Tim on that night in 1974.

At the 26th Primetime Emmys, both Harvey and Tim were up for Best Supporting Actor in a Variety Series. Before the TV ceremony, they had cooked up a plan which would depend solely on one of them winning. The envelope was opened, and the winner was announced: “Harvey Korman!” Harvey bounded up to the stage, and who was right behind him? Conway.

Harvey, holding the coveted Emmy, faced the audience and began a long and — on-purpose — rambling thank-you speech. Meanwhile, Tim, standing directly behind the much taller Harvey, kept peeking around and lovingly staring at Harvey’s prize with a sad and pitiful look on his face, showing everyone how unhappy he was that he didn’t win.

Johnny Carson, who was the host, was screaming with laughter, along with the rest of us in the audience and undoubtedly everyone who was watching at home.

Thirty-seven years later, in 2011, the bit was repeated when Amy Poehler got the idea that when the nominees for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series were announced, each one individually would run up on stage, where all six of them would stand side by side and wait for the winner to be announced, à la Miss America.

The audience was howling and gave the ladies a standing ovation when Amy, Martha Plimpton, Edie Falco, Melissa McCarthy, Laura Linney and Tina Fey — playing it for all it was worth — waited breathlessly for the envelope to be opened… and the winner… “Melissa McCarthy!”

All the ladies screamed and hugged, and Melissa was presented with a dozen roses and the Emmy, while a tiara was plopped on her head. It was a delicious moment. All awards should be presented this way.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2016

Reprinted from In Such Good Company by Carol Burnett. Copyright © 2016 by Mabel Cat, Inc. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


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