In her eight-decade career in show business, comedic icon Carol Burnett has played a wealth of amazing characters, but which of her roles is the best? Making her onscreen debut in the 1950s, Burnett quickly became a household name because of her unparalleled comedic timing and her undeniable charisma that made her beloved with audiences. Multifaceted in her talents, Burnett isn’t just a comedic force of nature, but her experience in theater helped her become a true triple threat. Throughout the years, Burnett conquered TV as well as movies, and she is often recognized as one of the biggest pioneers for women in comedy.
Through 11 seasons of her very own variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett was able to showcase her talents on a weekly basis and create memorable characters that live on to this day. Often recognized as one of the best sketch comedy series ever, The Carol Burnett Show launched Burnett into superstardom, and her 90th birthday was celebrated with a special, Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love, on April 26, 2023. Despite playing memorable characters like Chairol Burnett in Toy Story 4, Burnett’s best roles often allowed her to show all the best aspects of herself and pulled from more talents than just her sidesplitting comedy.
11 Carol Bradford (The Lucy Show)
Burnett’s friendship with fellow female comedy icon Lucille Ball was a match made in TV heaven, and Burnett appeared in four episodes of The Lucy Show as Carol Bradford. The shy and diminutive Bradford was quite unlike the usual boisterous roles that Burnett is known for, but she didn’t miss a beat when keeping up with Ball. Bradford was Lucy’s roommate, and the two often got into wacky, farcical adventures that involved getting themselves into trouble and then finding a way out in hilarious fashion.
10 Birdie Sulloway (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)
Stepping out of her usual character range, Burnett played black widow serial killer Birdie Sulloway in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, season 10, episode 16, “Ballerina”. Eschewing her humorous side entirely, Burnett’s role took the actor to her darkest place yet, and her strange relationship with her adoptive son Chet (Matthew Lillard) made the episode one of the most memorable in the show’s lengthy run. Though plenty of celebrities have appeared on Law & Order: SVU, Burnett’s one-off role showed there was so much more to the famed comic actor than met the eye.
9 Doris Sylvester (Glee)
Burnett played the role of Doris Sylvester, Sue’s estranged mom, in Glee season 2, episode 8, “Furt” and season 6, episode 10, “The Rise and Fall of Sue Sylvester”. Fitting right into the over-the-top cast of the show with ease, Burnett’s take on Doris not only reflected her relationship and influence over Sue, but she also imbued the character with her own humorous spin. Like her daughter, the character was rude and somewhat unlikeable, but there was still comedic charm behind the vitriol. Burnett also got a chance to sing when she appeared on the show, and Glee allowed her to show off all of her talents.
8 Kate Burroughs (The Four Seasons)
Though the Alan Alda-directed dramedy The Four Seasons flew under the radar when it was released in 1981, Burnett’s role as Kate Burroughs was one of the movie’s brightest spots. Playing off of her co-star Alda brilliantly, Burnett’s Kate character was a successful woman who felt overlooked because she was growing older. Surprisingly reserved for a role played by an actor known for her goofball characters, Kate Burroughs reflected a lot of Burnett herself and offered a more mature look at the woman who had made the world laugh for decades by that point.
7 Marion (Better Call Saul)
Adding her star power to the critically acclaimed final season of the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, Burnett played the role of Marion. The character strikes up a friendship with Saul who was posing as Gene, and Marion’s role in Gene’s downfall was one of the highlights of Better Call Saul season 6. The brilliance of the character was that it called upon the beloved status of Burnett herself to make the role more appealing, and Burnett delivered an understated performance that matched the energy of her co-star Bob Odenkirk.
6 Dotty Otley/ Mrs. Clackett (Noises Off)
Noises Off was Peter Bogdanovich’s take on the hit play of the same name, and though it failed to move the needle with critics and audiences, Burnett’s starring turn as Dotty Otley was quintessentially her. Tasked with not only playing the over-the-hill actor Otley, Burnett also pulled double duty when she played Otley playing her onstage character Mrs. Clackett. Right in her element during Noises Off‘s abundant slapstick farce moments, Burnett brought a bit of the stage to the screen which the rest of the film sorely lacked.
5 Eunice (The Carol Burnett Show)
Starring in the wildly popular sketch “The Family” on The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett played the role of Eunice. One of her many recurring characters in the series, Burnett’s Eunice was the put-upon wife of Ed who often had to deal with the idiosyncrasies of her strange family. Though Eunice was essentially the straight character in the sketches, Burnett’s performances grew increasingly frenetic each time the character returned. The role was so popular that Burnett reprised it as part of the cast of Mama’s Family, a spinoff of The Carol Burnett Show.
4 Princess Winnifred (Once Upon A Mattress)
While the 1964 TV adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress was a pale imitation of the original Broadway production, Burnett reprised her role as Princess Winnifred from the stage play. In classic Burnett style, the character of Winifred was a campy, childlike noble who lacked the refined sensibilities of the rest of the royal court. Though Burnett would have much more well-known roles over the years, her take on Princess Winnifred shaped the way the character would be played forever, and it was yet another character that Burnett put her signature stamp on.
3 Starlet O’Hara (The Carol Burnett Show)
Movie parodies were a common occurrence on The Carol Burnett Show and yet Burnett’s hilarious lampooning of Gone with the Wind has often stuck with viewers the most. In the sketch “Went with the Wind!”, Burnett played an approximation of Scarlett O’Hara known as Starlet who exaggerated all of Vivien Leigh’s Southern belle characteristics. Overtly campy and fun, the reveal of the Bob Mackie-designed curtain dress was sold beautifully by Burnett’s performance, and the costume has gone on to become a staple of hilarious pop culture history.
2 Miss Hannigan (Annie)
Throughout her career, Burnett has often been the originator of her most famous roles, but her turn as Miss Hannigan in the 1982 adaptation of Annie required Burnett to put her own spin on an established character. Playing the villainous and cruel manager of little orphan Annie’s orphanage, Burnett took the part to grimy new heights and found sides of the character that previous actors hadn’t. Despite being evil, Burnett’s Hannigan still had a silly side, and the movie gave her ample opportunity to sing as well. Even with several other adaptations afterward, Burnett’s take on Hannigan is the one that stuck.
1 The Charwoman (The Carol Burnett Show)
At her heart, Burnett has always been a clown of sorts, and her original character of the Charwoman was her very own spin on a classic comedy formula. Appearing throughout The Carol Burnett Show, the Charwoman would be seen cleaning up the stage before eventually bursting into exuberant songs like “So Long”. Representing the duality of the comic, the Charwoman expressed sorrow through her lowly profession, but she also expressed great joy through her big dreams and golden voice. Truly proving that simple is often the best, Burnett’s Charwoman role not only became the symbol of The Carol Burnett Show, but of Carol Burnett herself.