These days, Carol Burnett may not be as recognizable as Ellen Degeneres or Tina Fey, two other Twain prize recipients, but the elder comedienne starred in the hottest show on television for 11 years, endeared herself to a generation and inspired the parade of younger stars who paid tribute at the Kennedy Center Sunday night. Martin Short told the audience Ms. Burnett was the single greatest influence on comedians of his generation.
Of all the winners of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in the past 16 years, including Steve Martin (2005), George Carlin (2008), and Ellen DeGeneres last year, tickets to the Carol Burnett event were the most prized, raising a record $1.6 million to benefit the Kennedy Center.
Tina Fey opened the 2-hour televised show, which will air on PBS stations nationwide November 24 (check local listings), with a few political jokes about the government shutdown, but turned quickly to praise her idol’s deftness with sketch comedy.
“I fell in love with sketch comedy watching your show, and you proved sketch comedy is a good place for women,” Fey said. “Only in sketch comedy does a woman get to play Cher, Scarlett O’Hara, the Queen of England, a Girl Scout, Mrs. Wiggins — all in one night.” (Amy Pohler performed an original sketch at the tribute, portraying “Roz”, Carol’s longtime (and mistreated) assistant.)
It seemed everyone in America loved the musical-comedy variety program, The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 to 1978. It averaged 30 million viewers per week and received 25 Emmy Awards, making it one of the most honored shows in television history.
Vicki Lawrence, one of the core group of brilliant comedians on the show, along with Tim Conway (center, below), Lyle Waggoner and Harvey Korman, said she would have ended up a dental hygienist if Carol Burnett had not answered her fan letter with a telephone call and an offer to come see her perform. Vicki constantly heard that she looked like Carol Burnett so she decided to write the letter.
Tim Conway joked about how happy he was to travel the world paying tribute to his illustrious friend: “Where are we next week?”
The way Burnett closed each Saturday evening broadcast — answering questions from the live audience — displayed an appreciation of her fans, and a graciousness, integrity and warmth, that made her one of the most beloved performers in entertainment and one of the most admired women in America.
Paying It Forward
Taking the stage to talk about Burnett as a human being, was actress Julie Andrews, who described she and Carol as “chums” going back 55 years and Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and a singer-actress in her own right. Arnaz (pictured left) described Burnett as part of her family, a woman who has never refused to lend her name, clout or help whenever asked.
Indeed, one of the stipulations by Carol in accepting the award last night was that the lineup include an upcoming comedienne, Rosemary Watson, who recently wrote a fan letter to Carol, and won her praise after the star saw her excellent impressions of Hillary Clinton and Diane Sawyer.
As a recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Carol Burnett will receive a copy of an 1884 bronze portrait bust of Mark Twain, who once said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor gave its first award in October 1998 and has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), Tina Fey (2010), Will Ferrell (2011), and Ellen DeGeneres (2012).
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