When Carol Burnett launched her namesake variety show in the 1960s, one TV executive told her the genre was “a man’s game.” She proved him wrong with an 11-year run that averaged 30 million viewers each week.
On Sunday, the trailblazing comedienne received the nation’s top humor prize at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Top entertainers including Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and others performed in Burnett’s honor as she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The show will be taped and broadcast Nov. 24 on PBS stations.
“This is very encouraging,” Burnett deadpanned in accepting the prize. “I mean it was a long time in coming, but I understand because there are so many people funnier than I am, especially here in Washington.
“With any luck, they’ll soon get voted out, and I’ll still have the Mark Twain prize.”
Fey opened the show with some jokes about the recent government shutdown and about fears over “Obamacare.”
“Enough politics. We are here tonight to celebrate the first lady of American comedy, Ted Cruz,” Fey said, referring to the Texas senator who took a prominent role during the shutdown.
Fey quickly turned to showering Burnett with accolades for opening doors for other women comedians.
“You mean so much to me,” Fey said. “I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy.”
In an interview, Burnett said she was drawn to comedy after realizing how it felt to make people laugh. She went to UCLA with plans to become a journalist, but she took an acting course that put her on stage.
Burnett said it’s a thrill to receive the award named for humorist and satirist Mark Twain and that she’s in good company with past honorees, who include Fey, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, and Ellen DeGeneres.