WASHINGTON – 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 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.”
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.
“I played a hillbilly woman, and coming from Texas … it was real easy for me,” she said. “I just made my entrance, and I said, ‘I’m baaack.’ Then they exploded.”
“I thought, ‘Whoa! This feels good,’ ” Burnett said. “I wanted those laughs to keep on coming forever.”
She caught a break when she was spotted by talent bookers from TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” and was invited to perform her rendition of “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.”
CBS signed her to a 10-year contract doing guest shots on sitcoms and performing in one TV special a year, but the deal also allowed her the option of creating her own variety show and guaranteed her airtime. The show ran from 1967 to 1978 and included guest stars such as Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan and Betty White.