“They asked me quite a few times, but I could never work it out with my schedule,” Burnett said to reporters on the red carpet who all wondered why the first lady of variety had to wait 16 years to receive an award that seems Bob Mackie-tailored for her talents.
Indeed, unreserved love and gratitude were on display Sunday night. Perhaps Tina Fey said it best when she crooned in her opening tribute to Burnett, “I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy.”
“A lot of female comediennes are going to come out and say that ‘I love you so much,’ ” Fey said, “but I’m saying it first!”
She was right. A host of famous friends, some of whom weren’t even born when “The Carol Burnett Show” began its run in 1967, turned out to fete Burnett for her lifetime-achievement prize. Her show was synonymous with Saturday-night television from 1967 to 1978, but her star endured long after, leading many of the women to pursue variety themselves.
“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.”
When Burnett finally took the stage after two hours of tributes, she had to quell the standing ovation. “This is very encouraging,” she quipped to laughter. “It was a long time in coming, but I understand — because there are so many people funnier than I am, especially here in Washington.”
Per the usual practice at the Twain Prize event, there were dozens of memorable clips from Burnett’s career, including Lucille Ball and Burnett’s duet as cleaning ladies singing about “Chutzpah,” and Burnett and Tim Conway as the flighty Mrs. Wiggins and Mr. Tudball. Of course, the memorable “The Family” sketch and “Gone With the Wind” parodies were included in the highlight reel, reminding the audience why 30 million Americans tuned in every Saturday night. And unlike in recent years, when, say, Ellen DeGeneres or Will Ferrell were honored, Burnett’s clips spanned seven decades, taking us back to what she called “the golden era of television.”
Burnett laughed heartily throughout the night, sitting in a mezzanine at stage left. She wore a black beaded jacket and a black skirt, an ensemble that revealed how the 80-year-old is getting more glamorous with each passing year.
And it was no secret why she was beaming. The Twain Prize is the most recent in a long line of awards for the star. “The Carol Burnett Show” won 25 Emmys over the course of its 11-year run, and Burnett has also taken top honors such as a Peabody Award, Golden Globes and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received in 2005.
Indeed, one of the running jokes of the evening was that Burnett really doesn’t need another anything.
Conway quipped: “Vicki [Lawrence] and I go wherever Carol is being honored. [pause] This is our sixth city this week.”
Her dear friend Julie Andrews stood before the crowd at the end of the evening, remarking on their 55 years of friendship and sharing some riotous personal stories, one about how she and Burnett once tried to play a prank on Mike Nichols by kissing passionately outside an elevator bank in a Washington hotel. They accidentally startled Lady Bird Johnson instead, a story that induced screams in the audience.
“Carol swears it was her, but I’m not so sure,” Andrews said to laughter. “My squeaky-clean image goes right out the window when I’m with her — she brings out the worst in me!”
Understandably, with Andrews and Tony Bennett on hand, the evening also highlighted Burnett’s strong contralto voice. Bennett took the stage to sing “The Way You Look Tonight,” though it wasn’t the only musical tribute of the evening. “Saturday Night Live” veteran Maya Rudolph attempted a song, playfully butchering Burnett’s “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.”
The evening also included some live sketches. Amy Poehler appeared carrying four cups of coffee while walking five dogs, playing Burnett’s supposedly abused personal assistant, a dry and awkward segment that, though in the vein of Burnett, proved that sketch comedy is always hard in front of a live audience, even when done by a popular performer.
Poehler confessed to nerves before the show on the red carpet. “I’m trying something new as a tribute for Carol,” she said. “I’ll be really happy about an hour from now.”
One of the more touching tributes of the evening came from Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Ball was Burnett’s mentor and close friend, and a champion of the young star after watching her perform as Princess Winnifred in “Once Upon a Mattress.” Lucie Arnaz revealed that Burnett did the same for her. “Carol sent me an opening-night telegram when I got to play Princess Winnifred in summer stock. . . . She was at my wedding. [pause] My first wedding,” Arnaz said to laughter. “To us, Carol was more than funny — she was family.”
As for Burnett, she continued to play that mentor role. She requested that the little-known comedian Rosemary Watson perform at the show after Watson wrote a letter to her only a few weeks ago. Watson called Burnett “her fairy godmother,” saying she was speechless at the invitation to perform her uncanny Hillary Rodham Clinton impersonation for the Twain audience.
On the red carpet before the ceremony, Burnett’s friends and followers heaped praise on her.
Martin Short said: “Everyone copied from her. There wouldn’t be ‘Saturday Night Live’ without Carol.” Bennett kept saying: “I love her. I love her.” Fey, who won the lifetime achievement award in 2010 at the relatively young age of 40, joked that it’s about time Burnett joined her in the fold of Twain winners. “Carol’s award makes a lot more sense than mine, don’t you think?” she said.
The ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be broadcast on PBS on Nov. 24.