Carol Burnett, the award-winning actress, comedian and Broadway performer, has been chosen by the Kennedy Center for the 2013 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the center announced Tuesday.
She is the first woman to win both the Mark Twain Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors, which she received in 2003. The 80-year-old is best known as the star of her eponymous variety show “The Carol Burnett Show,” which became one of the most decorated programs in television history, winning 25 Emmy awards and averaging 30 million viewers each week during its run from 1967 to 1978. She will be honored Oct. 20 at an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center, which PBS will broadcast Oct. 30.
“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center,” Burnett said in a statement. “It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”
Burnett was the 16th winner of the award, chosen for her vast array of stage and screen credits spanning seven decades.
“From her television program and appearances, as well as her performances on Broadway and in film, Carol Burnett has entertained generations of fans with her vibrant wit and hilarious characters,” Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein said in a statement.
“She is iconic, really funny and has been her entire life,” said Cappy McGarr, an executive producer of the show. “She makes us laugh at ourselves and laugh together. That’s the great thing about Carol Burnett.”
It’s fitting that Burnett will return to Washington for the honor. Although born in San Antonio and discovered on the nightclub circuit in New York, her comedy career began with Washington. In the 1950s, she wrote and sang a love song to then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, known as the most boring man in America. Titled “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” the song parodied the Elvis craze of the era and gained Burnett spots on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show” and Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.”
In 1959, she starred as Princess Winnifred in the original Broadway production of “Once Upon a Mattress” and continued to prove her ambidextrous talents, vacillating between stage and screen before winning her first Emmy while on “The Garry Moore Show” in 1962.
Julie Andrews helped to catapult her career: The two appeared on the Emmy-winning television special “Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall” that led CBS to sign Burnett to a 10-year contract to star in her own variety show.
Some of the most famous names of 20th-century cinema and television — including Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, Gloria Swanson, Betty White and Ronald Reagan — appeared as guest stars on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History now holds the curtain-rod dress from one of her most popular sketches, “Went with the Wind,” a nine-minute parody of “Gone with the Wind” and Scarlett O’Hara’s handmade velvet dress fashioned from curtains.
Burnett went on to play memorable characters in films, including John Huston’s 1982 production of “Annie,” in which she played the villainous manager of an orphanage, Peter Bogdanovich’s “Noises Off” and Alan Alda’s “Four Seasons.” Her Broadway credits include Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” and Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo.”
After “The Carol Burnett Show,” she kept up a steady stream of television appearances, appearing on “Magnum, P.I.,” “Mad About You” and “All My Children.” In 2010, she guest-starred on “Glee.”
The Kennedy Center’s selection of Burnett marks a change for the center, which has given the comedy award to relatively young recipients in recent years. Once billed as a lifetime achievement award for comedians, the Kennedy Center awarded the honor to Tina Fey in 2010, making her the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize at 40 years old.
Since then, the honorees have skewed young, with Will Ferrell, then 43, winning in 2011, and Ellen DeGeneres receiving last year’s award when she was 54. Indeed, many of these honorees could have watched Burnett’s show as children.
Is the Kennedy Center moving back to honoring old-guard comedians who, in some respects, paved the way for the young ones in their prime? “Not at all,” McGarr said. “The prize honors people’s body of works for humor and comedy. Burnett happens to be 80. Every one of our prize winners have inspired a generation of comedians, and Carol Burnett’s influence is prevalent every time you turn on the TV.”
Burnett is the third woman in four years to win the Mark Twain Prize. She is also one of the most decorated comedians to receive the award, having won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, five Emmys, five Golden Globe awards and a Peabody Award. In 2003, she was honored alongside singers James Brown and Loretta Lynn, director Mike Nichols and violinist Itzhak Perlman as a Kennedy Center Honoree. Fellow winners of the Mark Twain Prize — Bill Cosby, Neil Simon and Steve Martin — have also won the Kennedy Center Honors.