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 will receive the nation’s top humor prize at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Top entertainers including Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will pay tribute to Burnett as she receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The show will be taped and broadcast Nov. 24 on PBS stations.
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 in front of classmates.
“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’d never been that popular in school. … All of a sudden, it just opened up to me.”
Few women were doing comedy when Burnett set her sights on New York. 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.”
Almost immediately, Burnett transformed Dulles, the former secretary of state, “from a Presbyterian bureaucrat into a smoking hot sex symbol,” said Cappy McGarr, the co-creator of the Mark Twain Prize. “She sang that she was ‘simply on fire with desire’ and that was really her big break.”
Soon after, Burnett landed a role in Broadway’s “Once Upon a Mattress,” and began appearing on morning TV’s “The Garry Moore Show.”
She never thought she could host her own show. “I was more of a second banana,” she said. But she loved playing a variety of characters.
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. But five years in, CBS executives had forgotten about the idea.
She recalled one executive telling her: “You know, variety is a man’s game.”
“At that time, I understood what he was saying, and I was never one to get angry,” Burnett said. “I said ‘well this is what I know, and this is what I want to do.’”
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.
Coming on the heels of the government shutdown, Burnett joked that she hopes the Kennedy Center’s doors will open “so we can get in.”
McGarr said it’s nice to bring an “intentionally funny moment” to Washington after weeks of political drama.
“You know, serious times call for seriously funny people,” McGarr said.
Burnett made a special request that rising comedienne Rosemary Watson, who does impressions of Hillary Clinton and others, be part of the show. Burnett found Watson on YouTube after receiving a fan letter and thought she was funny.
“The thing is, you pay it forward,” Burnett said, “because when I got started, somebody gave me a break when I was 21 years old, and I wanted to go to New York.”