Carol Burnett Gets the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Carol Burnett with her Mark Twain Prize.

Carol Burnett with her Mark Twain Prize.

It’s been decades since Carol Burnett gave up her classic CBS variety series, but the fond memories still linger, and so do the honors for the star of one of the best TV shows of all time.

Last month she received the 16th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The ceremony will be broadcast on Nov. 24 on PBS. At the event, an Associated Press report quoted her as saying, “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 be voted out and I’ll still have the Mark Twain Prize.”

The special program features comedic highlights from Burnett’s half-century in show business. Lots of famous friends and entertainers who are fans showed up to display their affection for Carol, among them Julie Andrews, Lucie Arnaz, Tony Bennett, Tim Conway, Tina Fey, Rashida Jones, Vicki Lawrence, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Rosemary Watson.

The much-loved Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967 and ran for 11 years, and featured cast members Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence.

“When I first started the show, we were on opposite I Spy and The Big Valley,” Carol recalls. “CBS moved us around to different days and different hours. When we went to Saturday night it clicked. There were ten other variety shows on during that era.”

Texas born (San Antonio) Carol never thought she would be an actor. “I was pretty much a nerd in school. I wanted to be a journalist, or a cartoonist. I wanted to have my own comic strip,” she reveals.

As a young girl, Carol grew up with her grandmother in Hollywood. She enjoyed going to the various Hollywood Boulevard movie theaters with her grandmother to see second-run and double features. “Sometimes we’d see eight movies in a week during the ’40s and ’50s, and they gave me hope,” Carol says.

After high school at Hollywood High, she attended UCLA studying drama. It was there that she chose acting as a career. “I had the Mickey and Judy ‘Let’s put on a show’ mentality. I never felt I couldn’t do anything. There was beauty and fun, music and laughter. I knew I had to be in New York. I want to be Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t go to New York. I didn’t know how I would get there, but someone lent me money and I went. I didn’t know where to stay, but I found my way. I was never frightened because I was naïve. I just thought life was a movie, and this was going to end okay.”

Like every other aspiring actress, she made the round of readings and tryouts. Then one day she auditioned for Leonard Bernstein for the Omnibus TV show. “He had me belt out a novelty song and said, ‘Okay, you’re on next Sunday,’” she recalls. After that she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show and starred on Broadway in Once Upon A Mattress.

Carol admits her own variety show “was patterned after Garry Moore’s show. We had fun. That’s what made our show successful. Nobody had temper tantrums or hissy fits. It was just like being a kid, putting on costumes, playing around, and having fun together.”

Carol has attended the Television Critics Association press tour and we’ve talked a couple of times about comedy on TV today. Carol says, “It can come back to what it used to be, because everything old is new again. If somebody could come up with something that is really just gut-busting funny, whether it’s slapstick or character-driven, I think it would work today. And it doesn’t have to be blue. I think there are a lot of talented people out there.”

Reflected back on her shows, Carol says among her favorites were the specials she did “with Julie Andrews, Placido Domingo, and the wonderful Beverly Sills. Plus everything about those 11 years of doing the show will always live with me.”

She is also proud of creating several scholarships to support arts education, and establishing “The Carol Burnett Musical Theatre Competition” at her alma mater UCLA.

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