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 was taped Sunday and will be broadcast Nov. 24 on PBS stations.
"This is very encouraging," Burnett, 80, 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."
Fey opened the show with some jokes about the recent government shutdown and about fears over "Obamacare."
"Enough politics. We are here tonight to celebrate the first lady of American comedy, Ted Cruz," Fey said, referring to the Texas senator who took a prominent role during the shutdown.
Fey quickly turned to showering Burnett with accolades for opening doors for other women comedians.
"You mean so much to me," Fey said. "I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy."
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."
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, though.