One of comedy’s top honors is now among Carol Burnett’s rewards for making countless fans glad they’ve had such time together with her.
The iconic TV variety veteran became the 16th talent to receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last month, joining a list of honorees ranging from Steve Martin, Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart to Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. PBS televises the event Sunday, Nov. 24 (check local listings), soon after Burnett’s guest appearance as McGarrett’s aunt on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” and the home video release of a “Christmas With Carol” compilation from her classic “Carol Burnett Show.”
The six-time Emmy winner clearly is still going strong, and among those saluting her at the Twain Prize ceremony were 2010 recipient Tina Fey, Burnett’s former weekly TV cohorts Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence, longtime friend Julie Andrews, music legend Tony Bennett, Amy Poehler, Martin Short and Lucie Arnaz … the daughter of Lucille Ball, whom Burnett credits with having been one of her main supporters early on.
In an interview shortly after that celebratory night in Washington, D.C., the glow — and the glee — obviously lingered for Burnett.
Zap2it: How did you find that evening to be?
Carol Burnett: I knew who was going to be on the show because I read the playbill, but still, I didn’t know what they were going to do or say. And I had no idea which clips they were going to show, so all of that was somewhat a surprise. I can’t single out one person; they were all just wonderful.
Zap2it: What were some of the standout moments for you?
Carol Burnett: Tina opened the show, and she’s just brilliant. Her line was funny; she said, “I love you … and it’s just shy of being creepy.” And Amy had a whole shtick where she was pretending to be my “abused” assistant. I didn’t even recognize her at first. Supposedly, I was a very mean boss.
I was on the verge of tears a few times, but the time they really flowed was when Tony Bennett sang “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” with just a piano accompaniment. It was so touching. And my chum Julie! We’ve known each other 51 years. She was funny and very loving, and afterwards, we got to be together and have a nice “chin wag.”
A bunch of us went back to the hotel and had a nightcap. I didn’t get a lot of time to spend with anybody, because people were coming and going and rehearsing and this and that, but it was nice.
Zap2it: Were you pleased with the “Carol Burnett Show” highlights that were presented?
Carol Burnett: I go out on the road a lot, and I have a whole bunch of clips that I show the audience, so I was happy to see other clips that haven’t been done to death.
Of course, they used the Scarlett O’Hara with the curtain rod … they had to. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an homage to Bob Mackie, who created that (costume). They picked some strange ones, but funny ones that I liked. And that I’d forgotten.
Zap2it: How was the moment when you had to give your acceptance speech?
Carol Burnett: Well, I’m not a stand-up, but I told a couple of stories. I figured that was the best way. It wasn’t laughs all the way through, but the punch lines were good.
Zap2it: What was your feeling as other female TV comedy stars paid tribute to you at the event?
Carol Burnett: I was just thrilled. Lucy was a mentor, and she was such a good friend and so encouraging. She wanted to sign me up to do a sitcom, but I refused, because I didn’t want to do one character every week. She understood, and when I got the chance to do my show, I talked to CBS about doing a variety show. They said, “That’s a man’s game,” but I had a clause in my contract that if I wanted to do a one-hour variety show, they had to put it on.
I think that’s what Tina and Amy and a lot of the others do. They are sketch comedians, as opposed to doing just one thing. And I think that maybe because I was able to do a variety show, that put the idea in a lot of young comedians.
Zap2it: You requested that an aspiring comic named Rosemary Watson perform at the ceremony. What was behind that?
Carol Burnett: She wrote me a fan letter a few months ago, and it was lovely, and I was impressed by it. She just wanted some advice, because what she would really love to have is a career doing a variety show, because she can do all these different characters.
She makes a living doing a lot of voice-overs, so I Googled or YouTubed her, and I thought she was terrific. She nailed Hillary Clinton’s voice, plus Diane Sawyer, plus – get this – James Carville! And she did other characters she made up, and one of them is a plastic surgeon’s assistant who can’t move her face. And she’s also a brilliant jazz singer who plays the piano.
She had her phone number at the top of the stationery, so I called her. She was in her car, and she was surprised, so she had to pull over. And we talked, and I wished her luck, then I emailed Lorne Michaels, and I said, “In case you have a chance, why don’t you Google this girl?” They did, and they called her back two or three times to audition for “Saturday Night Live.” She didn’t make the cut, but they liked her enough to keep calling her back, so who knows?
When this came up, I asked the Mark Twain people if she could be on the show. One of the producers knew of her, and he was a fan, so that’s how it happened. And I finally got to meet her … and her mother and her best friend, and I hope something comes of it. It’s called “pay it forward,” because I was helped out many years ago when I was a student at UCLA. A very kind philanthropist lent me the money to go to New York on, with the stipulation that I help others out if I was successful.