Hollywood and Washington got together for some laughs at the Kennedy Center Sunday night on behalf of Carol Burnett, one of the legends of American sketch comedy. The 80-year-old Burnett was awarded the 16th Mark Twain Prize, which has been given in the past to Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, and George Carlin, among others. Those who came to sing her praises included colleagues, friends, and a younger generation of women comedians, many of whom are graduates of Saturday Night Live and who consider her one of their pioneers. Tina Fey opened the show; Amy Poehler did a routine as her “assistant” with the help of half a dozen dogs; Rashida Jones and Maya Rudolph told anecdotes and introduced clips from Burnett’s enduring moments on television and in movies.
David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center board, was the warmup act, though he didn’t dare try to do comedy. Not in this company. He came onstage to thank the show’s underwriters and producers, and appeared later to introduce Burnett. The concert hall was nearly packed, with Burnett sitting prominently in a red-draped box adjacent to the stage with her husband, Brian Miller, and daughters Jody and Erin Hamilton. In the President’s Box were House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and DC Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. The room had the lights, cameras, and other trappings of a TV show, because it was being taped by WETA for broadcast on PBS on Sunday, November 24.
Fey, who won the Twain Prize in 2010, got the laughter started right away when she called Ted Cruz “the First Lady of American comedy,” after which she said, “This concludes the topical joke portion of the evening.” Fey noted Burnett’s six Emmys, five Golden Globes, eight People’s Choice Awards, and a Peabody, plus earlier tributes as a 2009 Kennedy Center Honors recipient and a winner of the 2006 Presidential Medal of Freedom. “It really is a testament to her professionalism that she’s showing up for this. She doesn’t need this,” Fey said. She also spoke about Burnett’s influence on her own show business career. “I can’t tell you how much you mean to me. I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy,” she told Burnett. She said a lot of “female comedians are gonna come out here tonight and say, ‘Oh, I loved watching your show when I was growing up. You’re my idol.’ But I’m saying it first, which means I am the most sincere.”
Burnett, like the audience, smiled and laughed throughout Fey’s homage. In fact, she beamed through tribute after tribute. Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of another comedy legend, Lucille Ball, blew her a kiss. Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence recalled their years as her costars on The Carol Burnett Show. Bruce Vilanch paid tribute to her costumes by designer Bob Mackie. Julie Andrews talked about their 55-year friendship, and Tony Bennett, in fine form, sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” Martin Short, another well-known comedian and SNL alum, said, “Tonight is one of those nights when the 1-percenters come together to honor one of our own.” He referred to Burnett as being another redhead in comedy (in addition to Lucille Ball), and added one more to the list: Donald Trump, whom he said “only makes us laugh because he looks like a bouncer” in a lesbian bar.
Poehler was the only member of the cast to appear in character, as “Roz,” the supposed Burnett assistant. She came out dressed practically as a bag lady with a group of very well-behaved dogs on leashes. She wanted the audience to know that Burnett’s signature ear tug—the way she ended her TV show—was “a secret signal to me go find hot young men in the audience. How do you think Martin Short got his start?” Poehler ended the bit by saying, “My back is giving out,” collapsing to the stage floor, and then being piled upon by the adorable pooches. Andrews, who met Burnett just after her own star-making run in the Broadway hit My Fair Lady, said that since then, “we’ve laughed, we’ve been naughty, and we’ve stood by each other through so many moments. My squeaky-clean image goes right out the window when I’m with her.”
Burnett appeared to a long standing ovation and spoke heartfelt words about the show and the cast, including some well-aimed humor. She said the Twain Prize was a “long time coming,” but knew why. “There are so many people funnier than I am, especially here in Washington.”
A late-night dinner followed in a tent on the Kennedy Center terrace. Before the meal of cobb salad, beef tenderloin, and autumn apple crisp with bourbon ice cream, there was first a cast photo. Given that it was a group of comedians it was entertaining to watch them jockey for seats, be playful with each other, and mug for the “class” photo. Though there was an official event photographer, it seemed that every guest at the dinner pressed close with cameras to get their own keepsake photo. At midnight the party was still going strong, but then why not? Most of the cast and crew were on California time.