An icon of American TV comedy gets a long-overdue award as Carol Burnett receives The Mark Twain Prize Sunday night in a two-hour special airing on most PBS affiliates (check local listings).
Taped last Oct. 20 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the gala broadcast features a host of Burnett’s closest colleagues, friends and fans paying affectionate tribute to the 80-year-old comic and actress.
“This was a long time in coming, but I understand,” the honoree says while accepting the award at the climax of the show. “There are so many people who are funnier than I am, especially here in Washington.”
Former Mark Twain Prize recipient Tina Fey opens the program by noting that Burnett is receiving “an award that Mark Twain himself STILL has not won” before turning the stage over to a stellar list of admirers that includes Burnett’s former variety show castmates Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway; Lucie Arnaz, who recalls the long friendship between her mother, Lucille Ball, and Burnett; a virtually unrecognizable Amy Poehler appearing as Roz, Burnett’s longtime (and long-suffering) personal assistant; young impressionist Rosemary Watson, Burnett’s latest comedy discovery; and Tony Bennett, who serenades the honoree with “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Fittingly, the last half-hour of the telecast is largely handed over to Julie Andrews, Burnett’s lifelong best friend, who reminisces about a mortifying experience the two performers shared decades ago and introduces a delightful comedy clip drawn from one of the duo’s popular “Julie & Carol” TV specials.
Blessedly, the telecast also includes several vintage video clips that include not only the usual suspects – Burnett’s famous send-ups of Gone With the Wind and Sunset Boulevard and highlights from a famous “Family” sketch featuring Eunice, Ed and Mama – but also Burnett performing “Shy” from the very first TV presentation of Once Upon a Mattress and her hit novelty song “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” from an appearance on The Jack Paar Show.
(It’s also a nice touch that someone thought to include at least a fleeting glimpse of one-time variety show co-star Lyle Waggoner, otherwise absent from this special, in one of the featured comedy clips.)
In the final moments of the show, Burnett shares anecdotes about how comedy star Eddie Foy Jr. helped Burnett, a complete stranger, get her start in New York, and recalls how she once worked in a nod to a former grade-school classmate on a Carol Burnett Show sketch, only to discover later the woman had absolutely no memory of attending school with Burnett.
It’s a warm and cozy couple of hours that’ll conjure plenty of memories for viewers. If, heaven forbid, your local PBS affiliate isn’t carrying this Mark Twain Prize special, you can catch the whole thing online at www.pbs.org/marktwainprize .