Carol Burnett has proven that old comic legends do not retire, they get the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Which is exactly what has happened to the 80 year-old legendary comedy television variety show performer from Texas. Her brand of comedy could be branded “made in the USA.”
There are some things that are intrinsically American. Like the old Chevrolet commercials singing patriotically about baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet, they should have made room for Carol Burnett. There may be a few people who could argue about bestowing the title of “American first lady of comedy television”, but it would be a weak argument at best. Now that Burnett has won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor it does seem fitting to refer to her as an iconically American entity. Certainly one that the nation grew up watching on television, trying to never miss an episode of her long running Carol Burnett Show on CBS, a difficult feat in the days before video recorders and season DVD box sets.
Carol Burnett has had a long wait to receive the highest honor that can be bestowed on America’s humorists. The 80 year-old performer cracked a joke with a perfect deadpan delivery that comes from a lifetime of being funny professionally. The gag went along the lines of her belief that so many other people funnier than her obviously had to be worked through before they got to her. The punch line was that these funny folks would soon be voted out of Washington and she would still have her award.
The entertainer joins a luminary select few to have been given the prize. Billy Crystal; Ellen DeGeneres; Whoopi Goldberg; Bob Newhart; Steve Martin; and Tina Fey, just to name a few of the comedy elite to have won the prestigious prize. By coincidence, Tina Fey, who got her Mark Twain back in 2010 was on hand for the “roasting” ceremony held for Ms Burnett at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
All recipients of the award are roasted, a time honored ceremony that consists of the “roastee” having jokes told at their expense. Tina Fey announced during Burnett’s roasting that she adored the entertainer so much that it was “almost creepy.” Entertainers like Ms Fey owe a huge debt to Carol Burnett and the other women who made comedy their home on television.
Carol Burnett, could be the American first lady of comedic variety television shows, although, there were a few more women who blazed that trail. It goes without saying that few could match her record of success as well as her legacy. She certainly set the bar for anyone attempting to match her success on the small screen. Winning the Mark Twain Prise for American Humor should have been a fait accompli. The woman’s unerring instinct of distinctly humorous American situations has always been spot on.
The legend that is Carol Burnett, has proven that getting older does not mean being forgotten by a nation of fans. Audiences and the industry adore the television comic legend and the industry has recognised her contribution by giving her the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Back when Carol Burnett started in the television comedy business the amount of female comediennes on the small box were limited. Lucille Ball, more of a comedic actress than comedienne; Phyllis Diller, who started in stand-up and progressed to comedic film roles; Sid Caesar’s sparring partner Imogene Coca – who started in Vaudeville; Joan Rivers, who got her start as a gag writer and actress, and Carol Burnett.
Out of the ladies mentioned above, Lucille Ball was first and foremost an actress, business woman and mentor to the young Burnett. Phyllis Diller, who made the successful transition from middle class housewife to stand up comic segued into comedy acting. Imogene Coca was a refugee from Vaudeville, her work with Sid Caesar was admittedly more of a double act than a solo career. Rivers, like Burnett, started out as an actress and then moved onto comedy after working as a sort of “Jill-of-all-trades.”
Carol Burnett, however, was a unique comedic invention. By the time she had been made an offer she could not refuse from CBS, she was a television veteran. When she and her husband, producer Joe Hamilton, were told that she could have a show on the network that was either a sitcom or a variety show, she wisely chose the latter as her milieu.
Before her long running show, from 1967 till 1978, she had already been a staple on television for over 11 years.The Carol Burnett Show became an American fixture on television sets across the country. Her variety show won 25 Emmys, was placed at number 16 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time and made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best TV Shows of All Time.
Some of the character’s created on her show were almost like comedic Norman Rockwell portraits of Americana. The old folks; the dysfunctional family with Vicki Lawrence Carol and Sis; the numerous skits that parodied famous films; et al. All had that feel of Americana, the same could be said of her supporting cast. Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Dick Van Dyke in season 11, were all uniquely red, white, and blue in their humor.
Burnett’s show featured many instances where the performers cracked each other up during their many skits. It added to the audience’s enjoyment and became a fixture on the show. Before the show finished, Carol became almost a legend, certainly an icon and her show’s ending tune, written by her husband Joe Hamilton, with its closing lyric of “Comes the time we have to say, So long;” was almost bittersweet. Viewers knew that the fun was over for that week as she would tug her left ear. A sign to her grandmother that she was thinking of her that was later attributed as a message to her daughter.
What Carol Burnett did on her variety show, besides entertain and make a nation laugh, was to have fun. It was apparent that everyone who worked on her show was having a great time. The skits where the performers broke each other up and their obvious affection for each other shone through their interactions. Burnett has said in interviews that she chose her career path, because she loved to make people laugh. It filled her with a sense of accomplishment and she enjoyed bringing pleasure to so many people.
Her long career entertaining, not just on television but on stage and screen, audiences has made her one of the most loved comedic personalities in the country. The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony will be broadcast on November 24 this year. Tim Conway, Martin Short, Vicki Lawrence, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey, Julie Andrews, Amy Poehler and a host of other stars and colleagues attended the event. Andrews, who has been a friend of Burnett’s for a staggering 55 years took time to say that Carol was a bad influence on her, saying that her “squeaky clean” image went right out the window when they got together.
One thing that America’s first lady of television comedy requested for her Mark Twain Prize ceremony was for newcomer Rosemary Watson to be a part of the festivities. Carol Burnett stumbled across the comedienne on YouTube after she’d gotten a fan letter from Watson, who does celebrity impressions. Carol watched her YouTube videos and thought that Rosemary was funny. Burnett said that she wanted to give the comedienne a break, just as she’d been given a break all those years ago. Speaking of YouTube, you can go over to the site and watch the closing song and feel the years roll back to when she was a regular fixture on television. “So long.”
While watching the closing theme song, while marvelling at just how good Carol Burnett’s singing voice actually is, you may feel the urge to shed a tear. Don’t feel alone, watching the snippets of the Carol Burnett Show on YouTube is a sort of time machine that transports you back to childhood and thinking that Ms Burnett and co were about the funniest thing on television.
Winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has proven that old television comic legends don’t retire peacefully, they live on in the minds of their fans. Carol Burnett belongs to that small cadre of beloved comic performers who eased life’s troubles for a little while through the gift of laughter. Burnett’s roasting will be aired on November 24 on PBS.
By Michael Smith