WASHINGTON - When Carol Burnett launched her namesake variety show in the 1960s, one television 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 humour 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 honour as she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
"This is very encouraging," she deadpanned when 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."
The 80-year-old singer and actress, famous for tugging her ear at the end of her performances, watched from a balcony as many of her contemporaries spoke of the example she set for their lives and careers.
Fey opened the show with some jokes about the recent government shutdown and about fears over the law known as Obamacare.
"Enough politics. We are here tonight to celebrate the first lady of American comedy, Ted Cruz," Fey said, referring to the Texas senator whose opposition to Obamacare helped inspire the shutdown.
Fey quickly turned to showering Burnett with accolades.
"You mean so much to me," she said. "I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy. I watched your show and I thought: I could do that."
Burnett wiped her eyes after crooner Tony Bennett serenaded her with, a smooth rendition of The Way You Look Tonight, and she talked back from the balcony as actress Julie Andrews recalled their shenanigans during decades of personal and professional partnerships.
"We're going on our 55th year of friendship," said Andrews, the star of movies Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound Of Music (1965).
"My squeaky-clean image goes right out of the window when I'm with her."
Colleagues described Burnett as generous and classy. Vicki Lawrence, a comedienne on Burnett's long-running variety show, and Rosemary Watson, a fellow entertainer, described how she helped their careers after responding to simple fan letters they had sent to her.
Burnett ended the show with a tug of her ear and a rendition of a signature song, I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.