Tina Fey opened the proceedings by declaring that her love for Burnett “is just shy of creepy,” adding her own ambitions in sketch comedy were kindled by “The Burnett Show,” which ran on CBS from 1967-78.
Tim Conway deadpanned that he and Vicki Lawrence — both co-stars of Burnett’s on her show — spend their lives traveling to events honoring Burnett. “This is our sixth city this week!” he cracked.
The affair, taped for broadcast on PBS Nov. 24, followed its time-honored format of tributes from a gaggle of comics and other prominent admirers, interspersed with vintage video clips. The event raised a record $1.8 million for the D.C. center’s artistic and educational programs, said chairman David M. Rubenstein.
The undisputed star of the evening was the parade of enduring characters from Burnett’s treasure chest including Starlet O’Hara, Mrs. Wiggins, Eunice Higgins and Mrs. Hannigan. That includes her numerous Bob Mackie-designed costumes, one of which — the curtain rod dress from the “Gone With the Wind” parody — resides in the Smithsonian nearby.
Along with Fey, Conway and Lawrence, the all-star lineup included Julie Andrews, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, among others. Lucie Arnaz reminisced about growing up with Burnett as an unofficial member of the family, with comments followed by the famous clip of Burnett and Lucille Ball as a zany pair of Hollywood cleaning ladies singing about chutzpah.
Poehler appeared in character as Burnett’s much-disparaged personal assistant, towing five dogs and whining about a life of constant abuse. “Carol broke the glass ceiling — as well as the glass table with a baseball bat,” she said. “She kept me in stitches — literally!”
Andrews reminisced about a wayward prank she and Burnett tried to pull on Mike Nichols at a D.C. hotel when the two women kissed passionately as Nichols emerged from an elevator. Unfortunately for them, it was Lady Bird Johnson who got off on that floor.
Short’s irreverent toast cited the occasion as “a night when us one-percenters gather to honor our own.” He said we’ll learn how much the Mark Twain honor means to Carol “when she sells it on eBay.”
All were effusive in praise for the comedy titan whose ascendance in showbiz is the stuff of legend. The story includes her “discovery” by a generous admirer while performing at a college party, spots on the Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan shows to sing a ditty about John Foster Dulles, cast membership on the Garry Moore Show and, finally, her own TV show on CBS from 1967-78.
Burnett watched the proceedings from the safety of a box seat, laughing heartily throughout. The evening concluded with her appearance on stage to receive the prize, a bust of humorist Twain. The award was “a long time in coming,” she opined, noting that the delay is understandable since “there are a lot of people funnier than I am, especially here in Washington.”
Burnett ended the affair with a tender rendition of her signature sign-off, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.”