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Burnett to receive top humor prize

Associated Press
Carol Burnett laughs with Tim Conway during the final episode of “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1978.

– Carol Burnett, the award-winning actress, comedian and Broadway performer, has been chosen by the Kennedy Center for the 2013 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the center announced Tuesday.

She is the first woman to win both the Mark Twain Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors, which she won in 2003. The 80 year-old is best known as the star of her eponymous variety show “The Carol Burnett Show,” which became one of the most decorated programs in TV history, winning 25 Emmy awards and averaging 30 million viewers each week during its 11-year run from 1967 to 1978. She will be honored Oct. 20 at an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center, which PBS will broadcast Oct. 30.

“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center,” Burnett said in a statement. “It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”

Burnett is the 16th winner of the award, chosen for her vast array of stage and screen credits spanning five decades.

“From her television program and appearances, as well as her performances on Broadway and in film, Carol Burnett has entertained generations of fans with her vibrant wit and hilarious characters,” Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein said in a statement.

“She is iconic, really funny and has been her entire life,” said Cappy McGarr, an executive producer of the show. “She makes us laugh at ourselves and laugh together. That’s the great thing about Carol Burnett.”

It’s fitting that Burnett will return to Washington for the honor. Although born in San Antonio and discovered on the nightclub circuit in New York, her comedy career began with Washington. In the 1950s, she wrote and sang a love song to then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, known as the most boring man in America. Titled “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” the song parodied the Elvis craze of the era and gained Burnett spots on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show” and Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.”

The Kennedy Center’s selection of Burnett marks a change for the center, which has given the comedy award to relatively young recipients in recent years. Once billed as a lifetime achievement award for comedians, the Kennedy Center awarded the honor to Tina Fey in 2010, making her the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize at only 40 years old.

Since then, the awardees have skewed young, with Will Ferrell, then 44, winning in 2011, and Ellen Degeneres receiving last year’s award when she was 54. Indeed, many of these honorees could have watched Burnett’s show as children.

Is the Kennedy Center moving back to honoring old-guard comedians who, in some respects, paved the way for the young ones in their prime? “Not at all,” McGarr said. “The prize honors people’s body of works for humor and comedy. Burnett happens to be 80. Every one of our prize winners have inspired a generation of comedians, and Carol Burnett’s influence is prevalent every time you turn on the TV.”

Burnett is the third woman in four years to win the Mark Twain Prize. She is also one of the most decorated comedians to receive the award, having won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, five Emmys, five Golden Globe awards and a Peabody Award. In 2003, she was honored alongside singers James Brown and Loretta Lynn, director Mike Nichols and violinist Itzhak Perlman as a Kennedy Center Honoree. Fellow winners of the Mark Twain Prize – Bill Cosby, Neil Simon and Steve Martin – have also won the Kennedy Center Honors.