Burnett became the 2013 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at a lavish two-hour tribute to her seven decades of memorable performances. Near the end of the show, which will be televised nationwide Nov. 24 on PBS, she described the magical moment when she got her first big laugh — for playing a hillbilly in a student production at UCLA. (Read more about her UCLA experiences here.)
“I was hooked on making those laughs forever,” she said, according to a report in the New York Times.
"We are delighted to pay tribute to this unique and beloved entertainer," Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein said in a statement issued earlier. "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."
Burnett is best known as the star of her own CBS variety show for 11 years, which garnered 25 Emmy awards and averaged 30 million viewers each week. She also has appeared in such films as “Annie,” “Noises Off” and “Pete 'N' Tillie” and on television dramas, including “Glee” and “All My Children.” She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985, the same year she received the UCLA Medal.
"She is iconic, really funny and has been her entire life," Cappy McGarr, an executive producer of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor program, told the Washington Post. "She makes us laugh at ourselves and laugh together. That's the great thing about Carol Burnett."
At a party for the head of UCLA's music department, she wowed the audience with a scene from “Annie Get Your Gun,” and a couple in attendance offered to lend her $1,000 to go to New York and launch her career. She left before graduating and made her Broadway debut in 1959 in the musical “Once Upon a Mattress.” She repaid the loan five years to the day after receiving it.
Previous winners of the Twain prize include Ellen DeGeneres, Will Ferrell, Fey and Bill Cosby.
In signature Burnett style, she said in a statement, "I can't believe I'm getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It's almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington."