By Cindy Clark, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Before there was Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, there was Carol Burnett.
The 80-year-old entertainer, who has garnered laughs since she broke out on the scene in the 1960s, was honored with the 16th annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday evening.
"I hope after tonight it will knock me down a few pegs because my head is getting huge," Burnett joked on the red carpet.
She described the Mark Twain Prize as "the cherry on top of the sundae. It's about humor. It's about laughter, and that's our game."
When asked about starting out in the male-dominated field of comedy, Burnett said: "I always thought we'd have a happy ending...it never occurred to me to be cynical."
A star-studded lineup of top entertainers including Fey, Poehler, Rashida Jones, Vicki Lawrence, Bruce Vilanch and Tim Conway showed up to salute and pay tribute to the humor and accomplishments of Burnett.
"She's a very important woman in American culture," Fey said, describing Burnett's method of comedy as "warm and without malice and exclusivity."
Poehler echoed Fey's sentiment, noting: "(Burnett) paved the way for any female comedian...she kind of taught us about not being afraid to be silly." She described Burnett as "kind, generous and straight-up, hands-down crazy funny."
Martin Short described Burnett as "a clown in the greatest sense. She's timeless...that's the mark of a real artist."
"She's been a massive influence. I think everyone who's ever done sketch comedy has been influenced by her," Short said.
"She's number one" when it comes to comedy, says Lawrence, who co-starred on The Carol Burnett Show. Lawrence later went on to star in Mama's Family, which was a spin-off of a skit that began on The Carol Burnett Show.
"I was going to be a dental hygienist. I would have been cleaning teeth if it weren't for (Burnett)."
"She's classic. She's smart...she has a brilliant attitude about the world," said Vilanch, who writes for Burnett when she makes appearances. "She's the envy of everybody in the comedy business....She's a great example to every girl who's been told, 'You're talented but you're not pretty.'"
Fey was first to take to the stage during the program. She opened with a crack: "We are here to celebrate the first lady of American comedy, Ted Cruz."
The former Saturday Night Live comedian went on to profess her admiration for Burnett. "I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy. ...I am going first, and I love you."
"My parents used to use The Carol Burnett Show as a disciplinary tool," said Fey, recalling how if she got in trouble she was not allowed to watch the show on her black-and-white TV.
Clad in a gray wig, clutching a tray of coffee in to-go cups and walking five dogs, Poehler appeared onstage as Burnett's "longtime personal assistant, Roz."
Burnett wanted her there because "she said 'I want you to stand on stage and publicly apologize for getting my coffee order wrong,'" explained "Roz."
She went on to detail the perks of being Burnett's personal assistant, and performed a song and dance in Burnett's honor.
Conway poked fun at Burnett's award. "We go, Vicki (Lawrence) and I, go wherever Carol is being honored. This is our sixth city this week," joked Conway.
"I'm excited...this is about as excited as I get, about another award for Carol," deadpanned Conway.
Short also went heavy on the humor.
"I remember when I got my Mark Twain Prize," said Short. "It feels like it was only five years from now."
"I am proud to call Carol Burnett my friend. It is not only because she is successful and rich, it is because it is both," he said.
"When I think of Carol, and it is not often, I am aware that among me and my generation of comedians there was no greater influence. ...To prepare for her role as Miss Hannigan in Annie, she adopted an orphan and abandoned her only two weeks later," he cracked.
Turning serious, Short remarked how Burnett "always handled herself with such elegance and class," and is "simply fearless."
Lawrence introduced the classic Carol Burnett Show sketch parody of Gone with the Wind, in which Burnett plays a curtain-rod-bedecked "Starlet O'Hara."
Following the clip, the original Bob Mackie-designed costume appeared on stage. Vilanch presented a retrospective of sketches of the many costumes that Mackie designed for Burnett's various characters. "Bob could not be here tonight -- he is in South Africa in the sequin mines," joked Vilanch.
"I've probably watched the movie Annie more than I've said my own name," joked Jones before a clip played of Burnett as Miss Hannigan in the classic rags-to-riches film.
"The best thing about being included in such an historic night is getting out of the house. I just had my fourth baby," said Maya Rudolph.
"One of the things I loved so much about watching the Carol Burnett Show is watching the camaraderie among the cast. The way she treated people...it could have been The Tim Conway Show or The Vicki Lawrence Show."
In a touching performance tribute, Tony Bennett sang The Way You Look Tonight.
Julie Andrews, who called Burnett her "dear chum," marveled how they met years ago and became friends. During their first meeting at a dinner, they "talked non-stop and haven't stopped since, and are going on our 55th year of friendship," said Andrews. "We've laughed. We've been naughty. We've stood by each other...and there has been so much joy in our friendship."
And finally, Burnett took to the stage to accept a bronze bust of Mark Twain.
"This was a long time coming," said Burnett. "But I understand, because there are so many people who are funnier than I am -- especially in Washington."
Burnett recalled getting her first laugh out of an audience during a school production shortly after she first enrolled at UCLA. "From then on, I was hooked."
She had big dreams of moving to New York and performing on Broadway, and the rest is history. "I've had and am still having a great ride."
Carol Burnett: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize will air on Nov. 24 on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings).
Previous recipients include Fey, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin and Bill Cosby.