Carol Burnett was presented with the Life Achievement Award at Saturday night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Burnett, 82, is the 52nd recipient of the award, which honors individuals who exhibit “the finest ideals of the acting profession,” the actors’ union has said, both in terms of career and humanitarian efforts.
In her acceptance speech, Burnett recalled saving pennies with her grandmother “back in covered-wagon days” to go see double features at the cinema, and then acting out the movies with her best friend. It was laying the groundwork for the work she’d do, sending up movies in her variety show. “We mounted a musical comedy revue every week, and, oh God, did we have fun.”
She recalled receiving pushback from the network. “At first the network didn’t want me to do it. They wanted me to do a half-hour sitcom called Here’s Agnes,” she recalled, saying the executives told her, “Carol, no, no, no, no, all the comedy-variety shows are hosted by men. … It’s really not for a gal. Comedy-variety is a man’s game.” On stage, Burnett shook her head with a smile, and simply said, “No.”
She thanked for colleagues, those on screen and behind the scenes, saying, “I was able to do what I did because of what they brought to the table.”
And, quoting a line from The Carol Burnett Show‘s theme song, she closed her speech with the words, “I’m so glad we had this time together. Thank you.”
The award was presented to the multihyphenate entertainer by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. “The point is, Carol is better than all of us,” Fey joked. “We’re going to give her a prize for it.”
“She has deserved every award, because comedy is much harder than drama,” Poehler joked. “Comedic actors have to do all of the same things dramatic actors do, but faster, and often with a chimp.”
Fey asked Michael Keaton what was more difficult — looking through files in Spotlight, or “making a grilled cheese with an iron while holding a baby in Mr. Mom.” And Poehler asserted that Carol could have performed Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in The Revenant, only she would have “done a song and a dance and made a much funnier face while eating something disgusting.” “The point is, carol is better than all of us. we’re goign to give her a prize for it.
The presenters emphasized her influence, not only as a funnywoman, but as a business woman in a male-dominated industry. “It was imrpotant for us to see that carol was the boss,” Fey said.
“We watched Carol with our moms, and our mom taught us 90 percent of what we needed to know to be the kind of women we wanted to be,” Poehler added. “The other 10 percent was Carol.”
A master of physical comedy, with her distinctive voice and impeccable timing, Burnett has been a force in the film and TV industries for more than half a century.
She became a major television star in 1967 with her Emmy-winning variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, where she created some of her most memorable characters (and displayed her famous Tarzan yell). The series ran for 11 years, during which time Burnett appeared on Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Muppet Show, and after which she dabbled in everything from movies to TV guest roles to theater (prior to breaking out on The Carol Burnett Show, she earned a Tony nomination for playing Princess Winnifred in the inaugural Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress).
Her most memorable roles also include the wicked orphanage owner Miss Hannigan in the 1982 movie musical Annie, the frazzled mother of Helen Hunt’s character on Mad About You, and the matriarch on the 1986 soap spoof miniseries Fresno. Her voice has also appeared in animated projects such as 2008’s Horton Hears a Who! Recent television credits have included guest roles on Hawaii Five-0, Hot in Cleveland, and Glee.
The Life Achievement honor is Burnett’s first SAG Award, but it joins a shelf with many other accolades — including a Peabody, five Golden Globes, and six Emmy Awards, as well as a Kennedy Center honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.