By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stars from television and stage honored entertainer Carol Burnett on Sunday with the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize during a night that highlighted her decades-long comedy career while poking fun at politicians in Washington.
Broadway and film actress Julie Andrews, comedian Tina Fey, and singer Tony Bennett were among the lineup of friends and colleagues who paid tribute to Burnett, whose variety series "The Carol Burnett Show" ran for 11 years.
"I'm overwhelmed, totally overwhelmed," Burnett told reporters ahead of the award ceremony. "I just hope after tonight they'll knock me down a few pegs because I think I'm getting a really big head."
The 80-year-old singer and actress, famous for tugging her ear at the end of her performances, watched from a Kennedy Center balcony as many of her contemporaries spoke of the example she set for their lives and careers.
"I love you in a way that is just shy of creepy," Fey, a former lead writer and actress on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and sitcom show "30 Rock," said to Burnett.
"I watched your show, and I thought: I could do that."
The award program is scheduled to air on PBS on November 24, but the October events in Washington featured prominently. The U.S. government reopened last week after a 16-day shutdown triggered by failed Republican efforts to delay or defund Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.
"We are here tonight to celebrate the first lady of American comedy, Ted Cruz," Fey said to laughter and applause from the audience, referring to the Republican senator from Texas whose opposition to the law known as Obamacare helped inspire the shutdown.
Burnett also had zingers for the town in which her prize was delivered.
"It was a long time in coming, but I understand because there are so many people funnier than I am. Especially here in Washington," she said after coming on stage to accept the award.
"With any luck they'll soon get voted out and I'll still have the Mark Twain Prize."
Politics aside, most of the evening focused on the actress whose famous roles include Princess Winifred in the original Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress" and Miss Hannigan in the film version of "Annie."
Burnett wiped her eyes after crooner Bennett serenaded her with a smooth rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," and she talked back from the balcony as Andrews recalled their shenanigans during decades of personal and professional partnerships.
"We're going on our 55th year of friendship," said Andrews, the star of movies "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music."
"My squeaky clean image goes right out of the window when I'm with her."
Colleagues described Burnett as generous and classy. Vicki Lawrence, a co-star on Burnett's long-running variety show, and Rosemary Watson, a fellow entertainer, described how Burnett helped their careers after responding to simple fan letters they had sent to her.
"She shaped my life as a child," Watson said. "She was the female comedienne I wanted to be most like."
Clips from "The Carol Burnett Show" played throughout the evening, and famous costumes - one of which now resides in Washington's Smithsonian museum - were brought on stage.
The Twain prize, named after the 19th century satirist, is the nation's highest honor for achievements in comedy.
Burnett ended the show with a tug of her ear and a rendition of a signature song, "I'm so glad we had this time together."
(Corrects word to "shy" from "short" in quote in paragraph 5)
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Eric Beech)