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NEW YORK — The fourth annual Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, the rural community of about 23,000 in Nebraska where Johnny Carson grew up, will this summer honor veteran Cloris Leachman (Raising Hope) with the inaugural Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award, according to organizers.
The festival has honored a veteran of the funny business for his or her lifetime contributions in the past, but this year, the award’s name was changed to include the name of the former host of The Tonight Show. Past honorees are Nebraska native Dick Cavett, Bill Dana and Ed Asner.
The John W. Carson Foundation approved the renaming of the award, according to Jeff Sotzing, nephew of Carson, former Tonight Show producer, Foundation advisor and president of Fullerton, Calif.-based Carson Entertainment.
The Foundation also approved the use of Carson’s name for a key honor at Comedy Central’s/MTV Networks’ recent The Comedy Awards, which saw David Letterman honored with the Johnny Carson Award For Comedic Excellence. The Great American Comedy Festival will take place June 15-19 with Louie Anderson as this year’s Saturday headliner.
Tommy Johnagin, a festival alum who last year finished second on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, will also be at the festival as host and closer for one day’s performances. Mike E. Winfield, who last year finished second in the festival’s professional competition, will host and wrap up another day. The Skit Guys, a duo based in Texas, will headline a Sunday family show to close out the festival.
Given Carson’s focus on developing young comedians, the festival will once again feature 20 up-and-coming comedians, an amateur competition and a “comedy camp” for high school students interested in learning about comedy. Eddie Brill, Letterman’s comedy talent coordinator, has served as the festival’s producer.
The shows will take place at the Johnny Carson Theatre, a 1,234-seat venue that was made possible in part by a donation from Carson who died in 2005.
“We wanted to find a way to honor and pay tribute to the legacy of Johnny Carson, and creating a comedy festival is what we came up with,” said Kent Warneke, festival chairman and editor of the Norfolk Daily News. “Johnny did so much for Norfolk. This is the least we could do in return.”
Talking about the renamed comedy legend award, he said: “We’re honored to be able to add Mr. Carson’s name to the award, making it that much more special.”
Warneke said comedians performing to the festival get taken care of and driven around by host families to emphasize the event’s and town’s friendly atmosphere.
Last year, the festival added a title sponsor in Viaero Wireless, making it the Viaero Great American Comedy Festival. Festival organizers hope to find a national sponsor though with an eye towards potentially turning the festival into a televised event.
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