In case you missed it Tuesday because you were watching post-tropical storm Sandy coverage on TV, or because you didn’t have enough electricity to watch a TV — Ellen DeGeneres received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, 2012 edition, in a ceremony broadcast Tuesday on PBS.
She’s the first openly gay comedian to win the prize. But that’s not the only thing noteworthy about DeGeneres, especially regarding the Mark Twain Prize. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has been awarding the Mark Twain Prize to an American comedian since 1998. In the past three years, however, the center has shied away from making the prize an honor of lifetime achievement, focusing instead on funny people who are barely approaching middle age, much less the twilight of their careers. Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, the two winners who preceded DeGeneres, are still in their 40s.
That’s not to take anything away from DeGeneres. Her syndicated talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, is such a hit after 10 years that you’d surprise any young person if you told him or her that 15 years ago, Hollywood and parts of America turned on DeGeneres when she came out as a lesbian. In the intervening years, she has hosted the the Emmys, Grammys and Academy Awards, published best-selling books, and recorded multiple HBO stand-up comedy specials.
Her career started in New Orleans. In 1982, she won Showtime’s “Funniest Person In America” contest, and four years later, she became the first female comedian to be summoned by Johnny Carson to sit down with him after her performance on The Tonight Show — you’ll see part of her Tonight Show debut (mullet and all), her graduation speech to the Tulane University Class of 2009, and more clips in the PBS special. Jimmy Kimmel hosted, and stars including Jane Lynch, Steve Harvey, Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, John Krasinski, John Leguizamo, Jason Mraz, Lily Tomlin (a past Mark Twain Prize winner herself) and Loudon Wainwright III were on hand to pay DeGeneres some very public compliments.
You can watch the entire broadcast below:
Watch Ellen DeGeneres: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize on PBS. See more from Mark Twain Prize.
Or you can skip ahead to her acceptance speech here. Roll it.