WASHINGTON — Comedian Ellen DeGeneres was presented with the 15th Annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor Monday night, in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known by his pen name Mark Twain.
As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
“The Kennedy Center is happy to recognize Ellen DeGeneres’ unique contributions to the world of comedy,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein. “Through her television programs, stand-up appearances, movies, and even commercials, her special brand of humor has allowed us to find hilarity in the mundane and has kept us laughing for years.”
As recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, DeGeneres received a bronze portrait bust of Mark Twain (A copy of an 1884 piece) sculpted by Karl Gerhardt (1853-1940).
“It’s such an honor to receive the Mark Twain Prize,” said DeGeneres, in her acceptance speech. “To get the same award that has been given to people like Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, it really makes me wonder… why didn’t I get this sooner?”
“Thanks to everyone at PBS. I am so happy to be part of your farewell season,” she added, taking a jab at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s announcement during the first presidential debate that he intended to stop funding public broadcasting.
DeGeneres, 54, began her career as a comedy club emcee in her native New Orleans, and following a performance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1986, DeGeneres was invited her over to his desk. She was the first female comedian to receive that invitation from Carson, reported the Associated Press.
Turning to acting, DeGeneres landed sitcoms on Fox and ABC, eventually starring in Ellen from 1994 to 1998. She broke new ground and a taboo in 1997 when she came out publicly as a lesbian and her TV persona then became the first lead character on prime-time TV to reveal she was gay. A record 46 million viewers watched the episode.
Coming out on TV 15 years ago feels like another life, she said Monday night before the show.
“I did it because it was the right thing for me to do,” DeGeneres said. “It was the right thing for me to do to not live with shame. I happened to help a lot of people, and it happened to create a ruckus.”
After DeGeneres came out on TV in 1997, ratings for her sitcom declined and the show was canceled a year later. The feeling of rejection was enough to send DeGeneres into a depression. Still, she paved the way for future shows to feature gay characters, from “Will and Grace” to “Modern Family.”
In recent years, DeGeneres received several Daytime Emmy Awards for for her daily talk show, which has made her one of the wealthiest women globally. Forbes magazine estimated in May that DeGeneres earned roughly $53 million last year, about the same as Rihanna and Lady Gaga. The magazine also rated her the 47th most powerful woman in the world.
The awards ceremony was recorded and will be broadcast October 30 on PBS stations.