David Rubenstein, coming out to introduce the 15th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night at the Kennedy Center, seemed to sense many people might have their attention elsewhere. “Yes, we did know the presidential debate would be this evening,” the Kennedy Center president and Carlyle Group cofounder said. “But many months ago we consulted with Mark Twain, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about the debate. Honor Ellen DeGeneres.’”
By the time DeGeneres herself, dressed in a tailored black suit and a blue shirt, took the stage—following introductions and performances by Jimmy Kimmel, Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Jason Mraz, Loudon Wainwright III, Jane Lynch, John Krasinski, and more—most of the assembled audience seemed to have forgotten the night’s other event entirely. The performer, 54, a pioneer for both gay rights and women comedians, was feted by Rubenstein for “her quick wit, her engaging personality, her extraordinary talent, and her charming honesty.” Segments of the show were interspersed with video clips from her past performances, showing DeGeneres spooking Taylor Swift, persuading Jenna Bush to call up her father on live TV, charming Johnny Carson on her Tonight Show debut, and, most memorably, coming out to the world as a lesbian on her ’90s sitcom, Ellen.
“She’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” said Kimmel. “Because of her, in 1998 I mustered the courage to come out of the closet, despite the fact that I’m not gay.” Kimmel also teased DeGeneres for her short-lived stint as a judge on American Idol, her “restless leg syndrome” style of dancing, and her tireless efforts to prove that “vests aren’t just for magicians anymore.”
DeGeneres was also paid tribute to by Lily Tomlin, who in 2003 became the first openly gay performer to receive the Twain Award, and Lynch, who hinted at her own parallels with DeGeneres. “We’re both the same age, we both specialize in comedy, and, you know, we’re both blonde,” Lynch said. “I’m pretty darn sure I could not have had the career I’ve had . . . if it hadn’t been for you. You are a sterling example for how to be a force for good, compassion, and kindness in the world, and you’re my role model.”
One of the most characteristic hallmarks of DeGeneres’s humor, displayed daily on her Emmy Award-winning NBC talk show, is an emphasis on kindness, even in skits where the performer pranks guests or pokes fun at callers. Screens showed a scene from “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen, in which Ellen reacts negatively to finding out that a gay character played by Laura Dern assumes she’s also a lesbian. “It’s not enough for you to be gay. You have to recruit others,” she quips, looking terrified. In an evening filled with praise and glowing tributes, it was a reminder also of the kind of prejudice DeGeneres has faced and the five-year nosedive her career took following the episode.
For most of the show, DeGeneres was seated next to her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, but when she finally took to the stage, she poked fun at the TV station filming the event. “Thanks to everyone at PBS—I am so happy to be a part of your farewell season,” she said. She also quipped that the Kennedy Center is where “so many space shuttles have been launched.” Despite the self-deprecation, however, the two standing ovations she received reminded everyone present that DeGeneres’s bravery and humor have taken her from being “a closeted comedian in parachute pants” to a national treasure.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be broadcast on PBS October 30. For details, check local listings, or visit the Kennedy Center’s website.