Ellen DeGeneres named Mark Twain Prize recipient

Ellen DeGeneres, the award-winning comedian and talk show host, has been selected by the Kennedy Center to receive this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Ellen, as she is known to the millions who watch her syndicated talk show, had this to say about the award.

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“It’s such an honor to receive the Mark Twain Prize. 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?”

DeGeneres, 54, is the fifteenth recipient of the Twain, the center announced Tuesday. She was chosen because her “special brand of humor has allowed us to find hilarity in the mundane and has kept us laughing for years,” said center chairman David M. Rubenstein.

“Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Ellen carried on that tradition of Twain’s observational humor,” said Cappy McGarr, an executive producer of the show. “And Ellen is not just a comedian, she is a miracle worker. She got the president to dance, she got the First Lady to do push-ups and she got Tom Delay to laugh. She has such great charm.”

DeGeneres’ career started in her hometown of New Orleans — she is an unabashed Saints fan with quarterback Drew Brees often in her guest chair. In 1982, as a touring standup comedian, she was named the funniest person in America in a Showtime-sponsored competition. She hasn’t slowed down much since then. She was the first female comedian invited by Johnny Carson to sit and chat after her routine — an imprimatur that all comedians yearned for, said McGarr. “She said she had it made but she made it because she has an incredible sense of humor.”

Her television work includes the sitcom “Ellen,” which ran from 1994 to 1998. The episode in which she came out as a lesbian made national news, attracted 46 million viewers, won both a Peabody Award and Emmy and accelerated the nation’s public discussion of gay rights. She and actress Portia de Rossi were married in California in 2008.

DeGeneres’ relaxed approach has also made her a popular award-show host. She has hosted the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys — and served as a judge on “American Idol” for one season. Her film work includes voicing Dory the neurotic blue tang in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” She has also written best-selling books and appeared in numerous commercials including stints for Cover Girl cosmetics and J.C. Penny.

Her daytime talk show, which opens with a joyful but awkward dance around the audience, is now in its 9th season and has won 35 Daytime Emmy Awards. On the show, DeGeneres has supported campaigns for better schools, animal welfare, bullying prevention, veganism and AIDS awareness, as well as gay marriage.

Although gay marriage has been Topic A for the last few days, McGarr said the current discussions had nothing to do with their choice. “The Kennedy Center is apolitical. We have had so many people who have their own brand and type of humor. We don’t pick winners because of any advocacy they do. It is all about funny and a funny life,” McGarr said.

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