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Tina Fey accepts the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

By Paul Farhi
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; C11

Tina Fey may have burst into the American comedic consciousness barely a decade ago, but it's been a pretty rich, and very amusing, decade. The Fey Decade and its author got an appropriate tribute Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center.

Some famous friends from both coasts swooped into Washington to hand Fey the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the annual award for a lifetime of creating comedy -- or in Fey's case, as more than one presenter noted, half a lifetime.

There was a parade of Fey highlights: the Weekend Update anchor years on "Saturday Night Live," the "30 Rock" years, with its witty writing and Oprah walk-ons, Fey's movies ("Mean Girls" and "Baby Mama") and, of course, her career-revolutionizing Sarah Palin impersonation.

Fey took in the proceedings from a mezzanine box, surrounded by her parents, husband and old friends. She looked distinctly more glamorous than she did during her "SNL" anchoring days or her stint as a young improv player in the Second City troupe in Chicago. For the occasion, she wore a black Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress and an upstyle hairdo.

"It feels like a [Stanley] Kubrick movie," she said on the red carpet before the event. She compared the excitement surrounding the event to her wedding, "only the ceilings weren't this high."

In her acceptance speech, Fey touched on her best-known bit -- her Palin imitation --and offered some mock hands-across-the-political-divide commentary. The rise of conservative women in politics, she said pointedly, is good for all women, "unless you don't want to pay for your own rape kit . . . unless you're a lesbian who wants to get married to your partner of 20 years . . . [or] unless you believe in evolution."

The lines played first to nervous laughter and then to not much laughter at all.

In a more typically self-deprecating passage, Fey said she never dreamed of winning the Twain Prize but thought she could qualify for "the Judy Blume Prize for awkward puberty or the Harper Lee Prize for small bodies of work."

"SNL" impresario Lorne Michaels told the story about how Fey came to play Palin. Even though everyone -- from his apartment doorman to Robert de Niro -- told Michaels it was a "gift" that Fey looked so much like the then-vice presidential candidate, Fey told him that she couldn't do it because of her commitment to "30 Rock." Michaels pleaded, and Fey raced to the "SNL" studios late on a Friday, met with writer Seth Meyers and co-star Amy Poehler, and then did the bit once in dress rehearsal the next day. That night, live, she nailed it, possibly changing the course of electoral history. "It was 'SNL' doing what it does best, which every now and then, we do," Michaels said.

Jimmy Fallon, Fey's former "Weekend Update" co-anchor, offered a series of descriptive phrases in tribute: "A collector of fine cheeses . . . a hard worker . . . storm chaser . . . inventor of the George Foreman grill . . . longtime friend of the hip hop community . . . 'Wind' from Earth Wind and Fire . . . a hilarious woman and an amazing talent. [Pause] But enough about me."

There were also clips, a lot of them, attesting to the strength and diversity of Fey's writing, acting and general comedic chops. Some of the best were Fey's commercial parodies for "Saturday Night Live," including the classic for the dumpy Mom Jeans line ("Because you're no longer a woman. You're a mom"), and Annuale, a pill that limits women to just one period a year (though the PMS symptoms are hilariously violent).

Poehler, who shared the anchor desk with Fey on "SNL," reflected: "Tonight we celebrate a dynamite lady. I'm so happy to attend your comedy bar mitzvah. So far the food is excellent and your 'Evita' theme is really working." Fey and Poehler met in Chicago in 1993, or as Poehler referred to them, "the mac 'n' cheese years." She said Fey's to-do list from 1996 included "Win tons of Emmys. Check. . . . And play a vice presidential candidate so well that I influence the 2008 election. Check."

"It would be easy for me to stand up here next few minutes [and praise Fey], but this seems to be neither the time nor place," quipped Steve Martin. He added that "every year Washington D.C. becomes a comedy Mecca. And we know how funny Mecca is."

Fey is the 13th recipient of the Twain Prize, which is awarded by a vote of the Kennedy Center's board. She's only the third female winner (Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin won before her) and, at 40, the youngest ever (on the red carpet before the show, Fey noted that one advantage of winning so young is that she can "bench-press more" than all of the previous winners).

Octogenarian actress Betty White, playing her trademark naughty grandma, walked onstage and said: "I'm the only one here who actually dated Mark Twain. And I can tell you they didn't call him Samuel Longhorne Clemens for nothing." She said of Fey: "She's so young. I just hope I hang on long enough to see what she accomplishes when she learns to drive."

Fey is an unusual choice because she is arguably at the top of her career, unlike a number of earlier winners, who were semi-retired or inactive.

This year's Twain ceremony will be broadcast on PBS stations, including WETA in Washington, on Sunday.

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