After an evening of stand-up sets, comedy sketches and sentimental praise for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center on Sunday ended with the funniest bit — one delivered by the honoree herself.
“When Mark Twain first emailed me about the Mark Twain prize, I have to admit I totally misunderstood. I thought I was being asked to honor someone else,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “What a hassle. I have to go all the way to Washington, D.C., and make up flattering things to say about how funny someone else is.
“And then I realized. It’s me. I get the prize, and my attitude about the whole thing changed. It really did,” she said. “This is a great night, a great honor. Anybody would be lucky to be part of a night like this honoring someone like me.”
Before her powerhouse set, which included thank-yous to the evening’s performers, Louis-Dreyfus, 57, was celebrated as a trailblazing comedian, a feminist television executive, and a kind and generous colleague. A roster of actors and comedians honored her for her timing and her work ethic, and for being the secret ingredient to “Seinfeld.”
“We have three stupid guys. Let’s add a smart woman. That’s funny,” said Jerry Seinfeld. He said that in nine years on the show, he never had to act with Louis-Dreyfus: “I just really liked Julia.”
Seinfield led the pack of A-list performers saluting Louis-Dreyfus, the sixth woman to be honored with the country’s top comedy prize since it was founded 20 years ago. The show will be broadcast Nov. 19 on PBS.
Late-night TV host Stephen Colbert kicked off the annual gala fundraiser, which this year raised $2.2 million to support the Kennedy Center’s artistic and educational programs. As is the show’s tradition, Louis-Dreyfus watched from a box overlooking the stage, seated with her husband, Brad Hall, her older son Henry and members of her extended family.
The audience in the sold-out Concert Hall enjoyed clips from Louis-Dreyfus’s television career, including her work on “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Veep,” her HBO comedy that is shooting its seventh and final season. Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, a friend of the honoree, performed “Better Together,” and actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani used his time to suggest that the “Veep” star make a real run for the White House.
The tribute also included footage of Louis-Dreyfus performing at Northwestern University near Chicago and with the Practical Theater Company and Second City comedy troupes.
Louis-Dreyfus became a breakout star for her portrayal of the lovably neurotic Elaine Benes in the groundbreaking sitcom “Seinfeld.” She has received 11 Emmy Awards, including six consecutive Emmys for her portrayal of Selina Meyer on “Veep.” She has the most wins of any performer for the same role in the same series.
Actor and fellow SNL alum Tina Fey described Louis-Dreyfus as a stone-cold comedy machine who reveals her characters’ humanity and failures. “Julia is not afraid to be unlikeable, not on screen and not in person,” Fey deadpanned. “Julia let Elaine be petty and sarcastic and a terrible dancer.”
Several tributes mixed humor with personal stories about Louis-Dreyfus’s generosity and grace. Bryan Cranston, who played Elaine’s dentist boyfriend on “Seinfeld,” described his colleague as “the loveliest person who also happens to be immensely gifted.”
After an extended bit in which he pretended to share the prize with her, he became serious.
“My admiration for you goes way beyond your unique abilities as a performer. You have helped me realize the actor I wanted to be and the person I wanted to be,” Cranston said.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, creators of the comedy series “Broad City,” praised Louis-Dreyfus for inspiring their careers.
“Without JLD there would be no us,” Jacobson said. “From Elaine to Christine to Selina. Every time you created a character, you opened a door or us.”
The duo also saluted Louis-Dreyfus’s physical humor. “The slapstick, the high jinks, the joy and, of course, the Elaine dance,” Jacobson added before launching into a modern dance version of the herky-jerky moves.
Louis-Dreyfus is the 21st recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, which honors a lifetime contribution to American humor.
Richard Pryor was the first recipient two decades ago. Past winners include Carol Burnett, Neil Simon, Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner and Bill Murray.