WASHINGTON — Ellen DeGeneres received the Mark Twain Prize for humor Monday night at the Kennedy Center, but the all-star tribute was as much about the joyful comedian's landmark personal revelation as about her comedic talents.
Ellen — and who doesn't know her by her first name, like Oprah or Hillary? — came out as a lesbian in 1997. That, as much as her substantial body of work as a comedian, actress and talk-show host, elicited praise and gratitude from some of her comic colleagues and contemporaries.
"I'm pretty darn sure I could not have the career I have, that I could not live as openly as I've lived, if it hadn't been for you," said "Glee" star Jane Lynch. "You really took one for the team" in revealing her sexuality on her first sitcom.
"She went from stand-up to standing for something," said Lily Tomlin, herself a former Mark Twain recipient.
Jimmy Kimmel described DeGeneres as America's "lesbian friend." (He also said, "Thanks to Ellen, vests aren't just for magicians anymore.")
"You've changed America," declared Sean Hayes, who described himself and Ellen as part of the "Jeopardy!" category called Gay Sitcom Stars. "You've changed the world. We didn't have a voice until there was you."
Noting the theme of the evening, DeGeneres, in her acceptance speech, said that the show "could easily have been on Bravo." She also thanked PBS, which is broadcasting the show next week, with a sly nod to Mitt Romney's sentiments toward continued government funding of public broadcasting: "Thank you, PBS. I'm so glad to be part of your final season."
Pop singer Jason Mraz put his praise for Ellen in somewhat awkward verse: "In the fight for equality, welcome aboard. We appreciate your comedy, you deserve this award." Then he sang a song including a word infrequently heard at the Kennedy Center and guaranteed to be bleeped from the PBS broadcast.
DeGeneres, in typical fashion, was dressed down for the ceremony in a modest tux and an open-collar dark-blue-and-white blouse. Portia de Rossi, whom DeGeneres married in 2008 in California, provided the color, sporting a salmon-pink frock.
Although still in mid-career at 54, DeGeneres has traveled a long and winding road. She began her comedy career in her native New Orleans, playing tiny clubs. Her big breakthrough came in 1986, when she appeared for the first time on "The Tonight Show."
A few forgettable movie roles later, she landed her first sitcom, a hit. That's when, in 1997, she became a cultural pioneer with her revelation about her sexuality, first in real life on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and later as her character on her sitcom.
But her career began to ebb thereafter. Her first sitcom was canceled; then a second sitcom went by the boards, as did a disastrous, tabloid-worthy relationship with actress Anne Heche. But she came back, reestablishing herself as a stand-up comic and eventually as a talk-show host.
As her friends made clear Monday night at the Twain ceremony, DeGeneres has played splendidly across the media gamut. She's been an awards show host (trifecta: Grammys, Emmys, Oscars), a sitcom star (two bore her name), a voice actor ("Finding Nemo"), a commercial shill (American Express, JC Penney, and on and on) and an advocate for various causes. She was even a judge on "American Idol."
DeGeneres probably deserves a Twain award just for one legendary quip. While hosting the Emmy Awards just after the terrorist attacks of 2001, she asked, "What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?"
For all the talk of equal rights, DeGeneres is just the fourth woman to receive the Twain Prize in its 15 years, following Whoopi Goldberg, Tomlin and Tina Fey.
On the red carpet before the event, Ellen's friends abounded with more praise for the honoree.
Lynch (taller than you expected, as DeGeneres is shorter than you'd expect), said DeGeneres succeeded because "she's so honest about herself. She's self-deprecating, but you know she feels good about herself. And that makes us feel very close to her."
Tomlin, also a lesbian, said she admired and appreciated DeGeneres's "contributions to changing attitudes in this country." She said DeGeneres's revelation not only came at the right time but from the right messenger. "She's so adorable. . . . History was thrust upon [her], and she had the courage to do it."
DeGeneres, typically self-effacing, kept the mood light, telling the line of assembled press hacks that she was excited to be in Washington. "It's the Kennedy Center!" she said excitedly. "Spaceships are launched here, right?"