It was an all-out lovefest at the center’s Concert Hall as the affair’s traditional gentle roasting gave way to unbridled admiration.
The only derision anyone could muster about the evening’s honoree concerned DeGeneres’ habit of surprising her guests with a costumed miscreant during their appearance on “Ellen.”
While DeGeneres was generally lauded for her “indelible impact on American humor,” the principal focus was on her efforts to open doors in showbiz for gays and lesbians. Gay comedic thesps Lily Tomlin, Jane Lynch and Sean Hayes were among artists on hand to honor DeGeneres, who viewed the proceedings from a box seat with wife Portia de Rossi and friends.
Trio praised DeGeneres for employing her combination of bravery, persistence and charm to help erase prejudices everywhere.
“Like Twain’s Huck Finn, you are a folk hero too,” said Tomlin, a 2003 Twain Prize recipient. “My partner Jane (Wagner) and I are grateful for your courage.”
Lynch noted during her tribute that “I couldn’t live as openly as I do without you.”
Others offering kudos were Jimmy Kimmel, Kristin Chenoweth, Steve Harvey, John Krasinski and John Leguizamo. Harvey lauded DeGeneres for ending her daily show by urging viewers to “be kind.” Musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Jason Mraz also performed.
The traditional clip-a-thon of vintage moments in the honoree’s career included DeGeneres’ 1986 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” a celebrated 1996 appearance on “The Larry Sanders Show” and the 1997 “Puppy Episode” of the ABC sitcom “Ellen” in which DeGeneres announced she was gay.
Also included was a clip from her emcee performance at the 2001 Emmy Awards, two months after the 9/11 attack, when she asked, “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” A clip featuring her voiceover perf in the Pixar film “Finding Nemo” was also presented.
Event was taped for broadcast on PBS stations, a scenario predictably underscored during the evening in light of presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s recent comments about pulling funding. “I’m happy to be part of your farewell season,” said DeGeneres upon receipt of the actual prize, a miniature bust of the 19th century humorist presented by Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein.
This year’s Twain celebration raised $1.5 million to benefit the Kennedy Center’s arts and education programs, Rubenstein said.