WASHINGTON, D.C. — Actress and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepted the Kennedy Center’s 21st annual Mark Twain Prize Sunday with heartfelt thanks to the cadre of colleagues gathered to pay tribute to the “Veep” star during in a warm and spontaneous evening that recounted her illustrious career. Not surprisingly, some of the event’s most pointed material was aimed at the Trump administration.
“I grew up in the D.C. area during the quaint, old-fashioned Rule of Law period,” Louis-Dreyfus said during comments upon accepting the honor from Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein – a small bust of author Samuel Clemens.
Louis-Dreyfus noted that she attended the private Maryland girls school Holton Arms, “which has been in the news lately” (in connection with new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh). Recalling her performance there in a play, she said she still remembers every detail of the occasion. “But I don’t remember who drove me to the show or who drove me home,” she said, in an arch reference to the testimony of Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford.
Most of the artists on hand performed with Louis-Dreyfus throughout her TV resume that included “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” “Watching Ellie,” and “Veep.” The list included Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, Bryan Cranston, Stephen Colbert, Lisa Kudrow, Ilana Glazer, Tony Hale, Abbi Jacobson, Keegan Michael-Key and Kumail Nanjiani.
This year marks the debut of the center’s new Twain producing partner, Done + Dusted. D+D principal David Jammy was the show’s exec producer, joined by director Rick Austin and co-exec producer Chris Convey. WETA-TV exec producer is Dalton Delan. D+D succeeds the team of Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky and Mark Krantz, who co-founded the annual fundraiser with the Kennedy Center and creator Cappy McGarr.
The new team altered the show’s format that had remained largely unchanged since its debut. Out went the heavy emphasis on film and video clips that highlight each recipient’s career. Instead, they focused on chapters on Louis-Dreyfus’ professional life beginning in 1982 with the Chicago-based improv troop Practical Theater Company.
In addition, the box seat occupied by the Twain recipient and her family, including husband Brad Hall, was relocated to a forward location just off stage in the center’s Concert Hall, where she could be easily seen by the audience and joined by cast members.
Separate videos inserted into the show featured personal reflections from colleagues from each series. For example, former “SNL” actors Mary Gross and Amy Poehler extolled Louis-Dreyfus’ comedic talents, while “Seinfeld” exec producer George Shapiro lauded her significance to that show’s success. Jerry Seinfeld seconded the tribute in his reminiscence and Cranston recalled his stint on the show.
Larry David submitted an offbeat entry that added levity to the Louis-Dreyfus’ recent breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, chiding her for “the lengths she went through to get this award – the cancer thing!” Kidding aside, David extolled the artist’s many talents. “Working with her was like being in charge of the Hope diamond,” he said.
“Broad City” stars and creators Glazer and Jacobson praised the Twain honoree for leading the charge for authentic and flawed characters in television, and paving the way to their show. Former Twain recipient Fey said Louis-Dreyfus “was the real deal comedy-wise.”
Another video clip focused on Louis-Dreyfus’ run as one of the most awarded actors in television, including antics from various Emmy awards. Kudrow reminisced about being one of the actors on the losing end of Louis-Dreyfus’ streak.
The political barbs began immediately as noted Trump critic Colbert opened the evening noting that “there are some terrible people in showbiz who recently turned to politics.” Zeroing in on the Twain program itself, Colbert said it’s been 167 days since a Twain prize has been rescinded – a reference to 2009 honoree Bill Cosby.
Nanjiani of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” who has also been a guest star on “Veep,” delivered a “Twain Talk” variation of a TED talk on why Louis-Dreyfus should run for president. He said she already has experience in the job, she would deplete the marsh in D.C., she’s diplomatic and she values consent, all qualities currently lacking in the nation’s capital.
As always, the Twain ceremony was recorded by D.C. pubcaster WETA and will air Nov. 19 on PBS stations.