On Monday night, Ellen DeGeneres took to the red carpet inside Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center dressed in her trademark blazer, sweater and slacks. She had arrived to become the 15th recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, at a venue where, in her own words, “so many space shuttles have been launched.”
The Mark Twain Prize has been awarded to some of America’s greatest comedians, including Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Tina Fey. Will Ferrell accepted the award last year.
Since the Mark Twain Prize has served as a sort of lifetime achievement award, TIME asked the presenter-performers what made Ellen Twain-worthy as they made their entrances.
“Ellen has one of those universal, observational, non-mean-spirited comedy voices,” said Sean Hayes. “When the country has become so cynical…she is one of the few that we look to make us laugh,” he added.
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Jane Lynch agreed: “She went out there with a machete, metaphorically, and blazed a trail for everybody else when she came out of the closet,” she said. “She was the one who stood up and was counted…the path today that I walk has been cleared by her.”
“I think she has brought so much on every level of comedy and on every level of humanity,” said John Krasinski. “Everybody said you have to be really dark and I think she proved that wrong. I think she is so likeable and so sweet that her delivery comes across and resonates with you immediately, whether you’ve been through the experience or not.”
Jimmy Kimmel called Ellen “courageous.” After a reporter repeated the word, Kimmel replied, “I said that she was Korean. You’re not listening.” Kimmel added that Ellen was “super funny” and that “I’d be lucky to get the Shania Twain Award.”
The night highlighted some of the most important and funniest points of Ellen’s career, including her 1997 “coming out” moment on the sitcom Ellen, Dory’s whale speech in Finding Nemo, The Ellen DeGeneres Show scare montage, a few of her hilarious stand-up specials, and her famous 1986 “Call to God” performance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She was the first female comedian ever to be invited to Johnny’s couch for an interview.
Ellen also talked to TIME and cleared the air on our 1997 cover. “I didn’t say ‘Yep,’ just to clear the record. Someone came up with ‘Yep.’ I had never said ‘Yep’ before in my life. But now I’ll say it all the time. And I’ll say ‘Yep, I’m Gay.’”
When asked if she was happy about the Mark Twain prize, Ellen replied, “Yep, I’m happy!”
The tribute show was filled with some hilarious performances, including Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue (“As you know we are here to say goodbye to Ellen DeGeneres”), Sean Hayes’ falsetto rendition of “Till There was You,” and a presenter in a rabbit costume spooking John Krasinski, resulting in a reflex punch to the face. Other performers included Kristin Chenoweth, Steve Harvey, John Leguizamo, Jason Mraz, Lily Tomlin (6th Mark Twain prize recipient), and Grammy award-winning singer Loudon Wainwright III.
Ellen’s acceptance speech hit the gut as much as the heart:
“My parents were divorced when I was young and my mother was sad a lot and I just wanted to make her laugh. I had no idea there could be a career in making people happy. I tried everything. I shucked oysters, I painted houses, I sold vacuum cleaners, I was a court runner. But there was always a voice saying you should be doing something different, and it was usually by my boss and I was being fired…I never could have imagined my life ending up this way.”
PBS will broadcast the tribute on Tuesday, Oct. 30. Ellen told PBS she was “happy to be part of your farewell season”—a pointed dig was at Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has said he plans to cut federal funding for the public television network.
The night not only honored Ellen, but also raised $1.5 million to benefit the Kennedy Center’s local and national performing arts and education programming.