On Sunday night, Will Ferrell took to the red carpet inside Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center dressed in a lush blue velvet jacket, complete with velvet bow tie and pocket square. He had arrived to become the 14th recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, an honor reserved for only the most hilarious Americans.
When asked if there was anything he was still dying to accomplish, Ferrell answered plainly. “I’m still hoping to start my own Kabuki dinner theater chain,” he said. “Because everyone loves Kabuki, and everyone loves dinner theater. Put those together. Look out. Done.”
The Mark Twain Prize has in years past served as a sort of lifetime achievement award. Stand-up comedian George Carlin was given the golden bust of Twain (the only comedy prize he considered legitimate) posthumously in 2008. Playwright Neil Simon was pushing 80 when he got the call in 2006. For Ferrell, 44, the honor is more of a mid-life achievement, similar to the one notched last year by 41-year-old Tina Fey, who was the youngest person to ever get the Sam Clemens salute.
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As the presenter-performers there to honor him made their entrances, TIME asked them what made Ferrell Twain-worthy (beyond his trademark ability to stay classy).
“He’s fearless,” said Gwen Ifill, a PBS newswoman who mentored Ferrell for the film Anchorman, in which he plays the doltish-yet-suave newscaster Ron Burgundy. “He doesn’t mind if he’s not wearing enough clothes. He doesn’t mind if he sometimes misses and sometimes hits.”
“I bet everyone’s saying his body, right?” said current Saturday Night Live stalwart Andy Samberg. “He’s a thinking man’s comic. He has an incredibly deft touch with his details. But he’s also a big swinger, you know, a flailing-all-over-the-place, showing-his-ass kind of a comic.”
“He’s brought the theater of the absurd to the masses,” said actor Jack Black. “And I don’t think people see that because he’s got such mass appeal. That’s what sets him apart. He’s a strange mo’ fo’.
“His eyes,” said talk show host Conan O’Brien. “He has the dead, cold eyes of a doll … It’s how, actually, I fell in love with him. He has the same eyes as Charles Grodin and the shark from Jaws.”
Certainly John William Ferrell, native of Irvine, California, has proven to be the kind of performer that knows how to say “yes,” no matter what is presented to him. He writes and acts. He does blockbuster comedy and dabbles in drama. He earned two Emmy nods during his seven seasons on SNL. He earned a Tony nomination for his one-man Broadway show in which he impersonated George W. Bush for 90 minutes straight. (As well as another Emmy nod after it was broadcast on HBO.) And he embraced the fledgling world of viral videos when he and longtime collaborator Adam McKay started Funnyordie.com in 2007.
Black opened the tribute with a ballad for Ferrell, a take on Queen’s “We Will Rock You” entitled “Will Will Rock You”—a sentiment shared by all who followed. Presenters included Ed Asner (Elf), Matthew Broderick (The Producers), McKay, Tim Meadows (SNL), John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Tagadella Nights), Paul Rudd (Anchorman), Molly Shannon (SNL), and Ben Stiller (Zoolander). Each ribbed and honored Ferrell as they worked through classic clips. A few highlights for the Ferrell fans: Iron Lotus, cowbell, Frank the Tank, funeral crashing, Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good.
“For years I had many questions about this Mark Twain, the first being, ‘Who is he?’” Ferrell said upon accepting his bust from the chairman of the Kennedy Center, David Rubenstein. “Then it dawned on me that, since I was a small boy, I thoroughly enjoyed his delicious fried chicken.” But after 15 minutes of exhausting the audience’s diaphragms, Ferrell ended on a sincere note. “I want to thank the Kennedy Center,” he said, “for being one of the few places that upholds comedy as what it truly is: an art form.”
The performance will be broadcast on PBS on Oct. 31.
(Full disclosure: The Kennedy Center uses the annual Mark Twain Prize event as a fundraiser, and Time Warner, TIME’s parent company, was a sponsor.)
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