Ellen DeGeneres, who broke ground in 1997 as the first lead character on prime-time TV to reveal she was gay, is winning the nation's top humor prize.
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Tuesday that DeGeneres will receive the 15th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She will be honored Oct. 22 with a lineup of star performers in a tribute show that will be recorded for broadcast at a later date.
In a written statement, DeGeneres said receiving the same award as past honorees Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell makes her wonder, "why didn't I get this sooner?"
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It was 15 years ago — just before the humor prize was created — when DeGeneres came out on Time magazine's cover and as her character on the sitcom "Ellen" to a record 46 million viewers. The popular show began losing viewers, though, and was canceled a year later. DeGeneres said at the time that ABC caved in to fear and abandoned the show. She faced tough questions over whether the sitcom was "too gay" and if she had torpedoed her career by pushing a "gay agenda."
"When I'm accused of becoming political, I'm showing love," DeGeneres told ABC's Diane Sawyer in a 1998 interview. "How is that political to teach love and acceptance?"
The rejection was enough to send DeGeneres into a deep depression.
"Ellen" paved the way, though, for future shows to also break the taboo of showing gay characters. "Will and Grace" would follow, along with "Glee," ''Modern Family" and others.
DeGeneres bounced back with movie roles, including as the voice of a lead character in the animated film "Finding Nemo." She also has a hit talk show now in its ninth season, best-selling books and had a stint as the fourth judge on "American Idol."
Cappy McGarr, an executive producer for the Mark Twain Prize show and a Kennedy Center board member, said DeGeneres has a special style of observational humor in the tradition of Twain. She also makes people laugh across political lines.
"She's not just a comedian," he said. "She's really a miracle worker. She got the president to dance, the first lady to do pushups and (Republican) Tom Delay to laugh."
The New Orleans native got her start as an emcee at a local comedy club in her hometown. In 1982, a videotape of her club performance won DeGeneres Showtime's "Funniest Person in America." By 1986, she appeared on "The Tonight Show" and became the first female comedian summoned to Johnny Carson's desk to chat about her performance.
The Mark Twain prize honors people who have an impact on society in the tradition of Samuel Clemens, better known as Twain, as a social commentator and satirist.
McGarr said the Kennedy Center, which awards the prize, is not making a political statement by selecting the trailblazing DeGeneres.
"This has nothing to do with any political issue," he said. "But she's brilliantly shined a light on society, and that's what Mark Twain did."