Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been honoured with the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy.
On Sunday night at Washington’s Kennedy Centre, the 57-year-old actress received a stream of testimonials from celebrities including Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert and 2010 Mark Twain recipient Tina Fey – touching on the multiple aspects of her career.
Fey paid tribute to Louis-Dreyfus at the award ceremony by tracking the similarities between their lives.
“We both started comedy in Chicago. We both moved on to Saturday Night Live. We both lost our virginity to Brad Hall,” referring to Louis-Dreyfus’s husband and former SNL castmate sitting next to the actress.
Fey praised the “secret precision” of Louis-Dreyfus’ comedy and her willingness to make her Seinfeld character, Elaine Benes, so flawed.
“Julia let Elaine be selfish and petty and sarcastic and a terrible, terrible dancer,” Fey said. “Julia’s never been afraid to be unlikable – not on screen and not in person.”
Louis-Dreyfus is the 21st Mark Twain recipient, joining a list that includes Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Carol Burnett. Bill Cosby, the winner in 2009, had his award rescinded earlier this year after he was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
During last year’s ceremony to honour David Letterman, Cosby’s name was never mentioned. But this year, two of the performers felt comfortable making Cosby jokes. Late night host Stephen Colbert displayed a sign proclaiming, “167 days since the last Un-Twaining”.
With his fingers crossed, he told Louis-Dreyfus: “I think you’ll be OK.”
Later Keegan-Michael Key came onstage, dressed as Mark Twain himself and proceeded to roast many of the previous award recipients. When a picture of Cosby was briefly shown, he quickly moved things along and said: “It’s OK, he’s not watching,” then added that he doubted PBS was a popular channel “in the penitentiary”.
Seinfeld, while on the red carpet before the ceremony, recalled first meeting Louis-Dreyfus during an informal audition. His iconic sitcom, Seinfeld, was still in the planning stages and producer Larry David knew Louis-Dreyfus from their time together on Saturday Night Live.
“We had just two short pages of script, and we sat down to read the dialogue together,” Seinfeld said. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew she was the one.”
Seinfeld also credited Louis-Dreyfus for having the confidence and strength of personality to hold her own on what he called “a very male show”.
That confidence was evident very early for Louis-Dreyfus, who said she knew as a young child that she had a gift for comedy.
“The first time I really knew was when I stuffed raisins in my nose and my mother laughed. I ended up in the emergency room because they wouldn’t come out!” Louis-Dreyfus said before the ceremony.