Julia Louis-Dreyfus was honored at the Kennedy Center last month as the 21st recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
You might know her from Seinfeld. You might know her from The New Adventures of Old Christine. You might know her from Veep. You might know her from the classic NSFW Inside Amy Schumer sketch—featuring fellow Mark Twain Prize winner, Tina Fey—“Last F**kable Day.” The point is, you know her from something, and so while she joked on Kimmel about the pressure of having to give a speech at the end of the ceremony to prove she’s funny enough to have won any comedy award, the very point of the thing is that, after three decades in television comedy, she doesn’t actually have to prove anything.
But while we can all agree that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a genuine comedy icon, one question does remain: What makes her, specifically, an American Humorist, and one worthy of a prize founded in novelist Mark Twain’s name?
Well, according to the Kennedy Center:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of memorable characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled and outraged many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
These are all laudable qualities in a comedian, and they certainly make for a flavor of humor that is at once revolutionary and democratic. But there is more to being an American Humorist than simply satirizing fools and assaulting injustice with laughter. That more was the very subject of the toasts and roasts given by Louis-Dreyfus’s friends and colleagues the night she was honored. The ceremony won’t hit PBS until November 19—all the better to wince at the naïveté of the political jokes made many weeks before the midterms—Paste got a front (well, middle-to-side) row seat at the big event, and we’re ready to share a few of the answers to that question that everyone there seemed to agree upon.
This award is still young—who knows, you might be the 22nd or 40th or 51st recipient someday. So pay attention!
What’s the very first thing that makes Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s comedy so very American? “Her work ethic, honestly,” improv comedian (and longtime Paste fan) Aaron Mosby explained, walking the red carpet on behalf of the Washington Improv Theater. “Being funny all the time is hard work, and she’s just been able to do that year after year, decade after decade, and I think the people in comedy know how hard that is. To win six Emmys in a row is unheard of in any category, but comedy, I think, is especially hard because it is just so relentless, so grueling.”
Mosby was not alone in picking this trait out. Keegan-Michael Key highlighted it in the second of his two bits on stage (“Wait a second, how many shows were you on??” he deadpanned after listing all her tentpole series. “It’s unbelievable, it’s incredible, all the shows are incredible!”), as did Tina Fey, Bryan Cranston and Jerry Seinfeld.
Louis-Dreyfus is not the only notoriously hard worker to receive a Twain award, of course. Bob Newhart, winning in 2002, is described in his Twain Prize bio as having “simply ‘picked up the slack,’ as he puts it” to give birth to his famous one-man, two-way telephone conversations, while 2005 winner Steve Martin is acclaimed at the very top of his own bio as “one of the most diversified performers and acclaimed artists of his generation.” 2006 winner Neil Simon, meanwhile, has had more plays adapted to film than any other playwright, according to his Twain Prize bio, in addition to writing nearly a dozen original film comedies and helping to shape television comedy as the medium was just getting started. This funny business, it seems, is real work.
There is perhaps no greater success for any artist than for their art to become a part of the cultural lexicon. 2008 winner George Carlin had his infamous “7 words.” 2010 winner Tina Fey has 30 Rock’s “I want to go to there.” 2006 winner Neil Simon had the entire concept of The Odd Couple.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Her legacy, according to just about everyone on stage, is her extreme commitment to physicality—most notably with the Elaine Dance, but throughout every role and performance she’s done, before and after, which has bled into American culture as physical shorthand.
This shorthand turned into a contemporary dance performance starring the ladies from Broad City that has to be seen to be believed, so make sure you tune in on Nov. 19.
According to Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr., the Twain Prize’s first recipient, Richard Pryor, “made it possible for us to be in this business on equal terms.” 2012 winner Ellen DeGeneres forged a path for gay women on television. 2006 winner Lorne Michaels has literally given America half of its most famous on-screen comedians. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus?
“Men have it easy,” Keegan-Michael Key said by way of starting his speech at October’s ceremony. “Women have to open doors, change the dynamic.”
“Without JLD, there would be no us,” Abbi Jacobson said, as she and Broad City comedy partner Ilana Glazer teed up their wild contemporary dance (see above) in honor of Louis-Dreyfus’s physicality. “Julia—you lead the charge for authentic and flawed female characters in comedy, from Elaine to Christine to Selina and so many more. Every time you create a character, you open a door, a door for another generation of funny women to easily walk through. You’ve given us permission to be bold, weird, and above all, lethally funny.”
Hand in hand with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s willingness to go physically all in for a joke, no matter how humiliating, is her willingness to look injustice in America in the eye and call it out for its bullshit. This impulse is deeply rooted in the prize’s Twainian roots, but it has not been as strong an element in the work of Twain winners throughout the decades as it has been in Louis-Dreyfus’s career. Louis-Dreyfus is a precise “Terminator robot of comedy,” Fey explained when it was her turn on stage, but she is also a “tireless advocate of the environment and women’s health and a bunch of other stuff that won’t exist soon.” This is one of the reason’s her portrayal of Veep’s craven Selina rings so sharply in the cultural consciousness, juxtaposed so neatly as it is with her canny understanding of the unjust systems at play with American systems of power. It is also, charmingly, one of the reasons why her friend and neighbor, musician Jack Johnson, joined her colleagues from the comedy world to celebrate her career—but for more on that connection, again, tune in on Nov. 19.
The most American thing for a humorist of any stripe to do, though, is simply this: Be on television. And not just, like, on television some—but to be one with television. Be television. Carol Burnett was television. Bob Newhart, waking up from a season-long dream of being on television in another seasons-long series, was television. Neil Simon might’ve been more Broadway, but he was still also television. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, her three decades, three hit sitcoms, and groundbreaking work on stage and SNL—seen playing into levels of television inception in the HBO clip with former Vice President Joe Biden above—is television.
Want her to prove it? Tune in to the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on PBS on Monday, Nov.19, at 9 p.m. ET. She’ll be right there, on television, proving it all.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.