Julia Louis-Dreyfus Rules All as the 2018 Winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Comedy Features Mark Twain Prize
Julia Louis-Dreyfus Rules All as the 2018 Winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Julia Louis-Dreyfus belongs on Mount Rushmore.

This, at least, is the Very American™ conclusion arrived at by both the comedians gathered late last month to fete Louis-Dreyfus as the newest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, as well as by the Kennedy Center board members responsible for elevating her to that honor in the first place.

“She is on the Mount. Rushmore. of Comedy, no matter what your gender is,” Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, endeavoring to shift the conversation away from centering Louis-Dreyfus’ position as a woman in comedy, stressed for the red carpet press scrum before the ceremony began. An hour or so later, introducing a surprise guest there to give a variably funny rundown of the Twain prize’s short, mostly illustrious history, David Rubenstein, President of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees, unintentionally echoed Glazer’s off-the-cuff red carpet sentiment almost verbatim, noting that Louis-Dreyfus had more than earned a place on the “Mount Rushmore of Humor.”

So, okay, not the Mount Rushmore, but a Mount Rushmore. The comedy world’s Mount Rushmore. A Mount Rushmore not carved on a mountain stolen from native people, and not honoring only old white dudes, one of whom may or may not have gotten immortalized in stone primarily for being friends with the sculptor. You know, a funny, more egalitarian kind of less (but not un)problematic Mount Rushmore. That’s where the face of Julia Louis-Dreyfus—native of Washington, D.C., star of three (3!) megahit sitcoms, winner of 11 Emmy awards, a Golden Globe award, nine Screen Actors Guild awards, three Television Critics Association awards, five American Comedy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy—deserves to be carved, front and center.

The comedy world doesn’t have its own Mount Rushmore, of course, but the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize, currently celebrating its 21st year, comes pretty close—down, even, to the hefty stone bust of Samuel Clemens awarded to each year’s honoree.

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Also like the real Mount Rushmore, the Mark Twain Prize is… weird. Or at least, the ceremony is. Pop culture events in Washington, D.C. in general tend to be a real farrago—of tone, of attendance, even (perhaps especially) of dress code—but the Twain Prize elevates that weirdness to an art form. Is it a gala fundraiser? A stand-up comedy show? A roast battle? An opportunity for a cutting indictment of the current Washington scene? An opportunity for the Prize to make jabs at itself? A participatory contemporary dance performance? A real fun hang between friends in the comedy industry? A Jack Johnson concert?

Yes. Yes! Yes. It is, somehow, all of those things.

As a gala fundraiser, this year’s event raised $2.2 million, exceeding its original goal. Everyone on stage was in black tie attire. There was a red carpet. A whole nine yards of it. Paste even showed up in heels.

As a stand-up comedy show, well, Tina Fey came out with some observational zingers: “Not to be preachy here,” she quipped as an aside during her speech about her and Louis-Dreyfus’s shared experience of being a producer, comedian and mom at the same time, “but children always want too much milk in their cereal! And they never finish it!!” This was followed by some great object work with her single poofy couture gown sleeve.

As a roast battle, so many of the people tapped to celebrate Louis-Dreyfus, both live and in pre-taped video packages, went in hard—and Louis-Dreyfus gave just as good as she got: “[Julia] knows how to deal with Congress because she already knows what it’s like to get screwed by clowns,” Kumail Nanjiani joked during his set before throwing this GQ photo up on the huge screen behind him. “Kumail, thank you for being here,” Louis-Dreyfus volleyed right back when she took the stage at the end of the night. “It is so inspiring that you were able to co-opt your wife’s harrowing medical ordeal for an Oscar nomination.”

As an opportunity for cutting indictment of the current Washington scene, dang, just about everyone went in on that. From Stephen Colbert, on Louis-Dreyfus’s unnecessary graciousness: “Here’s the thing—she’s so successful, she’s such a giant in her field, she could get away with being a jerk, but she’s NOT. She needs nothing from me and yet she’s so nice to me—and that’s not always the case in show business. You Washington people, you’re used to politics Well let me tell you, there are some terrible people in show business… who recently switched to politics.” From Fey, on the cultural resonance of Louis-Dreyfus’s resume: “Everyone talks about all the parallels between Veep and the current administration, but I think it’s more like Seinfeld—just a bunch of selfish dicks who don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves.” From Nanjiani, on Louis-Dreyfus’s presidential potential: “She’s a Washington outsider! Insiders are out! Outsiders are in! Deplete the marsh! Diminish the bog! Empty the quagmire! Siphon off the mud… no offense to almost everyone here.” From Louis-Dreyfus herself, on her recent battle with cancer: “The old cliché about laughter being the best medicine turns out to be true—which is good, because that’s what the current administration is trying to replace Obamacare with.” (The D.C. locals in the audience? They loved it.)

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As an opportunity for the Prize to make jabs, even, at itself, well—it’s not like the Kennedy Center or its new producing partner, Done + Dusted, had much of a choice but to lean into that one, having made the decision this past summer to rescind Bill Cosby’s 2009 award. “It’s an honor to be here at the Kennedy Center, the HOME of comedy—doesn’t this feel right?” Colbert joked to kick the event off, mildly cutting down the event’s presumed glitziness. Then, immediately answering the question of how the event would choose to acknowledge the Cosby issue, he continued, “Fun fact: Tonight we celebrate TWENTY-ONE years of the Mark Twain Prize. So many greats of American Comedy have been honored over the years, and so far, only one prize rescinded. Let’s put up the sign!” At which point a digital sign reading 167 days since the last UnTwaining appeared on the screen behind him. This was very funny. Less funny, unfortunately, was the second, more direct, more tonally deflating Cosby bit they doubled down with halfway through the ceremony, with Keegan-Michael Key dressed up as Mark Twain highlighting some of the Twain’s now nineteen previous recipients. But you can’t say they didn’t try!

As for the last three descriptions—participatory contemporary dance performance, casual comedy-friend hang, Jack Johnson concert—well, those ended up being both the absolute weirdest parts of the event, as well as the most fun. Everyone gathered together to celebrate Louis-Dreyfus so obviously loves and admires her, and would so obviously give her the moon if they could, and hearing them each find their own path to articulating that—especially when articulating that comes in the form of the Broad City girls donning neutral-toned bodysuits and dancing a highly produced contemporary Elaine dance (“To pay blessings to OUR QUEEN”)—is more than worth your time.

And as for how Louis-Dreyfus took in the night?

“According to Wikipedia, I have two sons, Charlie and Henry,” she deadpanned, taking the stage to accept her award. “You know when you’re a working mother, you really worry about the time spent away from your kids. You try your best to be there as much as possible, but the truth is, is that you miss stuff and you worry that they’re going to just get all screwed up… and then you get the Mark Twain Prize. I gotta say, it’s worth it.”

If you catch the telecast on PBS, you will get to see all of Louis-Dreyfus’s friends, including Stephen Colbert, Bryan Cranston, Tina Fey, Ilana Glazer, Tony Hale, Abbi Jacobson, Jack Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Lisa Kudrow, Kumail Nanjiani, and Jerry Seinfeld live, plus dozens more by video package, go into glowing detail about every one of the personal and comedic qualities that recommend the Veep comedian to such a high honor. It’s no Mount Rushmore, but it’s damn close. Be ready with your best Elaine dance.

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.

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