Will Ferrell quickly laid down the law about his Mark Twain Prize on Sunday night in Washington.
"If my children try to touch it, or even look at it, I will beat them," Ferrell said, before turning to shout to Viveca Paulin, his wife and the mother of their three sons, up in the balcony. "Tonight is my night. If I want to go on an all-night bender with Gwen Ifill, I will."
God, hero and funniest man on Earth were just some of the endearing terms gushed on Ferrell at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, where the 44-year-old Southern California native received the nation's top comedy award.
Photos: Will Ferrell receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
In sincerity, after graciously accepting the bronze Mark Twain bust in front of a standing ovation, Ferrell also thanked the Kennedy Center for being "one of the few places that upholds comedy as what it truly is -- an art form."
Through the night, Conan O'Brien, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Jack Black, Andy Samberg, Paul Rudd, John C. Reilly, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, Ed Asner and Ifill did anything but roast the seven-year "Saturday Night Live" cast member as they paid tribute to his career, which includes films such as "Anchorman" and, more recently, the comedy sketch website Funny or Die, which he launched with former "SNL" head writer Adam McKay.
"I have never been happier on stage," O'Brien said of a clip in which he interviewed Ferrell, dressed as a hairy, scantily clad leprechaun. "Will magnifies and celebrates his flaws, just to entertain us. Nobody commits like Will Ferrell."
On "SNL," Ferrell established himself as a live and improvisational sketch comic who could stay in character, no matter how hard audiences laughed, as a cowbell musician, an overly excited Spartan cheerleader or a head-bopping club creep.
After starting the show singing Queen's "We Will Rock You," rewritten as "Will Will Rock You," Black described glimpsing the secret of Ferrell's comedic steel when he tried greeting him before a performance at a benefit. In response, Black got only a forefinger hushing his mouth: Ferrell was in the middle of finding his focus.
"It was as if he was praying to the comedy gods before going into battle," Black said.
But to "Anchorman" costar Paul Rudd, who said he draws inspiration from a small shrine to Ferrell at home, the movie and TV star is one of the comedic gods. "He taught me how not to worry about alternative jokes too quickly -- how to just play with things," Rudd said. "He has a way of making the most plaintive statements funny."
Reilly repurposed a fake wedding-day speech to describe his love, current "SNL" member Samberg called Ferrell his only hero, and Stiller said no one can make him laugh harder.
Between tributes, clips displaying Ferrell's wide oeuvre were played, including unseen "SNL" sketches, portions of the one-man Broadway hit "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush," and the Funny or Die skits. A USC graduate, Ferrell trained at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa before hooking up with the Groundlings in the mid-'90s.
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an influence on American society in ways similar to that of the 19th-century novelist and humorist. Ferrell is the 14th person to win the prize, which has previously gone to comedy legends such as Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, George Carlin and, last year, Tina Fey.
The Kennedy Center raised a record $1.2 million for performing arts funding from this year's event, which sold out immediately after it was announced in May that Ferrell would receive the honor, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein said.
PBS has scheduled the full 90-minute program to air on Halloween evening. Check local listings for the time.
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-- Alexa Vaughn in Washington
Photo: Mark Twain Award recipient Will Ferrell, with wife Viveca Paulin, right, in the balcony at the Kennedy Center. Credit: Kevin Wolf / Associated Press