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Thanks, Sarah Palin! Tina Fey gets the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

November 10, 2010 |  7:45 am

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Does Tina Fey look just a bit like Sarah Palin? You betcha. Are both women sassy brunettes who love droppin’ their vowels just for laughs? Oh, fer sure. But on Tuesday night, before a large crowd at the Kennedy Center in Washington, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Seth Meyers pointed out one major difference between Fey and the former vice presidential candidate she has spoofed many times on TV: “We’re all here tonight because Tina won something.”

That “something” was the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an honor that’s been bestowed Tina-Fey-gallery upon such comedy greats as Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal and Bill Cosby. And Fey, who attended the ceremony with her husband and parents, paid tribute to the former Alaska governor in her acceptance speech. "I would be a liar and an idiot if I didn't thank Sarah Palin for helping get me here tonight," said the Emmy-winning star of “30 Rock” and “SNL.” "My partial resemblance and her crazy voice are the two luckiest things that have ever happened to me."

Hosted by a dozen of Fey’s famous friends, the luxurious made-for-TV ceremony, which will air on PBS stations nationwide on Sunday, doubles as a benefit for the Kennedy Center, and chairman David Rubenstein kicked off the night by announcing that Fey’s event had raised $1.3 million, the largest total in the prize’s history. So of course, Fred Armisen couldn’t resist joking about the big bucks she makes as a noted funnyperson. He estimated that she’d raked in $60 million for her movie “Baby Mama” alone. “Mark Twain didn’t do that for Paramount,” he scoffed.

At 40, Fey is the youngest recipient in the prize’s 13-year history, while veterans like Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy and Carol Burnett are yet to be feted. Back in May, when Fey heard she’d won, she quipped, "I assume Betty White was disqualified for steroid use." But that just made it more charming when White -– the night’s eldest guest star and the one who got the most applause –- joked that she should have won herself because she was the only one there who actually dated Mark Twain. Besides, former prize-winner Steve Martin dismissed the idea that it was “too soon” for Fey. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew Tina only has two hours left to live,” he deadpanned.

Much was also made of the fact that Fey is only the third woman to win the award, after Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg. Though Fey would later insist that women are achieving at a rate where people can stop counting their “firsts,” Tracy Morgan still praised Fey for becoming the first female head writer at "SNL." “I was the first man to try to force an unwanted kiss on the female head writer,” he admitted.

Martin said it was refreshing to find a female comedian who was both good and funny-looking -- or was it funny and good-looking? And, in a prerecorded video, Fey’s "30 Rock" costar Alec Baldwin dressed up as Mark Twain and quipped about this year’s prize-winner: “Tina … now that’s a funny name for a man.... What? You’re kidding. But their brains aren’t shaped right!”

Some guests took a more personal tone: Jon Hamm recalled meeting Fey at an acting class in the Midwest in 1996, while Steve Carell joked that he’d gone on one ill-fated date with her when both were studying improv with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. Throughout the night, such memories were bookended with clips of Fey’s best work, from a very early video of a painfully frumpy Fey doing improv with Rachel Dratch, to her famous "SNL" sketches about mom jeans and Annuale birth control.

Yet everyone’s favorite Fey era was clearly the Palin years. “SNL” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels revealed that, on the day Fey premiered her impression on the show, she’d been up since 6 a.m. taping the Oprah Winfrey episode of “30 Rock”; when shooting wrapped at 5, she went directly to “SNL,” where she worked late into the night. Michaels praised the social significance of her comedy, recalling that Robert DeNiro called her resemblance to Palin “a gift.” “She not only wrote the sketch you liked,” he said, “she wrote the sketch you needed.”

Fey has always seemed a little embarrassed by the demand for her Mama Grizzly act. Asked in a pre-ceremony interview what work of hers would have the most lasting impact, she said, “I don’t think it will be Sarah Palin.... I would say Mean Girls.” But by the end of the ceremony, she acknowledged that her performance had made its mark. The last time she was in Washington, she said, it was 2004 and she had come to pose for a Life magazine photo with John McCain. McCain had hung the picture in his office. “He’s been looking at it every day since 2004,” she said, grimacing. “This whole thing might be my fault.” Up in the balcony, Fey’s parents, both Republicans, were laughing.

Mostly, Fey just seemed very grateful, both for the award and for the pretzels she’d kept in her purse during the two-hour ceremony. She expressed surprise about winning this award for American humor, “mostly because my style is so typically Austrian.” She gently mocked and genuinely thanked the night’s guests, gushing, “I love you, Betty White!” Then, standing on stage in our nation’s capital with a statuette of Mark Twain in her hands, she revealed her own version of the American dream. “I hope," she said, "that 100 years from now, people will see my work and say, 'Wow … that’s really racist.'”

--Melissa Maerz

Photo: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize salutes Tina Fey with a star-studded cast of Fey's friends and colleagues. Credit: Scott Suchman

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