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

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

Comments () | Archives (16)

She should share her prize with Sarah Palin. If she didn't look similar she would be just another small time SNL comic.

Tina Fey being selected for this honor is shameful. She is a funny gal, to be sure, but she is not even close to being in the same league as Pryor, Cosby or Crystal and others should have been selected way before her (Carol Burnett). Her inclusion tells me this has become much like the Pulitzer Prize, entirely a political exercise. Shameful.

She's not funny. Never has been.

This is almost like Obombya getting the Peace Prize BEFORE he stops killing, tho with Kissinger having received it as well, he who never STOPPED killing, the Nobel committee has a rather consistently skewed history.

In this case, Tina is funny and clever, but where's the body of work? Would Twain have received his own prize after his first book? Maybe Tina will live long enough to become a legend. Good luck with that Tina.

You gotta hand it to her. She makes the most out of being butt ugly. She is riding this Palin schtick into the ground. Would anyone get an award for making fun of Obama?

She is the best!. She deserves it

Goodness there are some grumpy people out there...she's funny, relavent, and she will be around for a LONG time making people laugh; at least those who still have the capacity to find humor in their extremely important and serious existence. It isn't shameful. It isn't political. It is an award....relax. This is an award for humor and has NOTHING to do with Obama. Just because Sarah Palin was mentioned doesn't mean you need to get your panties in a bunch. Taxes won't go up and Tina Fey won't take away your guns....just breath.

I think the writer is giving far too much credit to the Sarah Palin impression and not nearly enough to Tina Fey's genius.

Y'all are wrong. Tina is timeless. She has the timing of Lucille Ball. She's got that genius awkwardness of Gilda Radner. She's effortlessly witty like Woody Allen. She's All American like Billy Crystal and part of your family like Bill Cosby. She's our generation's Betty White, Carol Burnett, Madeline Kahn, and Teri Garr. Yay for Tina! Thanks for using your brain and not your boobs to get ahead.

She isn't incredibly bright or clever. I watched 30 Rock last night and it was "stale". Nothing fresh, Alec Baldwin carries the entire show. I cannot believe she's being honored for this, her humor is average to boring, and she only has one thing she's good at.

Looks like some cranky flat-earthers and creationists from FreeRepublic.com have arrived to voice barely literate displeasure.

Wow you early commenters are a sour bunch. If you had a sense of humour you'd probably appreciate hers more. She's funny, intelligent and attractive to boot. She's a standout comedian and certainly deserves the accolade.

I'll have to wait to see the broadcast on PBS Sunday, but methinks you were punk'd by Jon Hamm's joke. According to The Chicago Sun-Times:

** As befits a talent touted as much for her writing as her performing, the evening was thick with fiction.

Martin recalled his sexual three-way with Fey and "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels. "SNL's" Fred Armisen recounted analyzing the box-office grosses of Fey's movies with her 5-year-old daughter. "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm claimed he met Fey in 1996 -- "when I was still a woman." **

According to an interview in Entertainment Weekly last year, Tina did not know whether Hamm could do comedy when she invited him to guest-star on "30 Rock" because they had never met to that point.

Ah yes, butt ugly...especially compared to the male models that have won this award??

C'mon, someone's gotta make fun of that moron from Alaska.

sooooooooooooooo overrated.................

I like Tina as much as anybody, but this prize is exceptionally premature. Yes, she's had a good couple of years, but to get this before Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Matt Groening, David Letterman?
I assume the Kennedy Center is simply going for ratings. You betcha.


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