Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the multi-Emmy-winning star of Veep and Seinfeld, was honored Sunday night with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a crowning comedy award presented each year by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Louis-Dreyfus, 57, got her start at Chicago’s Second City improv theater, and then went on to appear on Saturday Night Live. She shot to fame as Elaine Benes, the only female of Seinfeld’s quartet of flailing New Yorkers with questionable moral compasses. In recent years, Dreyfus has won six consecutive Emmys for her role as a beleaguered politician on HBO’s Veep.
Sunday night’s ceremony, which will be broadcast on PBS on November 19, featured appearances by Tina Fey, who won the Mark Twain Prize in 2010, Stephen Colbert and Jerry Seinfeld.
Speaking to reporters at the ceremony, Seinfeld said that when Louis-Dreyfus came to audition for his sitcom, he knew immediately that she would be perfect for the role of Elaine.
“It was literally thirty seconds,” he said, according to Reuters. “We were building the show but she was magic. I really don’t think the show would have been successful without her.”
Louis-Dreyfus received the award days after she revealed that she has beaten breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with last year. Veep paused production while she underwent treatment, but the show is currently wrapping up its final season.
Louis-Dreyfus said at the ceremony that her comedic talents emerged at an early age. “The first time I really knew was when I stuffed raisins in my nose and my mother laughed,” she said, according to The Associated Press. “I ended up in the emergency room because they wouldn’t come out!”
Onstage after receiving the award, Louis-Dreyfus showed off some of that deadpan humor that has resulted in so many awards when she joked about being saddened to learn that Mark Twain has died. “My thoughts and prayers go out to the whole Twain family … especially the wonderful Shania,” she quipped.
Louis-Dreyfus is the sixth woman to win the Twain prize, according to The New York Times, joining Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, and Carol Burnett. Fey, who won the award in 2010, lauded Louis-Dreyfus’ portrayal of Elaine on Seinfeld, saying, “In the early ’90s, at a time on network TV when actresses were expected to have great timing and great tans and great eating disorders, Julia made the bold choice for her character Elaine Benes to wear long, loose dresses, flat shoes and oversized coats. She didn’t need to give us midriff.”
Below, watch some highlights from Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and other entertainers as they honor Louis-Dreyfus.