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DeGeneres receives top humor prize in DC

WASHINGTON--Some of the nation's top comedians hailed Ellen DeGeneres as a trailblazer Monday night as she received the highest U.S. humor prize.

The Kennedy Center is awarding DeGeneres the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The show will be broadcast Oct. 30 on Public Broadcasting Service stations.

“Thanks to everyone at PBS. I am so happy to be part of your farewell season,” DeGeneres joked in accepting the prize and taking a jab at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's plans to stop funding public broadcasting.

On the red carpet before the show, DeGeneres said she doesn't see herself as political with her comedy, even though she's been a trailblazer.

“I just want to make people happy and make people laugh,” she said.

DeGeneres, 54, began her career as a comedy club emcee in her native New Orleans. After a performance on Johnny Carson's show in 1986, he invited her over to his desk to chat. She was the first female comedian to receive that invitation from Carson.

Turning to acting, DeGeneres landed comedy series on Fox and ABC, eventually starring in “Ellen” from 1994 to 1998. She broke new ground and a taboo in 1997 when she came out publicly as a lesbian and her TV persona then became the first lead character on prime-time TV to reveal she was gay. A record 46 million viewers watched the episode.

Coming out on TV 15 years ago feels like another life, she said Monday night before the show.

“I did it because it was the right thing for me to do,” DeGeneres said. “It was the right thing for me to do to not live with shame. I happened to help a lot of people, and it happened to create a ruckus.”

Jimmy Kimmel called it a milestone.

“For a lot of people, Ellen is their only homosexual friend,” he said. “She's there in their living room every single day.”

When DeGeneres first heard she was receiving the same honor that Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell won in recent years, she joked, “Why didn't I get this sooner?”

After DeGeneres came out on TV in 1997, her comedy show began to tank and was canceled a year later. The feeling of rejection was enough to send DeGeneres into a depression. Still, “Ellen” paved the way for future shows to feature gay characters, from “Will and Grace” to “Modern Family.”

DeGeneres came back with a CBS comedy series, movie roles and even a stint as an “American Idol” singing competition judge. Forbes magazine has ranked her as the 47th most-powerful woman in the world and estimated her earnings at $53 million last year.

Her hit TV talk show that debuted in 2003 is now in its 10th season. Among other achievements, that's where she eventually persuaded President Barack Obama to dance.

“She's brilliantly shined a light on society, and that's what Mark Twain did,” said Cappy McGarr, an executive producer for the Mark Twain Prize show, when the award was announced.

The prize honors comedians in Mark Twain's tradition of satire and social commentary. Other past winners include Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.

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Entertainer Ellen DeGeneres, second from front left, waves as she is introduced, with wife Portia de Rossi, left, before she receives the 15th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Monday, Oct. 22. (AP)

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