WASHINGTON - Does Tina Fey look just a bit like Sarah Palin? You betcha. Are both women sassy brunets who love droppin' their consonants 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 would-be vice president she has spoofed many times on TV: "Tina won something."
That "something" was the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, an honor that's been bestowed 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 governor of Alaska 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 airs tonight on PBS, doubled as a benefit for the Kennedy Center. Chairman David Rubenstein kicked off the night by announcing Fey's event had raised $1.3 million, the largest total in the prize's history. Fred Armisen of "SNL" couldn't resist joking about the big bucks she makes as a noted funnywoman. He estimated she'd raked in $60 million for her movie "Baby Mama" alone. "Mark Twain didn't do that for Paramount," he scoffed.
At 40 years old, Fey is the youngest recipient in the prize's 13-year history, while veterans such as Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy and Carol Burnett have 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 she should have won herself because she was the only one there who actually dated Mark Twain.
Former Twain Prize winner Steve Martin dismissed the idea it was "too soon" for Fey. "You wouldn't say that if you knew Tina only has two hours left to live," he deadpanned.
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" co-star 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 presenters took a more personal tone: Jon Hamm recalled meeting Fey at an acting class in the Midwest back in 1996, while Steve Carell joked he'd gone on one 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 p.m., she went directly to "SNL," where she worked late into the night. Michaels praised the social significance of her comedy, recalling that Robert De Niro called her resemblance to Palin "a gift."
"She not only wrote the sketch you liked," Michaels 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 influence, she said, "I don't think it will be Sarah Palin. ... I would say 'Mean Girls.'"
By the end of the ceremony, however, she acknowledged her performance had made its mark. The last time she was in Washington, she said, it was 2004 and she'd come to pose for a Life magazine photo with Sen. John McCain. McCain 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, who are 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 an award for American humor, "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 statue of Mark Twain in her hands, she revealed her own version of the American dream. "I hope that 100 years from now, people will see my work and say, wow ... that's really racist."
The Mark Twain Prize'
Airs 9 tonight
on WHYY-TV 12