Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey Fete Julia Louis-Dreyfus With 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Comedy

Scott Suchman
Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld and Kumail Nanjiani were among the A-listers at the Kennedy Center event who helped honor the actress.

The problem with honoring the comedian who plays Veep’s Selina Meyer with an award ceremony that will air on PBS is that most of her genius insults need to be censored for a PBS audience. But don’t worry: Stephen Colbert’s staff has it covered.

In his welcoming remarks to an audience of 2,400 — though officials from the current administration were not in attendance — at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night, Colbert toasted Julia Louis-Dreyfus with a montage of Selina’s signature zingers, dubbing liberally as needed. For example, Selina threatens a Colorado congresswoman, whose husband was diagnosed with colon cancer, that if she doesn’t support Selina in her bid for president, she’s “going to have the IRS crawl so far up your husband’s [pledge drive], he’s going to wish the only thing they find is more [tote bags].”

“So,” Selina cheerily chirps, “can I count on your vote?”

Judging from the resounding applause and the sold-out crowd, it would seem that, yes, Louis-Dreyfus can count on those votes — both for celebrating her 35-plus years of making us laugh and for whatever it is she decides to do next. 

Veep co-star Kumail Nanjiani suggested she’s a perfect candidate for the real presidency: “She’s pivoted from being a great ensemble castmember to becoming a superstar on her own. She flourishes both as a team player and someone who can take charge. While she crafts incredible characters on screen, she exhibits a special strength of character off screen. She uses her voice to fight for the vulnerable, she’s a brilliant leader and motivator, she knows how to get stuff done — she’s, dare I say, presidential,” he offered. “And what’s a huge asset right now? She’s a Washington outsider! Insiders are out! Outsiders are in! Deplete the Marsh! Diminish the bog! Empty the quagmire! Siphon off the mud — no offense to almost everyone here,” he quaintly apologized.

“Plus, Julia has the experience to deal with Congress because she already knows what it’s like to get screwed by clowns,” said Nanjiani, referencing a photo of Louis-Dreyfus from a 2014 GQ story.

Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how Louis-Dreyfus is groundbreaking as a comedian and woman who unapologetically claims both her gender and her sexuality. The duo said they proudly channel their inner Selina Meyer as both showrunners and businesswomen (“Like, you have to be a bitch — a biiiitch! I love it, and I need it”), but that even before they knew they’d go into show business, Seinfeld's Elaine Benes character helped them define the unflinching sexuality that they’re known for on Broad City. “As a kid, even before puberty, to watch her be so sexual on Seinfeld, to want sex and get sex as much as she did, was fucking dope,” said Glazer. “I wouldn’t be who I am in my personal and professional life without that.”

Throughout the A-list lineup of tributes from colleagues (Larry David, Bryan Cranston, Tony Hale, Amy Poehler) and friends (Lisa Kudrow, Jack Johnson, Keegan Michael Key), it appeared the line between those distinctions is blurry. To know Louis-Dreyfus is to love her, it seems, and nowhere is that more apparent than in her friendship with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld explained that the success of his show was largely dependent on convincing an audience that he was able to maintain a friendship with someone whom he had once dated. “[It was] a completely absurd idea … and I was still required as an actor to play this situation: That she and I were a couple, we broke up, there was this other aspect to our relationship that enabled it to survive but without the romantic element. There are some layers and complexity to that — and, candidly speaking, way, way beyond any acting ability that I possess,” he said, which received waves of laughter. “So, how did I do it? I just really, really liked Julia. I couldn’t get enough of her. I never said or did anything inappropriate, but for that whole nine years, I was not acting. I couldn’t!”

Tina Fey, who received the Mark Twain Prize in 2010, introduced the crowd to Louis-Dreyfus as someone who spent her childhood growing up a stone’s throw from the Kennedy Center and attending the Holton-Arms School in the era of Christine Blasey Ford: “Anyone who knows Julia knows that she cherished her high school days boofing out on the quad, playing Devil’s Triangle with her girlfriends, a classic American childhood.” (Louis-Dreyfus was also one of the signers of the letter in support of Ford’s testimony during the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh).

In her acceptance speech, Louis-Dreyfus also took a not-so-subtle swipe at Kavanaugh. “I grew up here in Washington, D.C., back in the quaint, old-fashioned Rule of Law period,” which drew uproarious but pained laughter, then talked about her formative experience in theater at Holton-Arms. “I was in a very serious production called Serendipity. You know, it’s funny with us Holton girls: I remember everything, every detail of that play,” a reference that was not lost on the audience, who interrupted her with thunderous applause. “I would swear to it under penalty of perjury. And yet, I don’t remember who drove me to the show or drove me home. … This, by the way, is totally true and not some kind of subtle attack on our new Supreme Court Justice. For God’s sake, the man has suffered enough.”

Showing that she’s not afraid to talk politics or discuss her cancer diagnosis, Louis-Dreyfus said, “Last year, I was walking up to get an Emmy for my performance on Veep, which was an incredible thrill and set some kind of record for most Emmys by somebody doing something or other, and then about 12 hours later I was diagnosed with cancer. …  A big part of dealing with cancer has been finding the funny parts. The old cliché about laughter being the best medicine turns out to be true — which is good, because that’s what the current administration is trying to replace Obamacare with.”

Ending on an emotional note, Louis-Dreyfus got a little choked up, reflecting that “the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to make people laugh for a living is one of the many blessings that I’ve received in my life.” She thanked her supportive family — in attendance were her husband, Brad Hall, and her mother, who lives in D.C. and brought “80 of her closest friends” to the show. As for her children, Louis-Dreyfus offered that “according to Wikipedia, I have two sons, Charlie and Henry,” to much laughter. “When you’re a working mother, you really worry about the time spent away from your kids. You try your best to be there as much as possible, but the truth is that you miss stuff, and you worry that they’re gonna just get all screwed up and suffer all kinds of angst … and then you get the Mark Twain Prize and you think, you know, it’s worth it.”

Asked whether she would have met with President Donald Trump for the occasion if given the chance, Louis-Dreyfus told THR, "I don’t think he’s interested in meeting with me and that’s fine. I have no problem with that — I’m not interested in meeting him, either."

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize is set to air Nov. 19 on PBS.