Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 57, back to health after chemotherapy and fresh from shooting the 2019 season of her smash hit Veep, will receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday (in a ceremony to be telecast on PBS on Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. ET), with teasing tributes by Stephen Colbert, Bryan Cranston, Tina Fey, Ilana Glazer, Tony Hale, Abbi Jacobson, Keegan-Michael Key, Kumail Nanjiani and Jerry Seinfeld. “As a student of both American history and literature, the fact that Mr. Twain himself will be presenting the award to me in person is particularly gratifying,” quipped Louis-Dreyfus.
It won’t be her first rodeo on the red carpet. Unlike previous Twain Prize winners Steve Martin, David Letterman, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Carol Burnett, Louis-Dreyfus holds the world record for Emmy Award wins (11, including an unprecedented six in a row for Veep). She shared the AARP Movies for Grownups Award with the late James Gandolfini for their film (his last), 2014’s Enough Said, and this year she broke another record by winning her ninth Screen Actors Guild Award, beating previous SAG record holders Julianna Margulies, 52, and Alec Baldwin, 60.
Among iconic comedy revolutionaries, Louis-Dreyfus blends the high-speed, high-IQ irony of Preston Sturges (The Great McGinty) with a feminist-era update of TV personae such as Lucille Ball’s and Mary Tyler Moore’s. Louis-Dreyfus made history with her idiosyncratic comic gift of self-deprecation and her equal gift of self-assertion and fearless hijinks. As she told Variety, “I’ve always admired women who are not afraid of making themselves look bad or foolish to get a laugh,” citing Ball, Moore, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman as her inspirations.
Her characters shatter all precedents for unsympathetic female behavior — none of them wants to turn the world on with a smile or make somebody else’s day worthwhile — and yet she manages to make them all lovably relatable. No other actor has won an Emmy for three characters: Seinfeld’s self-absorbed Elaine Benes (a role she won in 1989, over Patricia Heaton, Megan Mullally and Rosie O’Donnell), Christine Campbell on the 2006-10 hit The New Adventures of Old Christine and two-faced veep turned president Selina Meyer on Veep, TV’s most authentic, funniest fictional political show.
Her Twain prize is really a win for all older actors, because her career represents the triumph of age and wisdom in a medium that's ruled by youth and age denial (even though people over 50 are the largest cohort of TV watchers). When Louis-Dreyfus reunited with the Seinfeld cast on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2009, she told New York Magazine: “It was sort of like going back in time, except that I went back older and wiser. …This is going to sound really pompous, but if you’re a musician, I’m guessing you’re probably a better musician when you’re 50 than you were when you were in your twenties. And that’s just because you’ve been playing longer and you might not be able to say why, but you just feel more skilled at it. So I think it’s safe to say that I sort of feel that way.”
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When she dropped out of Northwestern University to become Saturday Night Live’s youngest-ever comedienne, in 1982, Louis-Dreyfus was largely ignored during an SNL low point, and to be fair, nothing she did as a youngster was exceptional. It was only after she’d begun to perfect her craft that she got her Seinfeld break, at 28, in 1989, and her talent grew even faster on The New Adventures of Old Christine, arguably the most-overlooked masterpiece in modern comedy. The concept — she played the titular character, a mother whose ex marries a much younger woman, also named Christine (“the new Christine”) — should have generated ghastly results, but a female-dominated creative team made it hilariously pro-woman and among the smartest shows about aging in TV history.
Louis-Dreyfus told the Television Academy: “There were all sorts of jokes about age and stuff, but I like the way we handled it. I loved when [Christine] takes her fake hair out of her head and rips the eyelashes off and takes the Spanx off, and maybe the push-up bra or those gel things that you stick in, and becomes sort of a different person altogether.” Louis-Dreyfus managed to utter jokes like, “I have to stand on my head to make my boobs look good” without making women — or grownups — look bad. Her comedy is partly about the double consciousness women feel, analogous to the racial double consciousness addressed by TV’s Black-ish and Jordan Peele’s hit film Get Out.
Horribly handled by its studio, Christine was canceled just before Louis-Dreyfus turned 50, so her bigger-than-ever success on Veep lampooning the vice presidency (“a gold mine for comedy,” as the star says) is particularly sweet. She’s getting better as she gets older, and her success helps boost the fortunes of both grownups and women in comedy. It’s notable that for her last Veep Emmy, four of the nominees she beat were women over 50: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Pamela Adlon and Allison Janney.
To find a parallel for Louis-Dreyfus’ achievement, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of television comedy. As Pulitzer Prize–winning TV critic Tom Shales once said, Louis-Dreyfus is “a combination of physical and verbal humor that evokes memories of — and one can never say this lightly — the immortal Lucy herself.”