Cindy Clark, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Ellen DeGeneres is usually the one cracking jokes and busting out one of her signature dance moves -- anything to make people laugh.
But on Monday night, the tables were turned as a star-studded lineup of her friends and colleagues, past and present, showed up to the salute the comedian at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The festivities were to recognize DeGeneres, 54, as the 15th recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She follows in the footsteps of fellow comedians Bill Cosby, Lorne Michaels, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and others who have had the honor bestowed upon them.
DeGeneres, who has earned critical acclaim with her syndicated daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, has received countless honors and accolades, but she says this honor is "the icing."
"I'm flattered. It's fantastic. Of course I think, 'What took so long?'" she joked on the red carpet.
DeGeneres said that being a comedienne isn't about recognition. "You don't do it for awards, you do it to make people happy," she said.
DeGeneres famously came out as gay on her sitcom, Ellen, in 1997. "It was the right thing for me to do ... it happened to help a lot of people and it happened to cause a ruckus. That was a very fearful time in general for the gay community."
DeGeneres' wife, Portia de Rossi, accompanied her on the star-studded red carpet and sang her praises. "I am very, very proud of Ellen. She's not only the funniest person I know, but she's such a good person," she said.
Her favorite thing about DeGeneres? "I really like those little moments that only I recognize as her being her true self, when I can see she's being vulnerable," she said.
Stars on the red carpet agreed that DeGeneres' kindness and contributions to the gay community set her apart.
"I like to think that Ellen made Will & Grace possible," star Sean Hayes said. "And Will & Grace made it possible for Modern Family. (DeGeneres') fearlessness was her contribution and it continues to be."
"She's the one who went in with the machete and did it all by herself," said Glee star Jane Lynch.
Musician Jason Mraz says he thinks of DeGeneres as his "favorite aunt."
"She's the same backstage as she is on stage, and that's why you love to watch her," he said.
The Office star John Krasinski had a similar reaction: "She's one of those people where you feel she's your friend."
A soft-spoken Kristin Chenoweth (who said she's "having more good days than bad" following an injury on the set of The Good Wife this summer), said the fact that DeGeneres has always remained kind makes her unique.
"She's not a mean girl comic," Chenoweth said.
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel was able to quantify his admiration for DeGeneres: "This is the only time I've ever missed a show for anything. Except when I had my appendix taken out," he said.
"She's very genuine and she makes it look easy and it's not easy," Kimmel said.
During the taping of the program, a variety of stars honored DeGeneres.
Kimmel kicked things off with his own brand of humor. "In 1998, I mustered the courage to come out of the closet, despite the fact that I am not gay." He called DeGeneres the "original Modern Family." He also noted that the Mark Twain Prize honors "people that have spent one season or less as a judge on American Idol."
Vintage clips of DeGeneres aired throughout the program, including one where she did a stand-up routine on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Following a clip of DeGeneres on The Larry Sanders Show, Hayes took to the stage. "Just when you thought we ran out of groundbreaking, gay women -- poof! Here I am."
On a more serious note, Hayes called DeGeneres "a hero to me." He went on to introduce "a scene from an episode (of Ellen) where you changed it all. That episode would be, of course, where Ellen's character comes out of the closet.
Steve Harvey wasn't quite sure how to follow the poignant clip. "I'm black, I got my own issues," he joked.
A radiant Chenoweth sauntered onto the stage with a shimmy and a shake. "Now Ellen has conquered the talk show, working one whole hour a day," joked Chenoweth, who feigned jealousy over DeGeneres receiving the award.
More clips of DeGeneres' past stand-up routings, current talk show, giving a graduation speech at Tulane and of her as the voice of Dory in Finding Nemo were scattered throughout the show.
Lynch also danced onto the stage, and recalled being inspired by DeGeneres in the '80s. "And then I saw you in the movie Mr. Wrong, and I had my doubts."
Krasinski was another star to dance onto the stage. He bemoaned the fact that, for a celebrity, being a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres Show is scary. She does, he pointed out, have a propensity for scaring and pranking stars. "And noone except maybe Justin Timberlake should be dancing on that show."
To accept her prize -- a bronze bust of Mark Twain -- DeGeneres stepped out onto the stage. "When i started doing stand-up, I didn't do it for awards," she said. "I did it for the money." DeGeneres called the night's clips a "wonderful walk down memory lane, and a detour down mullet street."
DeGeneres said she had "no intention" of becoming a comedian, she just wanted to make her mother laugh. Of her early years in comedy, "I'm so grateful that I struggled."
"I never could have imagined my life would end up this way. ...I only thought I'd be a positive gay comedian wearing parachute pants."
The show will be broadcast as Ellen DeGeneres: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize on Oct. 30 on PBS stations (check local listings).