Ellen DeGeneres received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from The Kennedy Center on Monday at a lavish ceremony in Washington, D.C. and was joined by her wife, Portia de Rossi, as well as a slew of other celebrities.
The star-studded roster included Lily Tomlin, Kristin Chenoweth, a "Good Wife" guest star and Broadway actress who has also starred on "Glee," Jane Lynch, a cast member on the latter series, "Will & Grace" alum Sean Hayes, John Krasinski of "The Office," "Ice Age" actor John Leguizamo, singer Jason Mraz, Steve Harvey and his wife Marjorie and ABC talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and his fiance Molly.
During her acceptance speech, DeGeneres, 54, talked about her early days as a struggling comedian, mentioned fellow comic and actor Sinbad and thanked de Rossi, her celebrity friends and the people who work on her Emmy-winning syndicated talk series "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
"Portia, what can I say? You have the most beautiful, talented, amazing wife," she joked, adding: I love you."
The two wed in August 2008, when same-sex marriages were made legal in California for several months before a majority of voters approved the Proposition 8 ballot initiative to ban them.
The broadcast of the ceremony is set to air on October 30 on PBS stations. During her acceptance speech, DeGeneres joked about the company's future, saying: "Thanks to everyone at PBS. I am so happy to be part of your farewell season. This is wonderful."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to cut the government's spending on public broadcasting. About 15 percent of PBS' budget comes from federal funds, according to ABC News.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is awarded every year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to American humor. DeGeneres is the fourth woman and 15th person overall to receive the prize.
Before she became an Emmy-winning talk show host, the Louisiana native worked odd jobs and then began performing standup comedy at small clubs in the 1980s.
"I tried everything - I shucked oysters, I painted houses, I sold vacuum cleaners, I was a court runner," DeGeneres said during her speech, joking: "But there was always a voice saying, 'You should be doing something different,' and it was usually my boss and I was being fired."
She said she would perform at strip mall comedy clubs called The Chuckle Hut and the Giggle Factory in front of crowds of drunk people - as is the norm for most starting comics.
"I had no intention of becoming a comedian," DeGeneres added. "I wanted to make people happy. I wanted to make my mother laugh. My parents were divorced when I was young and my mother was sad a lot and I just wanted to make her laugh. I had no idea I could make a living, that there would be a career in making people happy."
TAKING FASHION ADVICE FROM SINBAD
In 1986, she landed an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and said at the Kennedy Center ceremony that she did not know what to wear, so she asked her fellow comedian friend Sinbad, known for his signature parachute pants and role on the sitcom "A Different World," for fashion advice.
"It was like a giant tablecloth type shirt with huge pants," she said about her look. "It was just a bad outfit, possibly because Sinbad helped me pick that outfit out. That is actually true. I don't know why I thought I should take fashion advice from Sinbad, but I did."
In the 1990s, DeGeneres starred in her own sitcom, "Ellen." She famously came out as a lesbian on one of its episodes - "The Puppy Episode" - in 1997. It won an Emmy, earned record ratings and drew both criticism and praise from viewers. "Ellen" aired between 1994 and 1998. DeGeneres returned to television in 2001 with another comedy series, "The Ellen Show," which was short-lived.
She launched her current talk program, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," in 2003. The series has won 38 Emmys and is now on its 10th season.
In 2010, Sinbad stopped by the show and he and DeGeneres reminisced about their 30-year friendship. The two often toured together.
"When I moved to Los Angeles, Sinbad showed me where to shop on Hollywood Boulevard - at a place called Hurricane," she said on her show. "I was dressing like Sinbad back then."
"I'm glad you stopped! You'd have never gotten this job!" he joked.
In addition to actors and actress, DeGeneres has interviewed the likes of Barack Obama, before he was elected U.S. president in 2008, and Oprah Winfrey, who played her character's therapist on "The Puppy Episode." Winfrey had also featured DeGeneres and her then-girlfriend Anne Heche on her own hit talk show after the episode aired.
DeGeneres was also a judge on FOX's "American Idol" for one season in 2009 and portrays Dory in Disney-Pixar's hit animated film "Finding Nemo" as well as in the movie's sequel, which is currently in production. She is also one of the few celebrities who is a spokesmodel for CoverGirl cosmetics - a prestigious Hollywood honor.
"I never could have imagined my life would end up this way," DeGeneres said at Monday's ceremony. "I didn't think I'd end up having my own show. I didn't think I'd end up being in movies. I didn't think I'd have a talk show. I didn't think that I would be a Cover Girl. I just thought I'd be a closeted gay comedian wearing parachute pants."