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Ellen DeGeneres to receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Ellen DeGeneres on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show", Sept. 26, 2011 in Burbank, Calif. AP

(CBS/AP) Ellen DeGeneres, who broke ground in 1997 as the first lead character on prime-time TV to reveal she was gay, is winning the nation's top humor prize.

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Tuesday that DeGeneres will receive the 15th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She will be honored Oct. 22 with a lineup of star performers in a tribute show that will be recorded for broadcast at a later date.

Pictures: Ellen DeGeneres

In a written statement, DeGeneres said receiving the same award as past honorees Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell makes her wonder, "Why didn't I get this sooner?"

It was 15 years ago - just before the humor prize was created - when DeGeneres came out on Time magazine's cover and as her character on the sitcom "Ellen" to a record 46 million viewers.

Cappy McGarr, an executive producer for the Mark Twain Prize show and a Kennedy Center board member, said, "She's not just a comedian," he said. "She's really a miracle worker. She got the president to dance, the first lady to do pushups and (Republican) Tom Delay to laugh."

The New Orleans native got her start as an emcee at a local comedy club in her hometown. In 1982, a videotape of her club performance won DeGeneres Showtime's "Funniest Person in America." By 1986, she appeared on "The Tonight Show" and became the first female comedian summoned to Johnny Carson's desk to chat about her performance.

The Mark Twain prize honors people who have an impact on society in the tradition of Samuel Clemens, better known as Twain, as a social commentator and satirist.

McGarr said the Kennedy Center, which awards the prize, is not making a political statement by selecting the trailblazing DeGeneres.

"This has nothing to do with any political issue," he said. "But she's brilliantly shined a light on society, and that's what Mark Twain did."

Other Mark Twain Prize honorees have included Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, George Carlin and Steve Martin.