- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

This year's celebration for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which took place Monday night at the Kennedy Center, proved in turns, bawdy, irreverent, unconventional and laugh-out-loud funny.

Few adjectives better describe the award's latest recipient, versatile comic actress Whoopi Goldberg.

The event in the Concert Hall drew a cavalcade of stars paying tribute to the comedienne's nearly two decades in the business.

Colleagues didn't miss the chance to good-naturedly roast the woman of the hour, poking fun at her name, her tireless work ethic and how her now-legendary one-woman show inspired a rash of far less talented imitators.

Through all the jests and jabs, Miss Goldberg could be seen from her balcony perch, alternately heaving with laughter and wiping tears from her eyes..

Ageless crooner Harry Belafonte opened the proceedings, immediately referencing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"Wherever there is life, there is humor," Mr. Belafonte said in his familiar, sanguine growl. "Tonight, the show will go on, and in high fashion."

And so it did, brimming with film highlights of Miss Goldberg's celluloid career, plus snippets of her stage work and efforts on behalf of the Comic Relief fund.

Diminutive firebrand Wanda Sykes honored Miss Goldberg, then let loose with a comic rant about her friends hogging all the good Hollywood gigs.

"If Whoopi would take a break, maybe I'd get some work. She's responsible for the high unemployment rate among black people."

"Hollywood Squares" cohort Bruce Vilanch, bedecked in a sequined shirt mimicking a woman's decolletage, rambled before reminding the audience of Miss Goldberg's societal impact.

"For years, you couldn't look like Whoopi Goldberg and be on television," Mr. Vilanch said of the dreadlocked comic.

D.C. native Tommy Davidson sang to Miss Goldberg, first as Sammy Davis Jr. then as Stevie Wonder in two pitch-perfect tributes.

Miss Goldberg's favorite conspirators, Comic Relief partners Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, were saved for last.

Mr. Williams, dressed in a Scottish kilt and gas mask, mugged while Mr. Crystal played the requisite straight man. They kept up their improvised routines until Miss Goldberg's throaty laugh sliced through the hall.

Later, the honoree descended from the balcony to accept her prize, a tiny bust of Mark Twain.

"I wasn't sure if this was appropriate," she said, making fun of a jade green gown that she itched to ditch before wondering how Twain might have responded to the national nightmare of Sept. 11.

"We must pick ourselves up by the boot strings and laugh. We have to," she said, adding it is easy to chuckle during prosperity. "It's much more important that we're in here in the dark, scary times."

"As an American, that's what I have to offer dirty jokes and bad language," she said to steer the mood back on course.

The evening's finale, a chorus of "America, the Beautiful" led by Three Mo' Tenors, bloomed into a comic free-for-all, with Mr. Davidson, Mr. Williams and comic actor Chris Tucker singing and dancing in imperfect rhythm.

What could have been a grandstanding moment took on elements of catharsis. It was as if the audience wanted the weight of the world lifted off its shoulders for a spell, and the performers were only too happy to oblige.

At a post-performance party in the Atrium, pals spoke of the dichotomy between Miss Goldberg's iconic status and her down-to-earth grandmotherly ways.

Mr. Davidson said knowing Miss Goldberg reversed what he thought was a prerequisite for stars star attitude.

"I watch personalities change as the success goes up," he said. Until he met the earthy Miss Goldberg, "I thought that might be a requirement."

Borscht-belt comic Alan King took care to acknowledge the career difficulties she had to overcome.

"She started out with two strikes against her: being a woman and being black," Mr. King said, "and she pulled it together beautifully."

Mr. Vilanch reported that Miss Goldberg had at first seemed to wonder about the appropriateness of taking part in a comedy show in such stark times.

"I said, 'When have you ever been appropriate?'" Mr. Vilanch recalled, his lumpy frame squeezed into a "Rehab is for Quitters" T-shirt.

"What people need now is to laugh," he said. "If we stop laughing they've won."

"On Stage at the Kennedy Center: The Mark Twain Prize" will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Nov. 21 on WETA -TV.

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