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Eddie Murphy earns top U.S. prize for comedy at Kennedy Center

STACY A. ANDERSON | 10/23/2015, 3:55 p.m.
A star-studded lineup of comedians including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Kathy Griffin and Arsenio Hall honored Eddie Murphy ...
Eddie Murphy is honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Sunday. Owen Sweeney of Invision

WASHINGTON – A star-studded lineup of comedians including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Kathy Griffin and Arsenio Hall honored Eddie Murphy as an “American icon.”

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented the comedian with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the nation’s top prize for humor, Sunday.

The evening’s most emotional tribute came from Saturday Night Live alum Tracy Morgan, who received a standing ovation from the audience. He called Murphy his “comedic hero.”

When Morgan survived a serious car crash last year that left him in a coma, he said Murphy was the first person to call him on the phone and make him laugh after the tragic accident that killed a passenger in the limo and seriously injured two others.

“He’s the reason I’m in comedy. He’s the reason I have a job. He’s the reason I have a career,” Morgan said.

Among the other SNL alumni who paid tribute to Murphy were Jay Pharoah, Kevin Nealon and Joe Piscopo.

“Some people are just blessed with talent, and with Eddie, it was just luck,” Nealon ribbed.

He said Murphy saved SNL from slumping ratings in the 1980s, and he hoped he could also save the Kennedy Center from becoming the Trump Center.

“I can see the slot machines in the lobby,” joked Nealon, who starred with Murphy in Daddy Day Care.

Trevor Noah, who took over hosting The Daily Show in September, said he was introduced to the comedian after a viewing of Coming to America.

“Eddie Murphy’s influenced almost every single comedian – especially of my generation. He did everything brilliantly,” Noah said during an interview. “He showed me a benchmark to aim for. He made me realize that there was a level of excellence to try and attain, and I still think I’m working at that till this day.”

Murphy called the prize a “tremendous honor,” but asked the center to clear up any confusion over the prize for future recipients.

“Actually, it’s an award, but they call it a prize,” he said. “Usually when there’s a prize, there’s money.”

Murphy also took jabs at one of his “heroes” – Bill Cosby, who received the Mark Twain award in 2009. He joked, you know you’ve messed up “when they want you to give your trophy back,” then did an impersonation of Cosby refusing to give back his award.

More than two dozen women – including allegations by many that he drugged and raped them – have accused Cosby of sexual misconduct.

The prize honors those who influence society in the tradition of Samuel Clemens, the writer and satirist known as Mark Twain. Past honorees include Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, Will Ferrell and Richard Pryor.

Murphy gained national attention when he joined the SNL cast in 1980 at the age of 19. He went on to become the most commercially successful African American actor in film history and one of the industry’s top five box office performers overall, the Kennedy Center said. Murphy’s films have been among Hollywood’s highest-grossing comedies, including 48 Hours, Trading Places, Dr. Dolittle and Coming to America.

The tribute will be broadcast Nov. 23 on PBS.