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Image: Tina Fey hugs Betty White
Larry Downing  /  Reuters
Comedian Tina Fey, right, hugs actress Betty White after receiving the 12th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington on Tuesday night. Actor Steve Carell is at left.
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updated 11/10/2010 9:08:09 AM ET 2010-11-10T14:08:09

Mark Twain paid a surprise visit to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night to honor Tina Fey with the nation's top humor prize that bears his name.

A mustached Alec Baldwin playing Twain said he thought he would be remembered for being a tender lover and was surprised to learn the prize honors top comics.

"Tina, well that's a funny name for a man," he said, shocked to hear it was a woman who had won because "their brains aren't shaped right."

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A hundred years after the author's death, the woman famous for her Emmy Award-winning impression of Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live," accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — even though she feels her style is "so typically Austrian."

She thanked Palin for her success and said she has it on good authority that Sen. John McCain has a picture of Fey in his office and had been getting ideas long before he picked the former Alaska governor as his running mate.

"I guess what I'm saying is, this whole thing might be my fault," she said.

She also thanked the Kennedy Center, which she said will soon be known as "the tea party bowling alley and rifle range."

"SNL" comics lined up to celebrate their colleague's work over nine seasons. They played clips from her time anchoring "Weekend Update" and some of the commercials she wrote, including a spoof on "mom jeans."

Amy Poehler recalled meeting Fey back when they were both part of The Second City improv group in Chicago in the 1990s.

"Our dreams were as big as our unshaped eyebrows," Poehler said.

The humor prize honors those who define contemporary comedy. Last year, it went to Bill Cosby. Organizers said Fey made her mark as the first female head writer on "SNL," not to mention her Palin impression and creating the NBC comedy series "30 Rock," in which she stars with Baldwin.

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Tracy Morgan acted unimpressed — especially that Fey was the first woman to lead the writing team.

"I was the first male cast member who tried to force an unwanted kiss on the first female head writer," he said.

At 40, Fey is the youngest to be honored with the award that was created in 1998. She's also only the third woman to receive it after Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.

Earlier, when the prize was announced, Fey hinted she didn't feel worthy, joking that she assumed Betty White was disqualified "for steroid use."

Not to be outdone, on the red carpet, the 88-year-old White praised Fey's "intelligence and her sense of comedy."

Then she deadpanned, "Too bad she's not good looking."

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White also took the stage to honor Fey. They also performed together on "SNL" in May for which White won rave reviews as host.

Steve Martin, who also has taken home the award, said Fey's win means he's been demoted. He said he loves Fey's parody of Palin, but even more, he said he loves to read her writing.

"Isn't it refreshing to find a comedian who is both really good and funny looking?" he said.

On the big screen, Fey recently starred with Steve Carell in "Date Night" and is a featured voice in "Megamind," which debuted at No. 1 at last weekend's box office. Now she is working on her first book, a memoir due out next year. She lives in New York with her husband, Jeff Richmond, and their daughter.

"SNL's" Fred Armisen said one of his favorite things about Fey is her take on the world.

"She makes fun of people really well — under her breath. It's so funny, so sharp."

The show will be broadcast nationally Sunday on PBS. Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein said the event raised record $1.3 million for center with high demand for tickets — especially from Alaska.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Tina Fey

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  1. Staying classy

    From her days with Chicago’s "Second City" to stardom with "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," the writer, actor, comedian and producer just keeps making people laugh.

    Tina Fey and husband Jeff Richmond attend the "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" premiere in New York on Dec. 15, 2013. (Cindy Ord / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Glowing at galas

    Tina Fey arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in September 2013. On Jan. 12, 2014, Fey will host the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with comedian and actress Amy Poehler. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A grand finale

    Tina Fey appears as Liz Lemon in the series finale of “30 Rock,” which aired on Jan. 31, 2013. Over the course of seven seasons, “30 Rock” was nominated for more than 100 Emmy awards. (Nbc / Ali Goldstein/NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A win for Liz Lemon

    Tina Fey poses in the press room at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2013. Fey won for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role in “30 Rock.” (Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Funny friends

    Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globe Awards together for the first time on Jan. 13, 2013. Their hilarious performance and easy rapport got them invited back for another hosting gig in 2014. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Queen of comedy

    Tina Fey accepts an award onstage from actor Will Arnett at The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on April 28, 2012. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Another glam night

    Fey arrives at the 84th Annual Academy Awards at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 26, 2012. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. It's not Saturday night

    Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin perfom in a live episode of "30 Rock" in 2012. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Liz and Jenna

    Fey (Liz Lemon) and "30 Rock" costar Jane Krakowski (Jenna Maroney) arrive at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Her mini me

    Fey and daughter Alice attend the HBO Luxury Lounge in honor of the 69th annual Golden Globes at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverlin Hills, Calif., on Jan. 14, 2012. (Chelsea Lauren / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weekend anchors

    Fey and actress Amy Poehler arrive at the 13th Annual Warner Bros. and InStyle Golden Globe After Party held at The Beverly Hilton hotel on Jan. 15, 2012. (Jon Kopaloff / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Expecting No. 2

    Fey unveiled her baby bump during a visit to "Late Show With David Letterman" at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on April 11, 2011. Her second daughter, Penelope, was born on Aug. 10, 2011. (Donna Ward / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Author

    Fey signs copies of her book, "Bossypants," at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York on April 8, 2011. (Jim Spellman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Happy anniversary!

    Cast members from the NBC's "30 Rock" television show, including front row from left, Jack McBrayer, Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Tracy Morgan celebrate the 100th episode taping at Silver Cup Studios in New York on March 10, 2011. (Evan Agostini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rocking '30 Rock'

    Fey stars as comedy writer Liz Lemon in "30 Rock," based on her experiences writing for "Saturday Night Live." While ratings are low, the show is a critical favorite, and received Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Out on the town

    Fey teams with another comic powerhouse, Steve Carell, in 'Date Night." They play a suburban couple whose regular night out turns into an adventure beyond their wildest dreams. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Mommy's little girl

    Fey walks with her daughter, Alice Richmond, to toy store FAO Schwarz on March 9, 2010 in New York. Fey returned to work just six weeks after Alice was born. Fey's husband, Jeff Richmond, is a composer on "30 Rock." (Ray Tamarra / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rain, rain, go away

    Fey arrives at the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards on a rainy January day in 2010. She and "30 Rock" were both nominated for awards, but neither won. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Cover girl

    Fey graced the March 2010 cover of Vogue Magazine. While working on "Saturday Night Live," Fey says she lost 30 pounds after seeing herself in a role as an extra, and notes that suddenly there was a lot more interest in putting her on the air. She has been named to People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list in 2003, and to its 100 Most Beautiful People list in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Golden gal

    Fey presented an award at the 2010 Academy Awards, held on March 7, 2010, in Los Angeles. Her sparkly black gown is by Michael Kors. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Truth will out

    Fey starred along with Rob Lowe, Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner in 2009's "The Invention of Lying," which takes place in an alternate reality where even the concept of a lie does not exist. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Writing right

    Fey accepts the Emmy award for outstanding writing for a comedy series for "30 Rock" at the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2008. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'I can see Russia from my house!'

    Fey had already left "Saturday Night Live," but she returned during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, playing vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Clinton. Fey's Palin impression earned her headlines everywhere, and some people even confused some of her joke lines with Palin's real comments. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Oh, baby!

    In 2009's "Baby Mama," Fey and Poehler team up for a comedy about Poehler's character serving as a surrogate mother for Fey. The movie received mixed reviews. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Comedy inside a comedy

    Joining Fey in "30 Rock" are co-stars Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. The show has especially helped revitalize Baldwin's career, as his performance as the blustering network boss Donaghy has been widely praised. (Mitch Haaseth / NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. You like us! You really like us!

    The cast of "30 Rock" poses in the pressroom with their Emmy for outstanding comedy series on Sept. 16, 2007 in Los Angeles. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Giving back

    Fey speaks during the 2005 Do Something BRICK Awards April 19, 2005 in New York. The BRICK Awards honor leaders age 25 and under who have created innovative solutions to problems in their local communities in the areas of community building, health, and the environment. (Scott Gries / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Don't be 'Mean'

    Fey wrote and co-starred in the 2004 comedy "Mean Girls," based in part on the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and in part on Fey's own Pennsylvania high-school days. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The 'Girls'

    Fey and "Mean Girls" star Lindsay Lohan attend a private screening of the film on April 23, 2004 at Loews Lincoln Square Theater, in New York. Entertainment Weekly listed the film on its end-of-the-decade best-of list. (Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Live, from New York

    Fey and Jimmy Fallon are seen co-anchoring "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live" in 2004. Fey joined "SNL" in 1997 and was promoted to head writer in 1999. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Make 'em laugh

    Fey, Ben Affleck, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch pose backstage at the 5th Annual Directors Guild Of America Honors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel September 29, 2004 in New York. (Peter Kramer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Classy couple

    Fey and composer Jeff Richmond dated for seven years before marrying in 2001. (James Devaney / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Before fame

    After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1992, Fey moved to Chicago to take classes at the improvisational comedy group The Second City. She's seen here in 1997 during her days as a featured player with the organization. That same year, she joined "SNL," and her career began to take off. (AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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