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IMAGE: Will Ferrell
Kevin Wolf  /  AP
Will Ferrell is the 14th humorist to receive The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; he was presented with the award in a ceremony that will be broadcast on PBS on Oct. 31.
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updated 10/24/2011 7:22:27 AM ET 2011-10-24T11:22:27

Will Ferrell, who refined his impersonation of President George W. Bush on the sketch comedy show "Saturday Night Live" and later took his presidential act to Broadway, was awarded the nation's top humor prize Sunday night.

The TV star went on to make movies and co-found the popular website FunnyorDie.com in a career that won the 44-year-old the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Slideshow: Will Ferrell’s wonderful world (on this page)

It was the Bush impression, though, that might have made the Washington crowd laugh — and cringe — the hardest Sunday.

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"Washington is not a city much known for its comedy — at least not the intentional kind," said PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, who mentored Ferrell on his journalistic skills for the movie "Anchorman."

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She introduced a clip of Ferrell playing Bush in "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush" on Broadway. Dressed in a flight suit under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished" in a mock Oval Office he explained how Morocco had sent a special unit of 2,000 trained monkeys to fight terrorism "and make children laugh."

With that kind of comedy, Ferrell had accomplished something amazing, Ifill said.

"He got Democrats to pay and see and applaud George W. Bush," she said.

Conan O'Brien, Jack Black, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller and Billie Joe Armstrong from the rock band Green Day performed Sunday in Ferrell's honor, joined by Molly Shannon, Tim Meadows and Andy Samberg from Ferrell's "SNL" days.

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The show was taped for broadcast Oct. 31 on PBS stations nationwide.

Black opened the show with a song-and-dance routine for his friend and tried to lead the crowd in chanting "Will, Will, Will, will rock you."

"Will Ferrell, did you notice how I changed it from 'We Will Rock You?'" he said.

"It's about time he got some official Washington, D.C., props," Black said, noting that Ferrell had "reigned supreme" on "SNL" for seven years. "He's crazy funny. He makes you laugh so hard you cry and pee simultaneously."

O'Brien saluted Ferrell for giving so much of himself to his comedy. He said Ferrell had his sides physically softened and his "buttocks lowered with magnets" to prepare his body for spandex routines and at times streaking naked.

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"Will magnifies and celebrates his flaws, just to entertain us," O'Brien said.

O'Brien also thanked Ferrell for being his first guest and his last guest when he was host of NBC's "Tonight Show."

"It's a rare friend who's going to stick with you for five-and-a-half months," he said.

Shannon, who met Ferrell while she was a waitress in Los Angeles, said that contrary to his TV persona, Ferrell is very serious and sweet to work with. As for the award, she joked "Will's agents and manager clearly bought this for him."

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Some of Ferrell's famous sketches from "SNL" were played on the big screen, including his "Cow Bell" routine with Christopher Walken and "Craig the Spartan Cheerleader."

When he was finally awarded the prize, a bronze bust of Twain, Ferrell promptly dropped it on stage and tried to pick up the broken pieces. He joked that he had turned the prize down 13 times before but decided to accept this time because of the prize money (there isn't any) and to be watched on PBS "by hundreds of people across this country."

He thanked the Kennedy Center as "one of the few places that uphold comedy as what it truly is, an art form."

Ferrell is the son of a teacher and Roy Lee Ferrell, a guitarist for the Righteous Brothers. He grew up in Irvine, California, went to college at the University of Southern California and got his start in comedy with the Los Angeles improv group, The Groundlings.

That's where he was discovered by "SNL."

Ferrell went on to make some outlandish movies including "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and "Old School." He has also tried his hand at drama, including this year's independent film "Everything Must Go." One of his upcoming projects is a Spanish-language comedy, "Casa de Mi Padre."

Ferrell told The Associated Press he has tried different avenues as movie studio budgets tightened. He opted for projects with smaller budgets but more creative freedom.

Longtime collaborator Adam McKay and Ferrell also took their comedy to the Internet with the 2007 creation of the popular video website FunnyorDie.com. Since then, it has drawn an audience of millions for its original Web programming.

McKay, a former head writer on "SNL," said it was Ferrell's "Cow Bell" sketch that has always made him laugh the hardest.

Before the show, Ferrell said playing the Bush character is one of his favorite memories for its political laughs, especially when he took the character to Broadway.

"We hit it at the perfect time when people wanted some sort of comedy after the eight years we just went through," he said.

Thirteen other people have won the Mark Twain Prize since 1998, including Tina Fey, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg. It recognizes people who have followed the tradition of Samuel Clemens, the writer known as Mark Twain who used social commentary and satire to have an impact on society.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Will Ferrell’s wonderful world

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  1. Horsing around

    Will Ferrell tackles the open range and the Spanish language as a Mexican ranch heir in 2012's "Casa de Mi Padre." (John Estes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. All dressed up

    Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis goof around in a very serious way while presenting an award at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2012, in Los Angeles. "As serious musicians, it is our pleasure to step out from our day jobs for a moment to present the Academy Award for best original song," Ferrell deadpans. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Needs more cowbell

    Ferrell reigns as the King of Bacchus at the 2012 Krewe of Bacchus Parade on Feb. 19, 2012, in New Orleans. In addition to the traditional beads and coins, the actor also adds a veyr Ferrell-like touch by tossing mini cowbells. (Skip Bolen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. On the mic

    Tacking another line on to his sports resume, Will Ferrell announces the starting lineups at the New Orleans Hornets/Chicago Bulls basketball game in New Orleans on Feb. 8, 2012, and poked fun at nearly all the players: "At guard, No. 1, his favorite movie is 'The Notebook' -- Derrick Rose!' he shouts. (Bill Haber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Daddy time

    Will Ferrell spends time with son Mattias at the L.A. Lakers/Denver Nuggets basketball game on April 3, 2011. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Getting a big head

    Will Ferrell voices the title character in 2010's "Megamind," playing a brainy alien who serves as a criminal mastermind behind evil doings in fictional Metro City. (DreamWorks Animation) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dynamic duo

    Will Ferrell, right, stars with Mark Wahlberg in the 2010 comedy, "The Other Guys." The two play police detectives who look up to another cop duo, played by Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. In prehistoric times

    Ferrell stars with Danny McBride and Anna Friel in the 2008 big-screen adaptation of the 1970s TV show, "Land of the Lost." Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, who, along with his team, gets sucked into an alternative prehistoric universe where dinosaurs reign and evil, but slow-moving Sleestaks are the biggest threat. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Step-Brothers'

    Ferrell teams up again with "Talladega Nights" co-star John C. Reilly, in "Step Brothers." Ferrell plays Brennan Huff, a sporadically employed 39-year-old who lives with his mother. Reilly plays Dale Doback, a terminally unemployed 40-year-old who lives with his father. When their respective parents marry and move in together, Brennan and Dale are forced to live with each other as step brothers. (Sony Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Semi-Pro'

    Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, the owner-coach-player of the American Basketball Association's Flint Michigan Tropics in the 2007 comedy "Semi-Pro." (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Iceman

    Will Ferrell (in orange jumpsuit) plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a former singles figure skater who is forced to pair up with Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) in order to get back on the ice in 2007's "Blades of Glory." (Dreamworks) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Speed racer

    Ferrell stars as NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." At one point, when he believes he's on fire, Ricky Bobby screams, "Help me, Jesus! Help me, Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft to get the fire off me!" (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Breaking into song

    In the 2004 movie version of the musical version of "The Producers," Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprise their Broadway roles of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock, while Ferrell joins the fun as wacky Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Franz tells the boys, "I had nothing to do with the war! I didn't even know there was a war on. We lived in the back, right across from Switzerland. All we heard was yodelling... yoodle le he hoo." (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Funeral crasher

    In Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's 2004 film "Wedding Crashers," Farrell plays Chaz, a man who manages to top Wilson and Vaughn's method of finding single women at weddings, by crashing funerals. "Grief is nature's most powerful aphrodisiac," he tells Wilson. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Time to twitch your nose, Sam

    Ferrell starred as Darrin Stephens with Nicole Kidman as his witch wife, Samantha, in the 2005 remake of the TV hit "Bewitched." (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. You stay classy, San Diego

    In 2004's "Anchorman," Ferrell stars as Ron Burgundy, the top-rated anchorman in San Diego in the '70s. When feminism marches into the newsroom in the form of ambitious newswoman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) it's more than a battle between two perfectly coiffed anchor-persons ... it's war. (Dreamworks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Show me your belly button

    Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller starred in the 2004 big-screen version of "Starsky & Hutch," but Ferrell managed to steal the show as Big Earl, a convict who's attracted to Hutch. When Big Earl convinces Hutch to show him his belly button, he marvels, saying, "It's like a little bowl of oatmeal with a hole in it. I got one too. I just got a little more brown sugar on mine." (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Santa's helper

    Ferrell stars as Buddy, a full-grown man who was taken in by Santa's elves in 2003's "Elf." When he's sent off to have a normal life in the big city, he's astounded by the differences between the real world and Santa's village. When he sees a department store Santa, he tells him, "You sit on a throne of lies." (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Frank the Tank

    Ferrell stars as one of three former college buddies (the others are Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn), now in their 30s, who start their own fraternity in 2003's "Old School." During a house party, a fellow partier asks him what he's going to do the next day, to which Ferrell replies: "Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we're going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond." (Dreamworks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. 'What is your favorite sound?'

    Ferrell as effusive host James Lipton of "Inside The Actors' Studio" with guest Billy Bob Thornton as himself on "SNL." The real James Lipton was so taken with Ferrell's impression that he had Ferrell (as Lipton) interview him on his own show. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. It's about 'strategery'

    Ferrell took on President George W. Bush with a searing impression on "SNL" that emphasized the president's tendency toward malapropisms. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fashion plate

    In 2000's "Zoolander" Ferrell plays Mogatu, a fashion designer who creates the Derelicte line. He explains his line this way, "It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique." (Paramount) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. More cowbell!

    This "Saturday Night Live" skit is a "rare tape" of Blue Oyster Cult recording their classic "Don't Fear the Reaper" with an added dose of cowbell. Band members are played by Chris Kattan, Jimmy Fallon and Chris Parnell, while Ferrell plays the enthusiastic cowbell expert. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. What is love?

    Ferrell and Chris Kattan starred in 1998's "Night at the Roxbury," a film based on the "Saturday Night Live" skit about two annoying brothers who constantly bob their heads in unison to the Haddaway song, "What Is Love?" Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "It is incompetent, stupid, and horrible beyond belief." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Not quite ready for prime time

    Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer played quirky singers and music teachers Marty Culp and Bobbi Mohan-Culp in a recurring skit on "Saturday Night Live." (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
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