Ellen DeGeneres has been hailed as a trailblazer by some of America's top comedians as she received the highest US comedy prize.
The Kennedy Centre awarded DeGeneres the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour.
On the red carpet before the show, Ellen said she doesn't see herself as political with her comedy, even though she's been a trailblazer. "I just want to make people happy and make people laugh," she said.
Ellen, 54, began her career as a comedy club host in her native New Orleans. After a performance on Johnny Carson's show in 1986, he invited her over to his desk to chat. She was the first female comedian to receive that invitation from Carson.
Turning to acting, Ellen landed a comedy series on Fox and ABC, eventually starring in Ellen from 1994 to 1998. She broke new ground and a taboo in 1997 when she came out publicly as a lesbian and her TV persona then became the first lead character on prime-time TV to reveal she was gay.
Coming out on TV 15 years ago feels like another life, she said before the presentation.
She said: "It was the right thing for me to do to not live with shame. I happened to help a lot of people, and it happened to create a ruckus."
Glee star Jane Lynch said Ellen was "the one who went in there with a machete" and cleared the way for other shows with gay characters such as Glee.
Kristin Chenoweth said Ellen has always remained kind. "She's not a mean girl comic," she said.
The prize honours comedians in Mark Twain's tradition of satire and social commentary. Other past winners include Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.