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Jay Leno accepts Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at Kennedy Center

WASHINGTON – For a moment there, it seemed as if the red-carpet procession was going to be a serious affair – not quite what you’d expect at a gathering of some of comedy’s heaviest hitters for an evening of mirth at the ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

At first, the celebs, who were chatting up reporters along the velvet ropes leading to the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on Sunday night, were so eager to heap praise on Jay Leno, the longtime “Tonight Show” host and the event’s honoree, that things were getting a wee bit … sincere.

“Jay showed everybody how important the monologue is,” said Seth Meyers.

Jerry Seinfeld said that Leno played a big role in his own comedic career. “He showed me the way of what I wanted to be – to let your inner crankiness out,” Seinfeld said. “That can make good comedy. Entertaining complaining is a lot of what stand-up comedy is about.”

Leno himself was in a reflective mood. “Comedy’s a bit like golf,” said Leno. “You can do it until you’re 80, if you pace yourself and play it right.”

But the cutting-up eventually commenced. The funny folks walking the carpet – including Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler, J.B. Smoove, Kristin Chenoweth and Ross Mathews, who got his start as “Ross the Intern” on Leno’s “Tonight” – could hold out only so long.

Leno had a habit of pointing at guests as he broke for commercials. Smoove mimicked the move in a contortion akin to the Heisman Trophy pose.

Amid all the praise, Mathews threw a playful barb at Leno, mocking his former boss’ penchant for wearing what’s known as a Canadian tuxedo.

“I’m a man who takes a bold fashion risk,” he said, motioning to his own silver-brocade tuxedo jacket. “I’m not bold enough to do denim-on-denim. God bless you, but I can’t pull that off.”

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