WASHINGTON - All it took was the mere mention of Mel Brooks ' name for the East Room of the White House to erupt in riotous laughter.
"As Mel Brooks once said to his writers on Blazing Saddles —" President Obama said, prompting laughter before he could even get to the punchline. "'Write anything you want, because we'll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie.'"
Brooks, the comedian, filmmaker, songwriter and satirist behind movies like The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs, was one of 23 luminaries to receive the 2015 national medals for the arts and humanities at a ceremony at the White House Thursday.
Obama said this year's class includes "dreamers and storytellers and innovators and visionaries ...creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft." And he said the awards were an opportunity to recognize the importance of the arts in American society — even for a comedian like Brooks.
"To be fair, Mel also said, a little more eloquently, that every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin, and the talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living within him," Obama said. "That's what the arts and humanities do. They lift up our identities and make us see ourselves in each other."
When it was his time to receive the arts medal, the 90-year-old Brooks turned the tables — making Obama crack up with a piece of slapstick by appearing to fall down from the weight of the medal.
Brooks was clearly the valedictorian of this year's class of arts and humanities medal winners, which also included composer Philip Glass , actress Audra McDonald, author Ron Chernow and public radio journalist Terry Gross.
Or, as Obama put it, "We have Terry Gross, and a whole bunch of people that Terry Gross has interviewed."
Also receiving the National Medal of the Arts Thursday were:
- Novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros, of San Antonio, Texas.
- The Eugene O’Neill Theater Centerin Waterford, Conn.
- Composer Philip Glass of New York.
- Motown music pioneer Berry Gordy of Los Angeles.
- Playwright Moises Kaufman of New York.
- Choreographer Ralph Lemon of New York.
- Actress and singer Audra McDonald of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
- Playwright and director Luis Valdez of San Juan Bautista, Calif.
- Abstract visual artist Jack Whitten of New York.
Receiving the National Medal of the Humanities were:
- Author Rudolfo Anaya of Albuquerque, N.M.
- Chef José Andrés of Bethesda, Md.
- Author Ron Chernow of New York.
- Poet Louise Glück of Cambridge, Mass.
- Radio host Terry Gross of Philadelphia.
- Author James McBride of Lambertville, N.J.
- Author Louis Menand of Cambridge, Mass.
- Historian Elaine Pagels of Princeton, N.J.
- The Prison University Projectin San Quentin, Calif.
- Physician Abraham Verghese of Menlo Park, Calif.
- Journalist Isabel Wilkerson of Atlanta, Ga.
Not present, but also receiving awards, were musician Wynton Marsalis and actor Morgan Freeman, "who is undoubtedly is off playing a black president again," Obama said. "He never lets me have my moment."
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