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Story highlights

The prize recognizes comedians whose work has an impact on American society

The first one was awarded to Richard Pryor in 1998

More than a dozen big-name comedians turned out to honor Murphy

(CNN) —  

Every year, an American comedian receives a serious award – and not just for being very funny. On Sunday, this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor went to Eddie Murphy.

“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain,” said the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in its description of the prize.

The prize, first awarded in 1998 to Richard Pryor, highlights social criticism and insightful observation brought out by humor. Among previous recipients are Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Will Ferrell and Ellen DeGeneres.

“I am deeply honored to receive this recognition from the Kennedy Center and to join the distinguished list of past recipients of this award,” Murphy said according to a statement from the Kennedy Center.

“It’s going to be great!” the comedian posted to his official Facebook feed before the ceremony. The post included a picture of Mark Twain with a quote: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Bill Cosby also received the award in 2009, and Murphy, well-known for impersonations of famous people, reportedly broke into his Cosby voice and satirized the comedian plagued by multiple rape allegations.

He treated the audience to a standup routine, something he has reportedly not done in many years.

Murphy is the highest-earning ever African American screen actor, the Kennedy Center said. But he got his start in standup.

Teen success

At age 15, he worked clubs in New York with celebrity impressions, according to his biography on the Internet Movie Database. He may have inherited the talent from his father, a transit police officer who acted and performed standup himself.

At age 19, Murphy landed a cast roll on Saturday Night Live, and like many Not Ready for Prime Time Players – as its actors were called in the shows early years – he rocketed into a movie career in the 1980s that has continues to the present day.

Eddie Murphy is honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Washington. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)
Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
Eddie Murphy is honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Washington. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)

He has commanded fees of up to $20,000,000 per movie role, according to IMDb.

One of Murphy’s earliest movies, “Beverly Hills Cop,” in 1984, cast him in the recurring role of Detective Alex Foley – and there are plans to produce a fourth movie in the series.

Murphy also does the voice of Donkey in the “Shrek” movies.

Comedic stars

More than a dozen of the biggest names in comedy turned out to honor Murphy at the ceremony, including Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Kathy Griffin, Tracy Morgan, Trevor Noah and Chris Rock. Some of them took to twitter with photos of themselves surrounding Murphy who held the prize, a bust of Mark Twain.

The Mark Twain Prize ceremony will air on PBS on November 23.

Mark Twain was a prolific American novelist and chronicler who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835. He wrote in the latter half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century.

His wry wit observations combined with his literary mastery have made him stand out as particularly distinctive in American literature.

Though the palate of his work was broad, he is probably best known for novels such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”