Bill Cosby Honored For Comedy, Social Change

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The third try worked its charm, getting comedian Bill Cosby to accept the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

A star-studded crowd celebrated his acceptance on Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Cosby had twice before refused the award, turned off by language used in the first Mark Twain Prize program, honoring the late comedian Richard Pryor.

This time, he accepted after the Kennedy Center promised not to repeat "the foolishness at Richard Pryor's celebration," Cosby said. "I was not about to have that celebrating Mark Twain and Bill Cosby."

Comedian Sinbad -- who helped honor Cosby at the event -- also is known for comedy without foul language.

"Cosby showed me that a person could be clean and make money and be effective," Sinbad said.

Comedians Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, musicians Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, and "The Cosby Show" co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner also helped honor Cosby.

"Bill Cosby is one of the greatest comedians this country has ever produced," said comedian Carl Reiner, a past Mark Twain Prize recipient.

Cosby started out performing stand-up comedy in small clubs in Greenwich Village, New York, eventually landing a pivotal co-starring role in the 1960s television series "I Spy."

Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" is among his best-known roles. The show -- which portrayed an upper-middle-class African-American family -- aired from 1984 to 1992 on NBC and is now syndicated. It was credited with helping revive NBC's fortunes and for blazing a path for other shows featuring African-Americans.

Cosby credited social change for his career trajectory.

"How far I could go had barriers in front of it. And it is because of civil rights, because of the winning of the people of all color ... we're here today," he said.

With a career spanning four decades and counting, Cosby said of his prize, "I just feel like a master. I feel good. And I'm comfortable."

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is awarded to performers who use comedy to influence American society. Past recipients include George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg.

The event is scheduled to air on PBS on November 4.