WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday paid tribute to comedian Mel Brooks, chef Jose Andres, NPR interviewer Terry Gross and others at a White House ceremony celebrating "creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft."
The three were among two dozen artists, writers, playwrights and performers awarded the 2015 National Medals of Arts and Humanities. Obama touted the group, which included author Sandra Cisneros, composer Philip Glass and singer Audra McDonald, as figures at the top of their fields and contributors to a national conversation.
"We believe that arts and the humanities are in many ways reflective of our national soul. They're central to who we are as Americans — dreamers, storyteller, innovators and visionaries," he said.
The annual event is typically a serious affair, held under the glittering chandeliers of the East Room. But it took a comic turn this year when Obama paid tribute to Brooks by quoting the director's instructions to his writers on the boundary-pushing film "Blazing Saddles."
"Write anything you want because we'll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie," Obama said, laughing.
Obama and Brooks shared a laugh when the actor made an unexpected gesture, bending suddenly at the knee and extending his hands toward the president's legs. It wasn't clear what Brooks was doing.
The president also honored jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and actor Morgan Freeman. Neither was able to attend the ceremony. Freeman was "undoubtedly off playing a black president," Obama said. "He never lets me have my moment."
Winners of the medal for arts included painter Jack Whitten, musician Santiago Jimenez Jr., playwright Moises Kaufman, record producer Berry Gordy, dancer and choreographer Ralph Lemon, playwright and actor Luis Valdez and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
The National Humanities Medal was awarded to authors James McBride, Rudolfo Anaya, Louis Menand, Ron Chernow, Abraham Verghese, Elaine Pagels, Isabel Wilkerson, poet Louise Gluck and the Prison University Project, Higher Education Program.
The group could also be described as "Terry Gross and a whole bunch of people Terry Gross has interviewed," Obama said.