By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated October 16, 2001 01:35 PM

Not everything in Washington is serious these days. Monday night, Whoopi Goldberg became the first woman to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. About a dozen of the star’s friends, including Alan King, Chris Rock, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, teased and saluted her at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The biggest laugh of the night, reports PEOPLE, came when Williams walked out on stage with Billy Crystal dressed in a gas mask and a kilt. Williams said on stage that under his kilt lurked “the Loch Ness monster.” Backstage, after the presentation, he told PEOPLE, quite seriously, that the kilt was a family tartan. But he said that the gas mask was just a comic device, not a statement about the world today. “I’m not afraid to be here at all,” he said. “I didn’t carry the gas mask around all day.” Williams said he thought that the tribute to Goldberg was “a cathartic act,” because people are ready to laugh. Onstage during the ceremony, the Whoopster said she nearly called off the evening, thinking that it would be inappropriate. But after thinking about it, she said, she came to the conclusion that “dirty jokes and bad language” is what she has to give to the American people. “We must pick ourselves up by our bootstrings and laugh. We have to — I’m not embarrassed now, I feel like a firefighter or a policeman. As an American that’s what I have to offer.” The event was taped and is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Nov. 21 on PBS.