In a triumphant return to personal festivities, Sunday night the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was presented to Jon Stewart, the first recipient of the award in more than two years.
Stewart, the 23rd person to receive the award, one of comedy’s highest honors, was able to draw the biggest names from the worlds of comedy and politics to the ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, as a reflection of the comedian’s reach and cultural influence.
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The red carpet saw a mix of politicians and comedians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten on the carpet alongside Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle and Steve Carrell.
Speaker Pelosi, who has been the subject of Stewart’s ribbing in the past, graciously acknowledged that she enjoyed his work, regardless of the subject, “as long as it’s funny.” “I’m obviously excited about Jon Stewart for his humor,” Pelosi said, “but from the standpoint of his influence on public policy, he was focused on what he knows and cares about. He doesn’t just come off as a celebrity,” Pelosi said, referring to the comedian’s tireless activism on behalf of veterans and 9/11 responders.
Before Stewart, Chapelle was the last person to receive the Mark Twain Prize in October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Sunday’s event may have been a little low-key compared to past Twain awards in recent memory, but it also featured more Hollywood names than previous ceremonies. Many were on stage, but some just slipped into the crowd. Comedian John Mulaney quietly sat down next to partner and former The daily show alum Olivia Munn, while on the other side of the theater Kim Kardashian clung to host Pete Davidson’s arm.
Kennedy Center President David Rubenstein opened the event with a nod to the seriousness of current affairs at home and abroad, adding that Stewart was chosen this year’s recipient of the Twain Prize for not only being a great humorist. , but also a social commentator who invested in the betterment of our country.
Bruce Springsteen, like Stewart, a native of New Jersey, took the stage to join Gary Clark Jr., the evening’s music director, for a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” to kick off the show, and would later become the end the night with a slow-jam-esque version of “Born to Run.”
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The overwhelming feeling shared by the presenters, including Munn, Davidson, Bee, Kimmel, Chappelle, Carell, Ed Helms and Stephen Colbert, was that of deep appreciation for Stewart for investing in them as both people and professionals, and for stepping back from the limelight to grow their fledgling careers. Munn shared a story about how Stewart found and encouraged her, saying that Stewart also “changed the way my generation saw the news and public policy.” Jon made it cool to have an opinion about the news — and that’s why every goddamn bastard has an opinion about everything now,” Munn said.
Stewart’s likeable personality runs deep, Davidson noted. “Everyone likes this guy, the most controversial thing he’s ever done is be friends with me. John is loyal in friendship, it’s not something he thinks half-heartedly, like acting, or gives up easily, like directing,” said Davidson. Former daily show correspondent Carell described Stewart’s ethics as “making sense of the insane and finding joy in the darkness.”
Stewart’s age was also the subject of many of the ceremony’s lighter moments. Colbert, who paid his tribute virtually while entrenched with COVID-19, said of Stewart’s appearance that “it looks like you drank from the wrong chalice in a Indiana Jones movie.” Referring to the earliest days of the daily showdescribed Colbert Stewart and his fellow correspondents as “a band of merry pirates”.
Presidential biographer Jon Meacham paid tribute to Stewart by describing him as “a comedian with a conscience,” adding, “Night after night you’ve given a divided America a chance to orientate itself morally. Most comedians joke, but Jon, you make the difference.”
Stewart accepted his award and began his speech by speaking openly and lightly about his family, from his mother raising him as a single mother, to his wife and his teenage children. He joked about Bill Cosby’s revoked award (“I’m the 23rd recipient of this very prestigious award, and you know it’s prestigious because almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists”) and a few references to the Will Smith hit incident at the Academy Awards.
Stewart noted that Hollywood and DC have a lot in common: “Washington is for people who like the ego and arrogance of LA, but who think that city is too well designed,” a reference to the notoriously poorly designed and often interrupted street system. from DC.
As for the ongoing debate about the purpose and future of humor, as well as its greatest threat, The problem host said: “There’s a lot of talk right now about what’s going to happen in comedy. You know, there was the blow…. But it’s not the public’s vulnerability,” Stewart said, referring to the threat to comedy, “it’s the leaders. It’s not the Fresh Prince, it’s the Crown Prince,” he added.
He continued: “comedy is the clock, we are the banana peel in the coal mine … Authoritarianism is the threat to art, theatre, poetry…. What we have is fragile and precious, and the way to arm ourselves against that is not to change how the public thinks, but to change how leaders lead.”
The 2022 Mark Twain Prize will air on PBS on June 21.
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