Many might expect that major awards for comedy might be presented in cities known to be centers of the entertainment industry, like New York or LA. But one of America’s premier prizes for comedy, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, is presented right here in DC. The Kennedy Center has given the Mark Twain Prize to America’s top humorists who have “had an impact on American society in ways similar” to Mark Twain since 1998 (with the exceptions of 2020 and 2021, due to COVID). The Kennedy Center selected Mark Twain as the namesake of the prize given his role as a “fearless observer of society, who startled and outraged many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.”
Inherent in the award’s premise is that the humorists who will receive it use humor for social good. It was no surprise, then, that this year’s ceremony placed particular emphasis on this aspect of the career of its winner — former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
The gala included a red carpet appearance from Stewart and numerous Special Guests, which included the likes of Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Steve Carell, Jimmy Kimmel, Pete Davidson, Olivia Munn, Dave Chappelle, and Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. While reporting on this event from one of the red carpet pens assigned to the press, I was able to snap photos of some of these guests as they passed. Other attendees spotted included Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg, Jen Psaki, Nancy Pelosi, Samantha Bee’s husband and former Daily Show Correspondent Jason Jones, and one figure close to my heart — Georgetown University president John DeGioia. A highlight of the night for me was making eye contact with a smiling Steve Carell.
After the special guests had arrived, press and guests moved from the red carpet into the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Sitting in the audience of this event took the televised award shows of our collective consciousness out of the realm of larger-than-life make-believe. The main gala performance was recorded, and will be broadcast on PBS stations nationwide on June 21, 2022, at 9 PM ET (check local listings).
While special guests ascended the stage to sing Jon Stewart’s praises through humorous anecdotes and sincere expressions of gratitude for years of Stewart’s mentorship, and speakers and musicians played on stage — musicians Gary Clark Jr. and Bruce Springsteen were among the performers — two screens on either side of the stage showed the visuals being recorded for broadcasting. To both see the finished product I’ll watch on my television next month, and simultaneously be part of it, was an out-of-body experience that made the entertainment industry — one I personally am hoping to work in — less fantastical and more tangibly, thrillingly real.
Special guests whose commentary proved particularly memorable included Jimmy Kimmel, who praised Stewart for creating a revolutionary show and training an entire generation of satirists. Kimmel emphasized how Stewart helped develop a model for informational political satire and persuasive hosts that influenced a myriad of shows and satirists. “When John Oliver came to the Daily Show, he didn’t have a British accent,” he said. “Jon told him to talk like that.”
Former Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn echoed Kimmel’s sentiments about Stewart’s impact on American comedy, journalism, and even broader political discourse. She said, “It is Jon Stewart’s fault that everyone has a g-d opinion about every g-d thing.”
Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson, who ultimately served to represent the new generation of comedians and satirists at the gala, told joke after joke that Jon Stewart — whom the cameras turned to after most punchlines — repeatedly cackled at, symbolically seeming to earn Stewart’s approval and blessing for the next generation of comics.
John Oliver appeared in a recorded video to thank Stewart for giving him a chance as a Daily Show correspondent and praised him for his work combining journalistic work and comedy. Oliver added that when he was told Jon Stewart would be receiving an award at a public event where he would have to “interact with people,” Oliver could not believe that — and thus knew Stewart must have died. Oliver then launched into an In Memoriam for Stewart that lasted several minutes. “But you say that Jon Stewart is in the room with you now? Why yes, he’s in the room I’m in too. In a way, he’s in every room now, isn’t he?”
Stephen Colbert also appeared in a recorded video, in which he showered his former mentor Stewart with admiration and thanked him for teaching him the rules of the satirical road as his career launched. Colbert was originally slated as an in-person special guest for the gala but unfortunately had come down with COVID. Colbert emphasized his sadness at not being able to be present in person: “Anthony Fauci is standing outside my room with a taser.”
In between many of the special guests’ speeches, video montages celebrated aspects of Stewart’s career, from his early standup days and his early ’90s MTV late-night program, The Jon Stewart Show, to his work for 9/11 first responders.
After the gala, guests of the gala went to the Kennedy Center’s new complex, The REACH, for an afterparty. While ticket-buying attendees celebrated away from the closed-off VIP section, at one point Stewart did risk mingling with the commoners to play drums for the dance floor band.
Previous recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor include Richard Pryor (1998), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009, rescinded in 2018), Tina Fey (2010), Will Ferrell (2011), Ellen DeGeneres (2012), Carol Burnett (2013), David Letterman (2017), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (2018), and Dave Chappelle (2019), to name a few.
Especially as a young person hoping to work in political satire, the larger-than-life experience of attending the Mark Twain Prize ceremony was a formative one that I will not soon forget. While the tickets for this gala are not inexpensive for casual comedy lovers, those who are able to acquire them should absolutely seek to attend coming years’ Mark Twain Prize galas, if simply for the chance to experience briefly being inside the world of those figures we know and love from stage and screen.
The 23rd annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was recorded on Sunday, April 24, 2022, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall by WETA Washington, DC, and will air on PBS stations nationwide on June 21, 2022, at 9 p.m. ET (Check local listings.)