In earlier years, the Twain Prize honored comedic legends who brought the funny and advanced the art. Entertainers such as Steve Martin, George Carlin, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner are icons. The last three: DeGeneres, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey? Not so much.
What DeGeneres, Ferrell and Fey do bring to the table is less shtick and more politics. With a pivot to claiming the prize recognizes comedians who are at their “apex,” the Kennedy Center has really been rewarding mediocre comedians who have done more in the short-term to advance politics than contributed to their own craft.
For example, who can forget Fey’s lampooning of Sarah Palin as the simpleton who “can see Russia from her house.” Ferrell similarly belittled W. And DeGeneres is turning her stardom into a vehicle for homosexual activism.
Never mind that what DeGeneres brings to the table to justify earning the Twain Prize is a Disney movie voiceover, one mildly successful sit-com, a failed sit-com, a daytime talk show, some forgettable books and commercial endorsements that include J.C. Penny and Veryfine juices.
Add to this the crying shame that there are great, accomplished comedic talents such as Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and even Norman Lear who have yet to be — and possibly never will be because of their advanced ages — honored for their contributions to American comedy.
Instead, the Kennedy Center seems content to bestow honors on someone the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described as a “cultural pioneer” in his article on the ceremony (apparently forgetting that Billy Crystal played a gay character on “Soap” 35 years ago and Tony Randall played an implicitly gay character in a leading role 31 years ago on “Love, Sydney”). But DeGeneres did use her talk show to congratulate President Obama for coming out in favor of gay marriage.
So why not pick someone next year to meet the promise of racial quotas for entertainment honors.
It’s time for the shepherd’s crook to come out and yank the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center’s stage. It’s just not funny anymore.