Something’s Not Funny at the Kennedy Center

David Almasi

10/27/2012 12:01:00 AM - David Almasi

Over at the Kennedy Center, they just gave the 2012 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to Ellen Degeneres.

I’m going to make a bold guess that the 2013 winner of the Twain Prize is going to be George Lopez. Or “Cheech” Marin. Or maybe even Horatio Sanz.


Kennedy Center chairman Michael Kaiser is in a pickle. Hispanic activists are after him because the more prestigious Kennedy Center Honors have only recognized two Hispanics in 35 years. Things only got worse Kaiser told Felix Sanchez of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to “f--- off” during a heated telephone call about the perceived racial snub. Kaiser apologized, saying Sanchez’s complaint would “be given serious consideration.”

That means it’s almost a lock that there will be at least one Hispanic recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors next year. But it’s also a very good bet that a Hispanic will get the comedy prize as well. Why not let it play a role in the Kennedy Center’s new era of identity politics?

After all, the Twain Prize is already becoming more political by the year.

At this year’s ceremony honoring Degeneres, reports described it as more of a celebration of her homosexual advocacy. Since coming out of the closet in 1997, her social activism seems to have eclipsed her comedy.

For instance, honoring this transformation from joke-teller to truth-teller, Lily Tomlin said of DeGeneres: “She went from stand-up [comedy] to standing for something.”

In an acknowledgement of the event being an elitist nose-thumbing at conservatives, actor/comedian John Leguizamo chortled: “How about that? A gay woman on PBS — with public money and the Kennedys. It’s like a Tea Party’s worst nightmare.”

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.