One of the more preposterous institutions in Washington—in a city with an abundance of them—is the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, awarded since 1998 by the same people who invented the Kennedy Center Honors. I have no idea who or what committee of the board at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts chooses the lucky recipient of an award named for the famous 19th-century novelist/essayist, but I have a reasonable guess what Mark Twain would think of the idea. The notion of a prize for “humor” in the gift of an agency of the federal government, and presented with all the cultural appurtenances of a major network television broadcast, would very much be grist for Twain’s mill.
This week the Washington Post agonized at length about the choice of Tina Fey for the 2010 award. Not about Fey herself who, at hundreds of column inches spread out over two big pages, was treated to the sort of worshipful analysis usually reserved for senior Obama White House staffers or creaking veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. No—the Post was concerned (although not too much) about the fact that Fey is comparatively young (40) and, while undoubtedly successful as a Saturday Night Live writer/performer and producer/star of a popular sitcom, not exactly at the point in her career where lifetime achievement awards are commonplace.
After all, while everyone agrees that Tina’s Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin is impressive, no one has suggested Rich Little for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. To which the producer of the Mark Twain Prize TV broadcast, Peter Kaminsky, responds: “We’re recognizing a body of work that is important to our culture. What Tina has done has come to define humor in our culture today. It’s not an award for quantity, and it’s not a career-sunset award. It’s for a person whose body of work is defining of our time.”
Of course, it’s impossible to satirize a TV producer who believes that Tina Fey—of SNL and 30 Rock—“is important to our culture [and] whose body of work is defining of our time.” But even if we take Mr. Kaminsky at his word, it is interesting to ponder his perspective in light of the names that precede Tina Fey’s. The first winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was Richard Pryor (1998), and it has gone to other humorists of importance to our culture such as Lily Tomlin (2003), Billy Crystal (2007), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), and George Carlin (2008). In fact, in the dozen years of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it has gone to exactly one writer (Neil Simon, 2006)—which, once again, would raise a rueful smile in Mark Twain.
And to which, in the end, it can only be said that the real humor in this situation is found in taking the Mark Twain Prize seriously, and guessing who the Kennedy Center board will soon recognize for their importance to American culture: Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Charlie Sheen, perhaps?