As noted last week, the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. awarded its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to 40-year-old Tina Fey, former writer/performer on Saturday Night Live (NBC) and current writer/producer/performer on 30 Rock (NBC). In the words of the producer of the televised presentation of the Twain Prize, “We’re recognizing a body of work that is important to our culture … It’s for a person whose body of work is defining of our time.”
Permit me to leave aside the basic preposterousness of awards in general, and awards for artistic achievement in particular, and acknowledge that the obvious intent of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is to put on a televised tribute to a show business personality—Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, etc.— dressed up in the kitsch-laden garments of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call it a Dean Martin Roast for people who pay lip service to PBS. Which was done this past weekend when Ms. Fey, accompanied by former SNL colleagues and other New York/Hollywood luminaries, was presented, on a nationwide broadcast, with a bust of Mark Twain and two hours of clips and laudatory monologues.
I had suggested last week that, my own opinion notwithstanding, Mark Twain would have relished “the notion of a ‘prize’ for humor in the gift of an agency of the federal government,” and that its presentation “with all the cultural appurtenances of a major network television broadcast, would very much be grist for [his] mill.”
After this weekend’s actual show, I am not so sure. The “humor” in the tributes and affectionate recollections was mostly of the show biz variety—reverent mutual admiration—and there were jokes at the expense of Sarah Palin (a famous Fey impersonation), Republicans, the Tea Party, and so on. Tina Fey herself started off by describing how flattered she was to be celebrated in the halls of the Kennedy Center which, she announced, will soon be renamed the “Tea Party Bowling and Rifle Range.” (Get it? Tea Partiers? Bowling? Guns?) But the laughter and applause for that particular one-liner was exceeded in duration, and intensity, when next she acknowledged the legendary humorist, lecturer, novelist, journalist, and public philosopher for whom her prize is named: “I hope that, like Mark Twain, a hundred years from now people will see my work and think, ‘Wow! That is actually pretty racist.’”
Tina Fey, bachelor of arts of the University of Virginia, and everyone’s idea of a thinking-man’s funny girl, seems to be under the impression that Twain—atheist, anti-imperialist, cynic, curmudgeon, political prophet, and one of the few Americans of his lifetime (1835-1910) who, by modern standards, may fairly be described as not racist—shared the common views on race of most 19th-century white Americans. Of course, as any reader of Huckleberry Finn can attest, Twain not only portrayed African-Americans with insight and respect, but in much of his fiction and journalism, observed their lives with sympathy (and anger) in the Jim Crow era. You can say a lot of things about Mark Twain, and a lot of critical things, but calling his writings racist is plain ignorance.
Which, considering Tina Fey’s cerebral reputation, and the glittering credentials of her Kennedy Center audience, makes her joke -- and the attendant laughter and self-congratulatory applause -- more depressing than anything Mark Twain ever wrote or said.