In a triumphant return to in-person festivities, the 2022 Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was awarded to Jon Stewart on Sunday night, the first recipient of the award in more than two years.
Stewart, the 23rd person to receive the prize, one of comedy’s top honors, was able to draw the biggest names from the worlds of comedy and politics for the ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, reflecting the comedian’s reach and cultural influence.
The red carpet saw a mix of politicians and comedians, with the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten walking the carpet alongside Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle and Steve Carrell .
Speaker Pelosi, who has been the subject of Stewart’s ribbing in the past, graciously acknowledged that she enjoyed his work regardless of the subject, “just so long as it’s funny.” “I’m excited about Jon Stewart for his humor of course,” said Pelosi, “but from the standpoint of his impact on public policy, he’s been focused on what he knows about and cares about. He doesn’t just come at it as a celebrity, ”Pelosi said in reference to the comedian’s tireless activism on behalf of veterans and 9/11 emergency workers.
Before Stewart, the last person to receive the Mark Twain Prize was Chapelle in October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Sunday’s event may have been a touch low-key in comparison to previous Twain awards in recent memory, but it also contained more Hollywood names than previous ceremonies. Many were on stage, but some simply slipped into the crowd. Comedian John Mulaney quietly took his seat next to partner and former The Daily Show alum Olivia Munn, while on the other side of the theater, Kim Kardashian clung to presenter Pete Davidson’s arm.
Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein opened the event with a nod to the seriousness of current events both at home and abroad, then added that Stewart was chosen as this year’s Twain prize recipient as he’s not only a great humorist, but also a social commentator who is invested in the betterment of our country.
Bruce Springsteen, like Stewart a New Jersey native, took the stage to accompany Gary Clark Jr., the evening’s music director, for a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” to start the show, and would later close the evening with a slow -jams-style version of “Born to Run.”
The overwhelming sentiment shared by the presenters, that included Munn, Davidson, Bee, Kimmel, Chappelle, Carell, Ed Helms and Stephen Colbert, was that of deep appreciation to Stewart for investing in them as both people and professionals, and for stepping back from the spotlight to allow their young careers to grow. Munn shared a story of how Stewart found and encouraged her, saying that Stewart also “changed the way my generation saw the news and public policy. “Jon made it cool to have an opinion on the news – and that’s why every goddamn asshole now has an opinion on everything,” Munn said.
Stewart’s likable persona runs deep, Davidson pointed out. “Everyone likes this guy, the most controversial thing he’s ever done is be friends with me. John is loyal at friendship, it isn’t something he half-asses, like acting, or gives up quickly, like directing, ”Davidson said. Former Daily Show correspondent Carell described Stewart’s ethic as “making sense out of the insane and finding joy in the darkness.”
Stewart’s age was also the subject of a lot of the lighter moments of the ceremony. Colbert, who gave his tribute virtually as he was holed up with COVID-19, said of Stewart’s appearance that “it looks like you drank out of the wrong chalice in an Indiana Jones movie. ” Referring to the earliest days of the Daily ShowColbert described Stewart and his fellow correspondents as “a band of merry pirates.”
Presidential biographer Jon Meacham paid tribute to Stewart by describing him as “a comedian with a conscience,” adding, “Night after night you’ve given a divided America a chance to get its moral bearings. Most comedians make jokes, but Jon, you make a difference. ”
Accepting his award, Stewart began his speech by talking openly and lightheartedly about his family, from his mother who raised him as a single mom to his wife and his teenage kids. He made a joke about Bill Cosby’s revoked award (“I am the 23rd recipient of this very prestigious award, and you know it’s prestigious because almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists”) and a couple of references to the Will Smith slap incident at the Academy Awards.
Stewart observed that Hollywood and DC have a lot in common: “Washington is for people who like the ego and arrogance of LA but who think that city is too well-designed,” a reference to DC’s notoriously poorly designed and often interrupted street system .
Touching upon the ongoing debate about the purpose and future of humor, as well as its greatest threat, The Problem host said: “There’s a lot of talk right now about what’s going to happen in comedy. You know, there was the slap…. But it’s not the fragility of audiences, ”said Stewart referring to the threat to comedy,“ it’s the leaders. It’s not the Fresh Prince, it’s the crown prince, ”he added.
He continued, “comedy is the bellwether, we’re the banana peel in the coal mine… Authoritarianism is the threat to art, theater, poetry…. What we have is fragile and precious, and the way to guard against it isn’t to change how audiences think, but to change how leaders lead. ”
The 2022 Mark Twain Prize ceremony will be broadcast June 21 on PBS.