The Mark Twain Prize… Tina Fey; Really? (Bloggishnish)

It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them.
Mark Twain

Tina Fey was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on November 9th.  While Tina Fey is clearly a talented writer, producer, actress and comedienne who appeals to many who appreciate her brand of humor, I’m left wondering what the real criteria is for this award. I fear it too has become another “award” that has had its value diminished and marginalized by political partisanship and agendas.

Reading from the Kennedy Center Website, they describe the prize as follows:

The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was created in 1998 by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Mark Krantz, Peter Kaminsky and Bob Kaminsky and John Schreiber to recognize the art of humorists who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

Previous Award Winners include:

  • 1998 – Richard Pryor
  • 1999 – Jonathan Winters
  • 2000 – Carl Reiner
  • 2001 – Whoopi Goldberg
  • 2002 – Bob Newhart
  • 2003 – Lily Tomlin
  • 2004 – Lorne Michaels
  • 2005 – Steve Martin
  • 2006 – Neil Simon
  • 2007 – Billy Crystal
  • 2008 – George Carlin
  • 2009 – Bill Cosby

However, this is more than an award program; it’s a TV production that’s intended to generate revenue. The proceeds from the Mark Twain Prize event are used to support the Kennedy Center’s programs, performances and outreach and for those who attend the price of admission is not inconsequential: special Access Packages are available at the $50,000; $25,000; $10,000; and $5,000 levels. Single tickets are $1,000 each.  And, there are a couple other catches: the award recipient — like all of the Kennedy Center Award Programs — needs to be alive, willing to receive the award, and able to attend the ceremony / taping.  George Carlin apparently received the award posthumously on a technicality in that he died unexpectedly a short while after he had been told he was selected to receive the award.  Bill Cosby turned down the award several times due to the abundance of off-color language that was flying around during the Richard Pryor ceremony.  He finally relented and agreed to accept the prize in 2009.  Finally, there’s a part of me that wonders if there wasn’t an aspect of this aimed at pumping up 30 Rock’s ratings, which have never lived up to it’ critical acclaim and awards.

Of course, while many have attempted to downplay the emphasis that the selection committee apparently placed on Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin parodies, if you watched the November 9th event the references to the Palin parodies as well as the not-so-subtle jabs at Palin were hardly downplayed.  In fact, one of Tina Fey’s comments about Palin in her acceptance speech was edited from the broadcast version which caused a small uprising, perhaps justifiably since the shows producers (not PBS who may have been the first to note the edits) defended removal of the 30 seconds as an edit for time compression. e.  The very-long acceptance speech, including the controversial 30 seconds that were cut along with all of the thank you’s where Fey even jokes that, “they’ll probably cut this,” can be found HERE.  Lastly,  how strange was it that PBS aired the show at the same time as The Learning Channel (TLC) premier of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”  on Sunday, Nov. 14 at 9/8C.  Weird, huh?  Mind you, I’m no fan of Sarah Palin and what she represents.  But, it’s hard to dismiss this selection of Fay as a simple coincidence with the current political landscape, anymore than the airing of the shows.

So, who else would have been a worthy recipient?  That’s a tough one. After all, in you look at the 12 previous recipients, just who else comes to mind as humorists, writers, actors, stand-ups and comedians that might have been more deserving of something purportedly as prestigious as the Mark Twain Prize?  Here are a few that popped into my head… I’m sure I’ve missed a few others.

  • Mary Tyler Moore
  • Betty White
  • Joan Rivers
  • Phyllis Diller
  • Carol Burnett
  • Vicki Lawrence
  • Penny Marshall
  • Ellen DeGeneres
  • Goldie Hawn
  • Teri Garr
  • Jane Curtin
  • Sandra Bullock
  • Shelly Long
  • Shelly Duvall
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Mel Brooks
  • Woody Allen
  • Redd Foxx
  • Tom & Dick Smothers
  • Garrison Keillor
  • Dave Barry
  • Robin Williams
  • Jerry Seinfeld
  • Dan Ackroyd
  • Harold Ramis
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Jim Carrey
  • Mike Meyers
  • Jon Stewart
  • Stephen Colbert
  • James Brooks
  • Matt Groenig
  • Seth MacFarlane

Steve Martin and Betty White were the only ones who really had the credentials that allowed them to poke on Fey’s credentials as they demonstrated their mastery of comedic delivery and timing — the best acts of the evening by a long shot. The rest of the guests — like Tina Fey’s resume — all appeared to be associated with the inner circle of NBC’s SNL or 30 Rock shows. In fact, both of their presentations seemed more like tongue-in-cheek scripts from a Friars Roast back when they were classy events with class acts like Johnny Carson vs. Saturday Night Live alumni of Fey’s era doing the kind of humor they did on SNL.  The irony of course was seeing Betty White essentially spend her time on stage asking the most obvious question of the evening: what about me?  Apparently, The Kennedy Center, the Mark Twain Prize selection committee and their TV producer advisors have decided that the recipient’s current “draw” or being in the “right demographic” is more important than the recipient’s credentials when you’re trying to sell-out $1,000 tickets for a Tuesday night event at the Kennedy Center.

For full disclosure, let me say I watched SNL when it first aired in 1975 and was a fairly regular viewer until the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and formula fell apart around 1980 and the show lost it’s way.  I watched it a few times during the Eddie Murphy era, only because Murphy was so darn funny, and some of the Joe Pisc0po characters were also worth watching.  But, after that any time I’ve found myself in a position to watch SNL it’s typically been a disappointment aside from the always easy to pull-off parodies of political figures: hardly original humor, especially when you don’t really need a script…. quotes are all that’s needed.  When I checked-in during the years that Tina Fey was writing or a member of the cast, the show (as well as the comedians) became far too political and pretentious for my tastes. Therein may lie my failure to appreciate Tina Fey’s humor: I wasn’t her target audience.  I’ve also never watched 30 Rock, but then again I don’t watch a lot of TV: there’s just not much worth watching.  Other than some very good PBS programming such as the ‘make ’em laugh’ series, the BBC’s Top Gear, The Daily Show and Colbert Report now and again at 11pm, football as background noise on weekends in the fall, and the better documentaries on PBS, CNBC, I’m genuinely not impressed by what’s on TV and would rather spend my evening down time reading or writing about cycling and tandems.


About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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