Last year, I took issue with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for giving its Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to Tina Fey. I called her “the youngest and likely the least-qualified recipient of the Twain Prize.”
The Kennedy Center crew certainly did not redeemed themselves this year by giving the Twain Prize to Will Ferrell. The Prize was awarded to Ferrell last week in a ceremony that was broadcast last night on PBS.
Last year, I suggested the prize was given to Fey in thankful recognition of her character assassination of Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Likewise, I think a major factor in selecting fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Ferrell this year is thanks for his ongoing lambasting of George W. Bush.
For example, on the “Funny or Die” web site he created with collaborating partner Adam McKay, Ferrell recently posted a video in which he played Bush speaking with pride (and confusion) about coordinating the extermination of a gopher. It was meant to mock Bush as Obama took credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Ferrell, who mocked Bush relentlessly on “Saturday Night Live,” also took a compilation of his Bush-related humor to Broadway in 2009 for a one-man show called “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” (that was later adapted for an HBO special).
Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford it was not. Ferrell’s take on Bush has a decidedly angry and hurtful edge. And the liberal establishment apparently can’t thank him enough for it.
But there’s more than politics to protest about the Kennedy Center’s behavior regarding the Twain Prize. Fey and Ferrell — 40 and 44 years old, respectively, at the time of their recognition — are really too early in their careers to be feted with something that should be for lifetime achievement.
For every hilarious Ferrell movie such as “Elf” or “Anchorman,” he has clunkers such as “Land of the Lost,” “Bewitched” and “Semi-Pro” that bring his ability to carry a film into question. While the “Saturday Night Live” “More Cowbell” sketch is considered one Ferrell’s best, wasn’t Christopher Walken the one who really brought home the funny in that one?
Ferrell can make one hell of a guest star, as he did as the short-term boss on “The Office” and as a car dealership owner on “Eastbound and Down.” But the Twain Prize isn’t for a best supporting actors.
While some friends I’ve ranted to about this sad state of affairs say that the Kennedy Center staff wants to cater to the hip and not honor the departed, there are still many giants in the comedy world who are alive and deserve recognition for their lifetime of funny business.
I have a few people I’d like to suggest that the Kennedy Center staff look into for next year. They aren’t people I necessarily like or agree with politically, but I do recognize that they have given quite a bit to the world of comedy.
For the Kennedy Center’s consideration:
Carol Burnett: Take a look at the Saturday television schedule these days. It’s where the networks burn off their failures, show repeats or stick low-rated news programs. Once upon a time, long before DVR was invented, people stayed home on Saturday nights to watch Burnett and her gang of comics. She’s also one of the last entertainers to succeed with the prime-time variety show format — something that most recently failed for likely future Twain Prize winners Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O’Donnell.
Mary Tyler Moore: Moore was an actress on the classic situation comedies “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Mary Tyler Moore.” Her production company produced her own eponymous show, plus other hit comedies such as “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Phyllis,” “Rhoda” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” as well as dramas such as “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” My wife, a big MTM fan, calls her portrayal of newswriter Mary Richards as “stylish and fun without ever forgetting the challenges that women faced in the workplace.”
Sid Caesar: Milton Berle, Bob Hope, George Burns and so many of the 20th century comedy greats are dead. Sid Caesar is still alive. With “Your Show of Shows,” “Caesar’s Hour” and others, Caesar was a pioneer in television comedy. “Saturday Night Live,” the launching pad for previous Twain Prize winners Fey, Ferrell and show creator Lorne Michaels, owe Caesar a huge debt of thanks.
Norman Lear: I certainly don’t agree with this Lear’s politics. At all. But you can’t deny the influence of his work through shows such as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons ” and “Maude.” If rewarding liberal politics is to be an underlying theme of the Twain Prize, then they’ve certainly made a mistake by forgetting this guy. Did I mention I revile Lear’s politics?
Mel Brooks: In 2000, the Twain Prize went to Carl Reiner — the guy who played the straight man to Brooks in the very famous “2,000-Year-Old Man” sketch. Why Brooks is not yet recognized is a mystery. Whether it’s his recordings, his films, his televisions shows (he created “Get Smart” and wrote for Sid Caesar), his films that have been made into Broadway musicals or televisions series or remade on the silver screen, Brooks has one of the broadest and longest-running comedy careers out there.
Eddie Murphy: He’s 50, which makes Murphy the kid on my list of suggestions. In the 30+ years Murphy has been cracking wise, he helped bring “Saturday Night Live” back from the fear of cancellation, resurrected the stand-up concert film, became a huge movie star, created a television show, resurrected his movie career and became a star of family-friendly films (and paved the way for Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence to dress in drag) and will be hosting the Oscars next year. Just the other day, after seeing a commercial for Murphy’s new movie, a friend of mine began reciting-from-memory Murphy’s “Tyrone Green” skit from a quarter-century ago to great delight. That’s staying power.
The Twain Prize is not like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I believe it would be a good thing to not feel obligated to induct people every year. Such honors, I believe, should go to those who have done more than just made people laugh at some point in time or sell a lot of albums.
In the case of the Rock Hall, I think it’s foolish to consider inducting Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (as they plan to do) rather than Jett’s previous band, The Runaways. Surely, The Runaways — who paved the way for all-girl groups — did more to bring women into music than Jett alone.
Likewise, it’s unwise to give the Twain Prize to a comedian who has not been allowed to fully mature. Just because someone is hot right now or spouts the right political rhetoric doesn’t qualify them for high honors.
For example, Whitney Cummings is on the top of the comedy world right now. She’s got popular stand-up specials available on DVD and two shows on the networks (“Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls”) right now. But it’s unlikely she will inspire as many women to become comics like Burnett or Lily Tomlin (the 2003 Twain Prize winner) undoubtedly did. Will Dane Cook have the staying power of Brooks or Neil Simon (the 2006 Twain Prize winner)? They may, but we just don’t know now. Likewise, in my opinion, for Ferrell and Fey.
And, for those who might argue that the selections of Ferrell and Fey have less to do with politics than the Kennedy Center trying to play to a younger crowd a media that wants to report on someone they deem relevant, riddle me this: why hasn’t the Kennedy Center yet honored Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock or Chuck Lorre (the creator of “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mike and Molly,” and “Dharma and Greg”).
The Kennedy Center’s comedy act is not funny. I hear crickets.
Take my advice: go with a consummate and classic comedian next time. And try the veal.