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Editorial: Twain and Leno – Nothing in Common

  • Leno

    Leno

  • Leno

    Leno

  • Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, still makes people laugh - and think.

    Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, still makes people laugh - and think.

  • Leno
  • Leno
  • Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, still makes people laugh - and think.

It’s easy to complain about awards because they’re subjective. How could 20 Feet From Stardom possibly beat out Cutie and the Boxer for the Oscar for Best Documentary? “Royals” gets the Grammy for Song of the Year over “Locked Out of Heaven”? Come on.

No matter who or what is chosen, there will be people who call it a travesty.

And that brings us to this year’s winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Jay Leno.

To understand why the choice of Leno is an irritating head-scratcher, you must first read the description of the prize, which is given annually by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.:

“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people 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.’ ”

That certainly doesn’t sound like the Jay Leno who spent two decades delivering stale monologues on the Tonight Show.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the Kennedy Center honoring Leno. He has been part of the comedy landscape for many years, and if nobody thought he was funny, he would have disappeared from the public eye long ago. But to say Leno has influenced American society the way Clemens did is absurd.

Leno is a practitioner of safe comedy, a man who goes for chuckles and a light knee slap rather than the revelatory laughter of an audience challenged to look honestly at its behavior and beliefs. It is that push toward illumination that gives comedy its cultural and intellectual significance.

There are many comedians who have picked up where Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and George Carlin left off, and those are the kinds of comedians who should have been elevated to honor Clemens’s memory.

The problem for the Kennedy Center is that the point of the Mark Twain Prize is to raise money. That is accomplished by hosting a “salute” to Leno in October, with “sponsorship packages ranging from $1,000 to $50,000 (that) feature an array of benefits, including an invitation to attend an exclusive Artist Rehearsal Brunch with Mr. Leno and other esteemed guests at the $25,000 and $50,000 levels.” The salute will air on PBS in November.

The Kennedy Center does wonderful work, and we applaud its efforts to provide a forum the arts. But to be worthy of its name, the Mark Twain Prize should go to a humorist who asks society to laugh, yes, but also makes them acknowledge and explore some of the dark places where the laughter comes from.

Otherwise, the award should be named after a predictable comedian who specializes in breezy, surface-level observations to gain the largest possible audience. There are plenty of names to choose from.

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