The next installment of the 2022 Spring The Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) continued on Wednesday, May 11. The second lecture of the series, “A Yankee in Kennedy’s Court: The Humorous American Story and the Mark Twain Prize” was presented by Charline Jao, a graduate student in the Literatures in English Department at Cornell University.
Nearly every year since 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has honored an individual for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. From the inaugural honoree Richard Pryor to this year’s Jon Stewart, there is a wide range of talent in this hall of fame, each with their own Twainian resonance. Yet, the claims of the award provide a telling portrait of the evolving relationship between comedy and American politics. The various ceremonies – which include the awarding of a bronze-colored bust of Twain, a fundraising ceremony filled with speeches, and an optional visit to the White House – simultaneously affirm the power of humor and draw the limits of comedic criticism. Taking Stewart, his avowed “anti-bullshit” ethos, and Daily Show tenure as its main focus (and examining this work through Twain’s dissections of the comedic persona in texts like “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It,” and “How to Tell a Story”), this talk interrogates the award’s claims to promoting unity and rewarding fearless observation. Rather than a simple elevation of comedy as an art form, the award stages constant friction between political criticism, humor, power, prestige, and cultural absorption.
Charline Jao is a graduate student in the Literatures in English Department at Cornell University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American literature, with special interest in speculative work by women writers and print culture. She is currently working on a digital humanities project that catalogues poetry published in abolitionist periodicals.
About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series – In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.