Joking Aside: Jon Stewart & The Mark Twain Prize

In “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain describes a distinctly American style of comedic delivery where what is said is less important than the way one says it:

The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.

Mark Twain, How to Tell a Story & Other Essays (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1897), p. 4.

Using the example of “The Wounded Soldier,” Twain then shares a joke featuring a soldier dragging a carcass without a head while insisting the body only lost a leg. When the truth is pointed out to the soldier, he exclaims “But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG.” Twain, taking a story that “isn’t worth the telling,” compares the bare version to James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Old Soldier’s Story”: the same tale told in the meandering, forgetful, and tedious tones of a dull-witted and rambling old farmer. “The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious,” writes Twain, “This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.”1ibid, 6-7 Twain thus illustrates the key principle of satire, anti-humor, stand-up, cringe, and entertainment all at once: to understand bad humor, one must have very good humor. And to understand bad humor, there are few places better than Washington D.C.

After forgoing the prize due to COVID restrictions in 2021, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that this year’s honoree for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor would be Jon Stewart. Though the comedian’s best-known work is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Center’s press release also cites his podcast (The Problem with Jon Stewart), his executive producing for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and Colbert Report, his writing and directing, and his social advocacy for veterans and 9/11 first responders. On receiving the news, Stewart commented, “I am truly honored to receive this award. I have long admired and been influenced by the work of Mark Twain, or, as he was known by his given name, Samuel Leibowitz.” (This joke has its own tradition: Steve Martin, George Carlin, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all jokingly feigned ignorance of the award’s namesake in their own speeches. Leno exclaims, “In fact, A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite books!”)

In this article, I want to examine the Twainian resonances of Jon Stewart’s comedic career, in particular the “anti-bullshit” position he adopted on The Daily Show, alongside the claims and staging of the Kennedy Center’s Twain Prize. Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, where he stood at the cross-section of entertainment, press, and politics, provides an opportunity to reflect on the cultural history of the Mark Twain Award – a prize which similarly celebrates and uplifts comedy as a political force.

The Mark Twain Prize

In his autobiography The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous, award co-founder Cappy McGarr laments, “in Washington, there aren’t enough funny people, and too many jokes.”2Cappy McGarr, The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous: Stories from the Kennedy Center, the White House, & Other Comedy Venues (New York: Savio Republic, 2021) p. 16. Calling the ceremony, “an annual reprieve in the nation’s capital from the severity of the news—a chance to celebrate people who keep our spirits up in the face of challenges. And an opportunity to remind our leaders not to take themselves too seriously,” McGarr argues that humor and socially-conscious satire fills a role sorely lacking in politics. This connection is more apparent in some awardees than others. When Tina Fey won, she thanked Sarah Palin, the subject of one of SNL’s most memorable and critically-acclaimed impressions. “My partial resemblance and her crazy voice are the two luckiest things that have ever happened to me,” says Fey.

The prize includes a bust of Twain, a fundraising ceremony celebrating the honoree, and an optional visit to the White House – one not always accepted. There is a wide range of awardees: veteran comics, producers, writers, performers, and actors. The 22 previous Mark Twain Prize winners include Lorne Michaels, George Carlin, Neil Simon, Bill Cosby (rescinded in 2018 for his sexual assault convictions), and Eddie Murphy. The most recent awardees are Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Dave Chappelle.

It seems natural now that America’s most prestigious comedy award is the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Yet, so much is embedded in that title: the declaration of an American tradition of humor, the legacy of the Kennedy name, and a distinct portrait of how we expect comedy and politics to meet. Thus, the Mark Twain Award inevitably stages a constant friction between political criticism, humor, power, prestige, and cultural absorption. The award which seeks to elevate “comedy as an art form and [unite] the community through laughter” cites Twain’s legacy as a “fearless observer of society,” a controversial figure, and a man with a sense of humor driven by an “uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.” Richard Pryor put this mission in more direct terms when he accepted the inaugural prize, declaring, “It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that’s funny! Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred!”3Mcgarr, p. 87 The Mark Twain Award suggests that laughter is not only the best medicine for the individual, but for the political body.

Stewart, Twain, & Kennedy

Looking at the list of accolades, there is no doubt that Stewart’s great accomplishment is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Co-created by Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead and currently airing with Trevor Noah as host, the television program provides a satirical platform where commentary, segments, and interviews expose and mock the artifice of real news and political platforms. Over a critically acclaimed 16-year tenure as host, Stewart became “the most trusted man” for current events and American media commentary. Correspondents like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Hasan Minhaj went on to launch their own shows – all of them borrowing from The Daily Show format in some way. Stewart’s particular form of progressive satire and performance calls to mind many Twainian resonances, both minor (an affinity for stylistic pauses) and significant (carrying their jokes with anger and bitterness).

Just before his Daily Show tenure, Stewart spoke at the 1997 White House Correspondents Dinner, an annual event where the US president, journalists, and a comedian gather for a roast that often jumps between entertaining quips to passive-aggressive observations to outright confrontational addresses. Stewart, a New York Yankee in President Clinton’s Hilton, moves between self-deprecation, impressions, and friendly banter. His signature critique of media comes out in a few select jokes. In one, he discusses a Congressional debate about an FDR memorial:

They actually did a poll in USA Today on Friday, I guess to give Congress a sort of feel for how regular Americans feel about that issue and the results are really interesting. 8% felt he should be in a wheelchair. 12% said he should be standing and 80% said pass a budget. So, I know that was interesting.

In another, he mocks their response to the Million Man March to laughs and groans:

Washington has always been a hotbed of social protests. I guess the biggest recent one was the Million Man March or as many you probably remember it, “That day we called in sick.”

The check-and-balance dynamic between Stewart, the press, and politicians would continue evolving. The “more genuine and less manipulative” public engagement seen in The Daily Show as opposed to regular news, Jeffrey P. Jones writes, ironically was made possible “by crafting a lie; that is, [Stewart’s] role as anchor of a (fake) news show.”4Jeffrey P. Jones, “Changing the Conversation: The Daily Show’s Interviews and Interrogations” in Entertaining Politics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), p. 199. As Amber Day notes, Stewart and The Daily Show correspondents gained more authority and access to political events and conventions over the years.5Amber Day, “And Now…the News? mimesis and the Real in The Daily Show” in Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era ed. by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson (New York: NYU Press, 2009) Stewart’s comedy could carry just as much, if not more weight than official media channels. However, Day also points out, it was essential to maintain distance from the institutions of government or journalism: “it is through his incorporation and engagement with the real, without actually becoming identical to it, that he is able to critique the real.”6ibid, 101 Stewart and his correspondents were entertainers, commentators, and authorities all at the same time – negotiating their Daily Show personas with their real lives. As a result, moments when Stewart shed his persona stood out even more – his impassioned critique when advocating for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund on Capitol Hill to a “nearly empty Congress” went viral as viewers watched a tearful Stewart call the subcommittee an “embarrassment to the country.” Many linked the moment to Stewart’s Daily Show episode after 9/11, where he gravely described seeing the damage from his apartment.

Examining Stewart’s careful deployment and withdrawal of comedy when intervening in politics, we recognize a celebrity who strategically crosses the comedic and political spaces of the national public agenda – what Judith Yaross Lee calls the “unstable comic self.”7Judith Yaross Lee, Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (Jackon: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), p. 28. In his 1880 essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” Twain makes a humorous argument for “charitable and unselfish lying” and against the “growing prevalence of the brutal truth” in the Gilded Age: “Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what sorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we must all lie and we do all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid.” Blatant (or artless) deceit in the farcical 24/7 news cycle – even more than ideology – was always Stewart greatest target. In the oral history of The Daily Show, Colbert recalls words from producer and writer Steve Bodow on the show’s key approach: “I don’t think we’re anti-Bush, I think we’re anti-bullshit.”8Chris Smith, The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History As Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), p. 116.

In 2012, we could easily adapt this statement to, “I don’t think we’re anti-Romney, I think we’re anti-Bullshit Mountain.” Stewart exited The Daily Show with his “bullshit is everywhere” speech in 2015, imploring his audience to separate the “day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit” that “keeps people from making each other cry all day” and the more pernicious kind: “Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshitocracy.” He lists among them the Patriot Act, misleading legislation names, banks, tech companies, and “the guise of unending inquiry” (climate change, guns, vaccines, same-sex marriage), ending with a call for vigilance. “So if you smell something,” says the host, “say something.”

Key moments of Stewart’s career stand out as particularly “anti-bullshit”: the damning week-long series of clips and eventual interview with Jim Cramer for CNBC’s “disingenuous at best and criminal at worst” coverage of the financial crisis, his confrontational refusal to play the comedian on Crossfire with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (when Tucker cries, “Wait, I thought you were gonna be funny!” Stewart famously replies, “No. No, I’m not gonna be your monkey”), and his interview with Judith Miller on her inaccurate coverage of the Iraq War supporting the Bush Administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction. These anti-bullshit moments often display Stewart at his most furious and earnest. Through his own appearances and performances, Stewart modeled and signaled to viewers what should be funny and what should be serious (and indeed, each tone seems possible and heightened only because of the other).

The bite of Stewart’s commentary could also demonstrate the limitations of comedy – a “feel-bad” wit showed his audience how humor could function as a means of coping. At the end of his interview with Miller, a visibly frustrated Stewart concludes with, “These discussions always make me incredibly sad because I feel like they point to institutional failure at the highest levels and no one will take responsibility for it. They pass the buck to every individual other than themselves.” After Miller asserts, “I think they point to intelligence failures that I still worry about — we are still relying on the same information on Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and the other countries,” Stewart sarcastically replies, “Hopefully, given the same effort, we’ll get to invade them soon.” Ending with a bitter note, refusing to play the conciliatory or friendly host, Stewart balances the tones of sadness and the humor.

Yet there is also something to be said about having these conversations at all – this same approach to engagement earned Stewart criticism recently, when the comedian defended podcaster Joe Rogan amidst calls for Spotify to drop Rogan for his spread of vaccine misinformation. Stewart said, “It might be a fool’s errand, but I will never give up on engagement.” It’s a sentiment he’s consistently voiced, while also acknowledging its challenges. In response to critics calling his “Rally to Restore Sanity” a reduction of political issues to a call for politeness, Stewart defended his message as one of intellectual engagement, saying, “if you’re going to have an argument, have the actual argument. Be precise.” In The Daily Show’s oral history, he describes both the desire to “find, within someone’s humanity, some understanding of why they’ve done what they’ve done” and his own fallibility as interviewer (on his Donald Rumsefeld interview, showrunner Rory Albanese says, “I remember Jon felling like he blew it”).9The Daily Show (The Book), pp. 285, 290. Alongside articles praising Stewart’s viral confrontations are analyses which question the effectiveness of this model – far from a brave truth-teller, Stewart morphs into the face of liberal civility, hypocritically invested and dependent on the spectacle and circus he critiques. With the social media ethos that all exposure is good exposure, there is an understandable skepticism towards this model of engagement where unearned good faith is extended to questionable individuals. (Google Trends shows that the word “deplatform” saw spikes in 2018 and reached a peak in 2021.) The Twanian critique is best articulated by Steve Almond in his 2012 article “The Joke’s on You.” Almond, who dubs the Stewart credo “civility at any cost, even in the face of moral atrocity,” pushes against the image of Stewart and his fellow comedians as subversive critics:

Twain had this to say about the patriotism of his day: “The Patriot did not know just how or when or where he got his opinions, neither did he care, so long as he was with what seemed the majority—which was the main thing, the safe thing, the comfortable thing.” It’s this quality of avoiding danger, of seeking the safety of consensus, that characterizes the aesthetic of Stewart and Colbert. They’re adept at savaging the safe targets—vacuous talking heads and craven senators. But you will never hear them referring to our soldiers as “uniformed assassins,” as Twain did in describing an American attack on a tribal group in the Philippines.

Steve Almond, “The Joke’s On You,” The Baffler (July 2012)

Though his Daily Show hosting and comedic persona often depended on Stewart as an “outsider” and observer of politics and media, this positioning ignores the fact that comedy has always had a position in politics – one that the Mark Twain Award makes explicit.

While Stewart and his comedy depended on a shifting public persona that required “anti-bullshit” punctuations, political entities also needed to show that they were in on the joke by calling on humor for relief or a diversion. Of course, this award doesn’t only draw a connection between Mark Twain and a contemporary humorist. Rather, it draws a line between Twain, a contemporary humorist, John F. Kennedy, and the current political administration (and sponsor American Airlines). Kennedy’s name, which conjures up for many a legacy of service, civil rights, scientific exploration, and a mythologized tragedy, frames this award. Yet, the 35th president is also a kind of mirror to these awardees in that he was an entertaining politician while they are political entertainers. JFK’s often self-deprecating humor gave him power in press conferences, bolstered his calls for innovation, and magnified a charisma furthermore amplified by television and new communications technologies. At one conference he joked, “I do not think it all-together inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris – and I’ve enjoyed it.” Aware of his own celebrity and legacy, JFK’s humor played on and with his public image. With Kennedy, we see humor as a means of soft power, of diffusing tension, and moderating confrontation.

Revisiting the award’s description of Twain and the awardees, it is worth asking: how does one simultaneously unite a community through laughter and fearlessly/controversially push forward social justice? What happens when a prestigious collective honors their “fearless observer”? The marriage of comedy and politics promised in the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, then, simultaneously elevates comedy as an art form and sets boundaries for its radical potential (as is the case with any prestigious award). In the middle of his 2005 acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Steve Martin paid tribute to the award’s namesake: “I’m laughing at something – a Mark Twain quote I wrote down because I wanted to get it exactly right,” says Martin, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, “He said, whatever you do, for God’s sake, do not name a prize after me.”

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 which catalogues poetry published in abolitionist periodicals.

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