Jon Stewart’s Twain Prize Speech: “Comedy Survives Every Moment”

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It was overwhelmingly clear that Washington needed a laugh Sunday night. Fortunately, an embarrassed group of the nation’s finest satirical minds had gathered at the Kennedy Center to congratulate Jon Stewart on the annual Mark Twain Award for American Humor.

It was the 23rd ceremony but the first in 2½ dark years. Dave Chappelle was honored in October 2019, a ceremony that later aired as a skillfully produced Netflix special. (This one will air on PBS on June 21.) It’s also the first of the now-permanent spring slot.

In his speech, a clearly touched Stewart said he was happy to receive the award, as “almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists”. (Earlier in the ceremony, Jimmy Kimmel had joked that they were actually recycling Bill Cosby’s award, saying, “It’s better for your precious environment.”)

Throughout his speech, Stewart spoke about the masked public (“like something out of an O. Henry story”), the planning of Washington, D.C. (“There are four eighth streets in Washington, and they don’t connect”), and his an old statesman (“Jews, we grow old like lawyers”).

Most of the comedian’s speech, however, has focused on his family. He praised his mother for raising him largely alone and told stories of his children – and meeting his wife on a blind date during which she barely spoke while that a nervous Stewart “gave a monologue”.

Stewart, 59, then opened up about the job of being a comedian, describing it as “an iterative endeavor. It’s a chore. It’s work. The best of us stick to it. »

“When you’re a comedian, you look into a room and 200 seats are facing each other. And there’s a stool, and there’s a light shining on it, and you walk into this room and you say, ‘This is going to be my chair,’ he added. “And you spend the rest of your career trying to earn that stool.”

He concluded his talk by discussing the frequently repeated concerns that comedy is somehow in jeopardy in today’s world, scoffing at the idea: “Comedy survives every moment.” And that’s a good thing, Stewart said, because “comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s an indicator. We are the banana peel in the coal mine. When society is threatened, actors are the first to be fired.

“What we have is fragile and precious, and the way to guard against it is not to change the way the public thinks, but to change the way leaders lead,” he concluded.

Jon Stewart cares less about his legacy than you do

During the more than 2.5-hour ceremony, friends and collaborators, including Chappelle, Kimmel and former “Daily Show” correspondents Olivia Munn and Samantha Bee, took turns offering eulogies, sharing stories and roasting the comedian.

The specter of the coronavirus loomed vaguely over the night, but – with apologies to Stephen Colbert, who had to zoom in after contracting the virus and jokingly blamed Stewart for the late-night politicization – his hauntings were relatively minor: just a masked audience and a few lame jokes about the pandemic.

Instead, after Bruce Springsteen and Gary Clark Jr. kicked things off with a thunderous version of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” it became clear that the crowd and Stewart himself had come out laughing.

Stewart, who sat with his wife, Tracey, and their two children in a box overlooking the concert hall stage, usually rocked back and forth laughing. He cried a few times, but it seemed mostly due to lack of oxygen from cackling to panting.

One such moment came as Steve Carell told the story of his first assignment on Stewart’s long-running “The Daily Show” to interview a venom researcher, who turned out to be a guy at a camper. because with a bunch of snakes (some “free range.”) After he managed to produce the segment without getting bitten and, you know, dying, Carell took it to his boss.

“I remember him saying, ‘It would have been great if you had been bitten by one of those snakes,'” Carell said. ”

The award comes at a pivotal time in Stewart’s career. He left ‘The Daily Show’ in 2015 after 16 years on Comedy Central and launched an Apple TV Plus show in 2021. The new show is much deeper and more interested in exploring the world’s problems rather than turning them into comic fodder.

A theme that emerged during the evening was Stewart’s comedy legacy, with Carell describing him as “striving to make sense of the crazy”. Bee called him the “godfather of righteous anger.” Munn said his generation was raised on his comedy.

Munn also praised him for his humility, recalling seeing his office, “a trash can”, where – in the middle of a clothes-covered treadmill, an old bottle of yellow mustard and everything he had ever received over the years – was his dusty box from the Emmys.

What you learn about Jon Stewart by talking to him with his friends

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian who, after discovering Stewart, quit practicing medicine to focus on satirizing his government, showed the global impact of “The Daily Show”. He said he launched a “cheap imitation” of “The Daily Show” on YouTube, which eventually led to a TV show. When Youssef found himself under investigation by the Egyptian government, he said, Stewart gave him advice: “Do you want to do comedy or do you want to do something that lasts a lifetime?”

And that, Youssef said in a half-joke that turned Stewart’s misty eyes to sneers, is why he was forced to flee Egypt.

Of course, the night would be nothing without wacky to downright silly tunes. John Oliver, convinced that Stewart was dead, delivered a mock eulogy. Ed Helms, dressed in a straw hat and red carnival barker stripes, sat down at an organ and played “Take Me to the Ball Game,” a nod to the love of Stewart for baseball.

These juxtapose nicely with the more serious moments, including Springsteen returning with an acoustic guitar to play “Born to Run” and excerpts from Stewart’s monologue after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The political faces in attendance, who unsurprisingly came from the left side of the aisle, included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who said he “grew up with Jon Stewart”) and her husband, Chasten; White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California). Before the show, Pelosi praised the comedian for not being a celebrity who blindly gets into politics, but someone who “focuses on what he knows and what interests him.”

She was referring, in part, to Stewart’s work on behalf of veterans of the Middle East wars and on behalf of 9/11 first responders, publicly and repeatedly protesting and criticizing Congress for blocking a bill on victim compensation, a passion mentioned throughout the night. Pete Davidson — who joked, “Who couldn’t love this guy? The most controversial thing he’s done is be friends with me” – recalled the memory of his own father, a firefighter who died in the terrorist attacks, saying: “He would be happy if you took care of him and his friends after all these years.”

To everyone’s surprise, several of those Stewart was defending were in the room. Among them was Israel Del Toro, who was seriously injured in an IED attack while serving in Afghanistan, who said before the show that comedy, like Stewart’s, “helps heal.”

Del Toro and John Feal, a first responder injured in the September 11 attacks, presented the award to Stewart.

The last speaker of the evening was the previous recipient: Chappelle. “I would like you to run for president,” he said. He was far from the first to bring up the prospect, both during the show and on the red carpet ahead.

“I would give as much as the law allows” to Stewart’s campaign, Kimmel joked before the show. The night, of course, would be full of jokes. But praise not only for Stewart’s comedy chops, but also for his earnest work, only reinforced Kimmel’s earlier assessment: “We just need Jon Stewart to watch over us.”


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