Jon Stewart, who received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award for American Humor, warned Sunday night that speculation about the future of comedy in the midst of increasing audience cultural sensitivity ignored a true and enduring threat: authoritarian governments around the world.
“Comedy does not change the world, but it’s a clockmaker,” Stewart said. “When a society feels threatened, it is comedians who are sent away first.”
Stewart pointed to Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, whose Stewart-inspired political comedy show earned him both fame and self-imposed exile. Youssef’s story is “an example of the true threat to comedy,” Stewart said.
The intersection of comedy and politics was the main theme as celebrities and comedy royalty gathered to honor Stewart, who set the modern template to mix the topics during his 16-year run as host of the TV show “The Daily Show.”
Stewart, the 23rd recipient of the award, was honored in testimony from other comedians and former Mark Twain award recipients. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chappelle’s Mark Twain ceremony in 2019, and Chappelle returned.
“It’s a miracle to see you work. You’re a cure for what’s wrong in this country,” said Chappelle, noting that Stewart resigned from “The Daily Show” a year before the election of Donald Trump as president. .
The 59-year-old Stewart – born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz – became prominent as a stand-up comedian and host of several failed talk shows before taking over Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 1999. He became a cultural and political force while training his satirical glances at politics and an increasingly polarized national media.
Several of Sunday’s speakers were former “Daily Show” correspondents, including Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.
Carell described his time on the show as full of “excitement, fear, physical distress and laughter.” He noted that Stewart seemed to be happy to send him on bizarre tasks that included eating Crisco, handling a trailer of snakes, and drinking Long Island iced tea until he vomited. Stewart, he said, “always supported us and always cheered us on from the comfort and safety of his office.”
Oliver, meanwhile, sent a video message in which he noted that the real Jon Stewart would never spend “two hours writhing in his seat and listening to people tell him how much he means to them.” Therefore, Oliver concluded that Stewart must be dead, and he continued to deliver an extended praise.
New Jersey-born Bruce Springsteen performed an acoustic version of “Born to Run” and praised Stewart as a patriot who was determined to speak the truth to power.
Stewart’s influence could be felt far beyond the borders of the United States. Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon, started a modest YouTube show that was directly modeled after Stewarts and became an iconic figure during and after the Egyptian revolution in 2011.
Youssef described his show as “clearly a very cheap knockoff” of “The Daily Show”, and described how he appeared on the Stewart show in 2012, and Stewart came to Cairo to do the same in 2013.
Two weeks after that performance, the Egyptian military overthrew a democratically elected Islamist president amid national mass protests. Youssef said he asked Stewart how to navigate the changing political climate, and Stewart advised him to stick to his principles, even if it caused problems or cost him popularity.
Youssef, whose show was eventually canceled and who now lives in the United States, began cursing Stewart from the stage. “I could have been a very rich sold out now!” he shouted in false anger.
Since retiring from “The Daily Show” in 2015, Stewart has become a vocal advocate for a variety of social causes and one of the most prominent voices in support of health care for first aiders on September 11 in New York City. He recently returned to television to host “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on Apple TV +.
Stewart’s political influence was evident Sunday from a guest list that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transport Minister Pete Buttigieg and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
Pelosi, on the red carpet before the ceremony, said she had interacted with Stewart on several occasions while lobbying for various reasons. She praised his “level of commitment and knowledge”, which far exceeded the usual celebrity political commitment.
She also said with a laugh that Stewart “is not a patient man” when he feels his case is fair.
This was the first Mark Twain ceremony since Chappelles in 2019. The award skipped 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the two-year hiatus, the award has been presented annually since 1998, when Richard Pryor received the first honor.
Other recipients include Carol Burnett (the oldest recipient at age 80), Tina Fey (the youngest at age 40), Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Lily Tomlin. 2009 recipient Bill Cosby had his award revoked in 2018 due to several allegations of sexual assault.