Jon Stewart’s Twain Awards: ‘Comedy Survives Every Moment’

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It was overwhelmingly clear that Washington needed a laugh on Sunday night. Fortunately, some of the country’s best satirical heads gathered at the Kennedy Center to pay tribute to Jon Stewart at the annual Mark Twain Award for American Humor.

It was the 23rd ceremony, but the first in 2½ rather dark years. Dave Chappelle was honored in October 2019, a ceremony that was later aired as a smartly produced Netflix special. (This will be broadcast on PBS on June 21.) It is also the first in the now permanent spring space.

In his speech, a clearly moved 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 actually recycled Bill Cosby’s award and said, “It’s better for your precious environment.”)

Throughout his speech, Stewart riffed about the masked audience (“like something out of an O. Henry story”), the planning of Washington, DC (“There are four eighth streets in Washington, and they are not connected”) and his older statesman looks like (“Jews, we age like avocados”).

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

Stewart, 59, then discussed the job of being a comic and described it as “an iterative business. It’s a laugh. It’s work. The best of us just keep doing it.”

“When you’re a cartoon, you look into a room, and 200 seats face one way. And there’s a stool, and it has a light shining on it, and you go into that room and say, ‘It’s going to be my chair,’ he added. “And you spend the rest of your career trying to earn that stool.”

He ended his speech by discussing often parroted concerns that comedy is somehow endangered in today’s world and mocked the idea: “Comedy survives every moment.” And it’s good it does, Stewart said, for “comedy does not change the world, but it is a bell-ringer. We are the banana peel in the coal mine. When society is threatened, comedians are the ones who are sent off first.”

“What we have is fragile and valuable, and the way to protect ourselves from it is not to change how the audience thinks, but to change how leaders lead,” he concluded.

Jon Stewart cares less about his legacy than you do

During the more than 2-hour ceremony, friends and collaborators, including Chappelle, Kimmel and former “Daily Show” correspondents Olivia Munn and Samantha Bee, took turns giving praise, sharing stories and roasting the comedian.

The ghost of the coronavirus hung vaguely overnight, but – with apologies to Stephen Colbert who had to zoom in after getting the virus and jokingly accusing Stewart of politicizing the late night – its haunts were relatively small: only a masked audience and a couple of lame pandemic jokes.

Instead, after Bruce Springsteen and Gary Clark Jr. set things in motion with a thundering version of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” it was clear that both the audience and Stewart himself had come to laugh.

Stewart, who was sitting with his wife, Tracey, and their two children in a box overlooking the Concert Hall stage, usually swayed back and forth with laughter. He cried a few times, but it worked mostly due to lack of oxygen from coughing until shortness of breath.

One of those moments came when Steve Carell told the story of his first assignment on Stewart’s long-running “The Daily Show” to interview a poison scientist who turned out to be a guy in a camper with a bunch of snakes (some “free” series. . ”) After managing to produce the segment without being bitten and, you know, dying, Carell brought it to his boss.

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

The award comes at a turning point in Stewart’s career. He left “The Daily Show” in 2015 after 16 years at Comedy Central and launched an Apple TV Plus show in 2021. The new show is far more in-depth and more interested in exploring the world’s problems instead of turning them into comic feed. .

One theme that popped up over the course of the evening was the legacy of Stewart’s comedy, in which Carell described him as “striving to make sense out of that insanity.” Bee called him “the godfather of righteous wrath.” Munn said her generation grew up on his comedy.

Munn also praised him for his humility when he remembered seeing his desk, “a trash can” where – in the middle of a clothed treadmill, an old bottle of yellow mustard and everything he had ever had over the years – was his dusty box by Emmys.

Things you learn about Jon Stewart by talking to him and his friends

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian cartoonist who showed the global impact of “The Daily Show” had, after discovering Stewart, stopped practicing medicine to focus on satirizing his government. He said he launched a “cheap knockoff” of “The Daily Show” on YouTube, which eventually led to a TV show. When Youssef was investigated by the Egyptian government, he said Stewart gave him some 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 foggy eyes to grinning, is why he was forced to flee Egypt.

Of course, night would not be anything without silly to downright stupid things. John Oliver, convinced that Stewart was dead, gave a false praise. Ed Helms, dressed in a carnival barker’s red stripes and straw hat, sat at an organ playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a nod to Stewart’s love of baseball.

These lined up nicely with the more serious moments, including Springsteen returning with an acoustic guitar to play “Born to Run” and clips of Stewart’s monologue following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The political faces in attendance, which did not surprisingly come from the left side of the aisle, included Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who said he “grew up on Jon Stewart”) and his husband, Chasten; White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Before the show, Pelosi praised the comedian for not being a celebrity who goes blindly into politics, but one who is “focused on what he knows about and what he cares about.”

She referred in part to Stewart’s work, advocating for veterans of the Middle East wars and advocating for 9/11 first responders, publicly and repeatedly protesting and criticizing Congress for stalling a victim’s compensation bill, a passion mentioned in all night. Pete Davidson – who joked, “Who could not love this guy? The most controversial thing he has done is be friends with me” – evoked the memory of his own father, a firefighter who died in the terrorist attacks, and said: ” He would be happy for you to take care of him and his friends after all these years. “

As a surprise, several of those Stewart has spoken to were in the room. Among them was Israel Del Toro, who was badly injured by an IED attack while serving in Afghanistan and who before the show said that comedy, like Stewarts, “helps healing.”

Del Toro and John Feal, a first aider injured in the 9/11 attacks, presented Stewart with the award.

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

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

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