Sunday’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, given this year to Will Ferrell during an intentionally silly ceremony at the Kennedy Center, mostly stuck to the script. Various Ferrell collaborators, co-workers and colleagues — from “Saturday Night Live” veterans Molly Shannon and Tim Meadows to “Zoolander” co-star Ben Stiller to fellow “Anchorman” journalist Paul Rudd — paid tribute to the uninhibited, occasionally naked-and-on-fire comedic actor.
As Hank Stuever noted in his story about the event, some of the “in-person tributes lacked a little spark.” For example, both Stiller and Matthew Broderick, who were last-minute additions to the program, didn’t make their teleprompter speeches sing as well as they normally do on such occasions.
Still, there were a number of laughs and even a few impromptu moments that made the ceremony both entertaining and an enjoyably odd opportunity to watch footage of Will Ferrell streaking in “Old School” while sitting in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Here’s a rundown of a few moments you may or may not see when the Mark Twain Prize tribute to Will Ferrell airs Halloween night on PBS.
More Mark Twain Prize coverage:
The Jack Black introduction
One half of Tenacious D kicked off the show by blasting onto the stage and doing a Ferrell-themed cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” (“Will will ... Will will ... rock you!”) It involved vamping, air guitaring, a flip and a bit of breakdancing.
Black was, understandably, so winded afterward that he was initially unable to utter his planned subsequent kind words about Ferrell. So he stood there. He caught his breath. He invited a stage manager on stage to give him water and pat his forehead with a towel. He riffed, noting that at least the show wasn’t live, then added, “Oh [expletive], is this live?”
This went on for four or five minutes until he recovered, noting before launching into his remarks that PBS is “just going to cut right to the speech.” This is probably true. But maybe this moment will show up online as an outtake.
Andy Samberg’s teleprompter fail
Samberg, another last-minute addition, understood his D.C. audience. And by that I mean the Lonely Island leader knows that nothing kills at the Kennedy Center quite like a public radio/TV joke. (“PBS: Because sometimes you’re listening to NPR and you’re thinking, those people are really interesting. I wish I knew what they looked like.” Pure gold.)
But things took a detour when, as Stuever noted, his teleprompter stopped working, making it impossible for him to know exactly what to say to bring Conan O’Brien onto the stage. Once again, the stage manager provided an assist, coming onstage to whisper the lines into Samberg’s ear. Which provided the perfect opportunity for an ad lib from...
As soon as O’Brien strode into the spotlight, he quipped, “Well, that’s what public funding will get you.” Another public television joke that landed just right. This could become an entire subgenre of humor.
O’Brien went on to note that he expected Ferrell to appear at his upcoming major awards ceremony: “I know he will return the favor next week, when I receive the Alan Thicke Badge of Acknowledgement.”
Then he introduced a clip of Ferrell in one of his many appearances on O’Brien’s late-night shows. This confirmed that what the Kennedy Center needs more of — and I think I speak for the entire D.C. arts community when I say this — is footage of Will Ferrell in a leprechaun outfit with coordinating green Speedo, yelling at a young boy while playing the drums.
And then came Ferrell.
Ferrell closed out the evening by accepting his Mark Twain Prize — a bust of the author— then proceeding to drop it on the floor, where it shattered into many shards of Samuel Clemens’s head.
Of course, that was spontaneity of the totally planned variety, as was Ferrell’s subsequent thanking of wife Viveca Paulin, whom he berated jokingly from the stage.
“I do have to say sometimes, you get a little lippy,” he said. “You’ve got a big mouth and you love to run it.”
He then went on a signature Ferrell rant, at one point declaring that he would do whatever he wanted after the show concluded, including going “on a bender with Gwen Ifill,” another of the evening’s presenters and anchor of PBS’s “Newshour.”
Again, public television humor — gets ’em every time.
Update: Vote for your favorite Will Ferrell role.