Leno, 64, is best known for hosting the “The Tonight Show” for 22 years. He left the most hallowed desk in late-night TV barely four months ago, ceding the franchise to Jimmy Fallon.
Leno is the 17th person to win the Twain prize, created in 1998 to celebrate a living American humorist. In a statement, incoming Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter called it “one of the foremost awards for achievement in comedy.”
“What an honor!” Leno said in a statement. “I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s. In fact, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is one of my favorite books!”
“Jay has always been on our list,” says Twain Prize co-founder and co-executive producer Cappy McGarr. “He is the quintessential American humorist. He does it every night, and has done it for many, many years. And he truly is an equal opportunity satirist.”
Leno’s association with “The Tonight Show” spanned five decades, going back to his first appearance there as a stand-up comedian in 1977. By 1987, he was the regular guest host for Johnny Carson, and in 1992 he succeeded Carson — a controversial choice, as David Letterman was also strongly in the running for the job.
Leno again took the hosting job amid friction after briefly retiring in 2009, returning in 2010 after Conan O’Brien had been in the job for less than a year. It was hard to argue with the ratings: Leno routinely topped the late-night numbers game, leading his rivals by roughly a million viewers a night in his final year.
Simply winning the ratings isn’t the plum it used to be, though. As profitability for “The Tonight Show” dwindled, the staff was downsized and Leno took a pay cut in 2012.
The Twain honor for Leno comes at a time when the longtime late-night kings are delivering their final monologues and leaving their chairs. (Letterman is stepping down next year; in 2012 he was a Kennedy Center honoree.) Leno is the first late-night host to win the prize, though he was well-established as a stand-up comic before settling in with “The Tonight Show.” In 1985, the New York Times, reviewing one of Leno’s club appearances, praised his “guy-next-door social commentary.”
“I’ve always been a stand-up comedian that had a day job,” Leno told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “This is my day job. I’ve always been on the road every single weekend — and the week too — since I got this job . . . . You have to do it all the time.”
“More than anyone I know, you love being a comedian,” Billy Crystal told Leno as he hosted his final “Tonight Show.”
Leno continues to tour and perform club dates. An auto buff, he also has nearly a million subscribers on his car-themed YouTube channel, Jay Leno’s Garage, and he writes a monthly column for Popular Mechanics.
If Leno is more comfort food than cutting edge, he has certainly been known to flash a spiky side, routinely lobbing barbs at public figures and even at NBC as his “Tonight Show” tenure wound down. The Twain prize has tilted more toward the mild-mannered than the unruly in recent years, with awardees including Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Bill Cosby. Arguable the edgiest winner was the first, Richard Pryor.
“Was Richard Pryor edgier than George Carlin?” McGarr asks. (Carlin was named in 2008, just before he died.) “That might be a good discussion over drinks. But each of our honorees has had a tremendous influence on those who followed them, and a tremendous influence in American society. And each has had a unique brand of humor.”
McGarr says the gala’s pre-show dinner used to lure in about 50 people and now draws well over 1,000. He also says it’s a strong fundraiser for the center.
“But really it just boils down to this being the national award for humor,” McGarr says. “Once a year it’s important to stop, pause, and say thank you to those who have made us laugh.”
The Mark Twain Prize will be awarded in a gala ceremony in the Concert Hall Oct. 19, with a national broadcast on PBS Nov. 23.