In comedy, the brutal and foul-mouthed roast is where it’s at. Then there’s the Kennedy Center’s annual Mark Twain Prize, which is gentle like a blankie fresh out of the dryer. Sunday night it was Will Ferrell’s turn to be swaddled in it, as his cohort and co-stars turned out to honor the oeuvre (say it like a Will Ferrell character might: oooooovuh) of the 44-year-old “Saturday Night Live” alum turned box-office star.
“Tonight, we only need to be PBS funny,” talk-show host Conan O’Brien told the audience, which means “not as funny as Jim Lehrer. So far, bingo.”
Ferrell “makes you laugh so hard you cry and pee at the same time,” said actor Jack Black, who kicked off the show with one of his over-the-top rock scats with a ’70s, Freddie Mercury-esque interpretation of “We Will Rock You,” rejiggered as “Will will, Will will rock you.”
The show included tributes from Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Andy Samberg, Ed Asner, Matthew Broderick, John C. Reilly, Ben Stiller . . . oh, it goes on: “Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong!” intoned the announcer at the start of the two-hour show, almost “SNL” Don Pardo style, followed immediately by . . . “Gwen Ifill.”
Yes, another night in Washington, where glamour and humor require a bit broader definition. A good-humored Ifill was there to introduce clips of Ferrell’s unforgettable turns as President George W. Bush in the 2000s, which culminated in a one-man Broadway show.
Adam McKay, Ferrell’s longtime writing partner and co-creator of their popular viral video site, Funny or Die, introduced a clip from the site, a skit in which Ferrell’s Bush and other “SNL” alums — from Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton to Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush — crash the White House bedroom of President and Mrs. Obama (Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph). Better still, and still so funny, was “The Landlord” clip Ferrell and McKay made a few years ago, which starred McKay’s toddler daughter and eventually garnered 73 million hits.
“If you are a fan of the [“SNL”] sketch ‘cowbell,’ you have got to tell Will,” Samberg told the audience, since the entire world still begs him for “more cowbell.”
Not long after that bit, a teleprompter failure left Samberg in a bit of a lurch. For all the celebs present who’ve done their best work in front of live audiences, it takes a surprising amount of effort to keep the Twain show aloft — and the clips are always the best part. Long sequences were shown from all of Ferrell’s movie hits: “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”; “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”; “Old School”; “Elf.” It was like being at the Thanksgiving table if someone has given your brother-in-law permission to do every Will Ferrell character there ever was. You just revel in it.
The in-person tributes weren’t bad either, but lacked a little spark. The audience sat patiently through a couple of lulls between the LOLs, which will likely be edited down and perked up for the ceremony’s broadcast next Monday on PBS stations.
The guest of honor, dressed in a sharp velvet tux jacket of midnight blue, sat in a box up off to the right of the Concert Hall stage, with his pretty wife, Viveca Paulin, who wore an apple-green satin number topped by a shimmery gold jacket.
The point was to celebrate a man who has ingeniously employed overexuberance as a way to play characters who are overexuberant, delusional and emotionally unhinged — in Paul Rudd’s words, a comedian “who can crystallize what’s funny, absurd and vulnerable about human beings.”
Richard Pryor was the first Twain recipient in 1998. Others were Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin, Neil Simon, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Tina Fey.
An hour before the show began, onlookers in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations squealed with delight when the stars arrived for a prompt and Washington-efficient red carpet stroll. O’Brien arrived and got in Molly Shannon’s way, leading to a hug and a peck on the cheek. The crowd said “Awwwwwww.”
“They think this is real human emotion,” O’Brien scoffed in Shannon’s embrace.
Twinkly-eyed Rudd said he couldn’t recall when he first met Ferrell (“I don’t remember ever meeting the man . . . it’s very possible that I haven’t”) but that his favorite character from the Ferrell array is still Ron Burgundy, the vainglorious anchorman. (Rudd, of course, co-starred with Ferrell in that film.) Burgundy, Rudd said, would encourage a reporter, “Don’t be afraid to spice up a story, even if it means you have to make something up.”
That sounds like journalistic permission to write that Rudd then allowed us to run our fingers through his wavy hair. Only to have this brief reverie interrupted by Jack Black, who descended on Rudd, exclaiming “Double-cheeky, squeezy-squeezy,” pressing their faces together for the cameras. “I’ve got to go backstage to do yoga, drink some coat-throat tea. Gotta lotta preparations to do,” Black told Rudd. “So do you, young man.”
“I’ve got an oxygen tank with me,” Rudd said.
“Let’s do this,” Black replied.
A calm and subdued Ferrell said what he thought about receiving the prize: “My mindset is finally,” he deadpanned. “That’s what we’re all thinking. That’s what [you’re] writing. Let’s be honest.”
Ferrell made the evening his own at the end of the show, when he was presented with this “fabulous Mark Twain bust.” Which he promptly “dropped.” It shattered on the floor (not to worry, it was a fake). A perfect opportunity for an awkward, bombastic acceptance riff from Ferrell. “If my children try to touch [the award],” he said, after attempting to piece it back together, “I will beat them.”
(90 minutes) airs Oct. 31 at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.