George Carlin, the winner in 2008, satisfied the requirement that recipients be living, but just barely. He died at 71 just four days after being notified he had been chosen. The show went on without him that fall.
At 80, Burnett is the oldest recipient ever. Her selection reverses the trendlet of recent years, in which younger performers in the middle of their careers were recognized. Tina Fey, the 2010 winner, was the youngest winner, just 40, and a relative newcomer, with barely a decade in the national spotlight. She was followed by Will Ferrell (then 43) and Ellen DeGeneres (54).
Apart from the occasional debate about an overlooked legend — Woody Allen? Mel Brooks? Joan Rivers? — the Twain Prize has generally avoided the kind of selection controversy that has beset the Kennedy Center Honors. Latino groups had been critical of the Honors for underrepresenting performers of Hispanic heritage. The protests led the Kennedy Center to announce last week that it is broadening its selection process, with the creation of a Latino Advisory Committee, among other changes.
Some conservatives grumbled about the selection of Fey, DeGeneres and Ferrell, suggesting they were chosen as much for their political sympathies as their comedy (Fey is famous for her withering parody of Sarah Palin; Ferrell co-wrote and performed a one-man Broadway show that savaged President George W. Bush; DeGeneres is one of Hollywood’s most famous lesbians.)
But McGarr dismisses such commentary. “Unequivocally, this has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It has nothing to do with anything other than being funny.”
Comedy blogger Todd Jackson doesn’t quibble with any of the Twain selections, but he does raise another question: Should comics and satirists — the ultimate outsiders — be embraced by the very establishment they’re supposed to be ridiculing?
“Jerry Seinfeld once won a comedy award and said, ‘I feel like I should be in the back of the room making fun of this thing,’ ” said Jackson, whose all-comedy site is called Dead-Frog.com. “That’s how I feel about this. The whole point of being a comedian is, if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing your job.”