The Kennedy Center gives a lot of its Mark Twain comedy prizes to performers and producers commonly associated with television, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t given as many Kennedy Center Honors to people in the TV realm. It’s a brief list: Oprah Winfrey was honored last year; Carol Burnett eight years ago; Bill Cosby in 1998; Johnny Carson in ’93; Lucille Ball in ’86. Unless you broaden things to include performers who also owe much of their cultural status to TV — Angela Lansbury (’00), Bob Hope (’85), Danny Kaye (’84) — that’s pretty much it.
Aside from the fact that I can find no good reason why Norman Lear doesn’t already have the Kennedy Center Honors, my suggestions — which are admittedly lacking gender or racial diversity, much like the medium itself — are meant to salute people who have become emblems of what TV is all about.
What? (You think he’s too young, right?) Let’s do the math, then. Seinfeld is 57, which is near enough to 60 for my purposes. His eponymous sitcom ran from 1989 to 1998 — which means it’s been off for 13 years now. In reruns, it became so enmeshed in the pop-culture vernacular that we’re still saying “yadda yadda yadda” and “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Also, we’re still wryly noticing the world and its small but irritating inconsistencies the way Seinfeld taught us, too, with sarcastic indignation. And although he is dutiful about the occasional stand-up tour, nothing in Seinfeld’s recent endeavors (“The Marriage Ref”? That cartoon movie about the bee?) indicates that he isn’t ready for a lifetime achievement nod.
True, there was some unpleasant business a couple of years back involving a relationship with one of his employees — no matter how maturely the whole episode was handled in this age of insta-scandal. America’s love for Letterman, now 64, won the day, as it has through so many permutations of the so-called late-night wars. We’re talking almost three decades of Top Ten lists, Stupid Pet Tricks and a casual, after-hours snark that endures to this day and can still be very funny. Plus, he still asks questions of his famous, newsmaking guests that nobody else will ask, especially when election years roll around.
True, there was some unpleasant business many years back involving allegations of some inappropriateness backstage at “The Price is Right” . . . but who can even remember it? Here is what I know: When I wrote a profile of Barker four years ago (as he was retiring from his 35-year run as host of the longest-running game show), I was moved by the profound and often inexplicable love people have for this man. He did something simple, but it affected audiences in complex ways. It’s sort of a Betty White thing (and, by the way, I have no objection to her getting Honored, either): What seems like a goofy and ironic adoration is in fact a deep abiding one; by the time he retired from the show, college kids were getting Barker’s face tattooed on their backs.
If the Kennedy Center is serious about honoring American culture icons, then Barker, at 87, deserves serious consideration. You’d be surprised what putting him on the awards show could do to attract a young audience.