It was exceedingly clear that Washington needed a laugh on Sunday night. Luckily, some of the country’s top satirical minds had gathered at the Kennedy Center to praise Jon Stewart at the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
In his speech, a clearly touched Stewart said he was pleased to get the award, since “almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists.” (Earlier in the ceremony, Jimmy Kimmel had joked that they were actually recycling Bill Cosby’s award, saying, “It’s better for your precious environment.”)
Throughout his speech, Stewart riffed about the masked audience (“like something from an O. Henry story”), the planning of Washington, D.C. (“There are four Eighth streets in Washington, and they don’t connect”), and his elder statesman looks (”The Jews, we age like avocados”).
Most of the comedian’s speech, though, focused on his family. He praised his mother for largely raising him alone and told stories about his children — and about meeting his wife on a blind date during which she barely spoke while a nervous Stewart “gave a monologue.”
Stewart, 59, then discussed the job of being a comic, describing it as “an iterative business. It’s a grind. It’s work. The best amongst us just keep at it.”
“When you’re a comic, you look in a room and 200 seats are facing one way. And there’s one stool, and it has a light shining on it, and you walk into that room and go, ‘That’s gonna be my chair,’ ” he added. “And you spend the rest of your career trying to earn that stool.”
He closed his speech by discussing frequently parroted concerns that comedy is somehow in peril in today’s world, scoffing at the idea: “Comedy survives every moment.” And good thing it does, Stewart said, because “comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine. When society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first.”
“What we have is fragile and precious, and the way to guard against it isn’t to change how audiences think, but to change how leaders lead,” he concluded.
During the more than 2½-hour ceremony, friends and collaborators, including Chappelle, Kimmel and former “Daily Show” correspondents Olivia Munn and Samantha Bee, took turns offering praise, sharing stories and roasting the comedian.
The specter of the coronavirus vaguely hung over the night, but — with apologies to Stephen Colbert, who had to Zoom in after contracting the virus and jokingly blamed Stewart for the politicization of late night — its hauntings were relatively minor: just a masked audience and a few lame pandemic jokes.
Instead, after Bruce Springsteen and Gary Clark Jr. kicked things off with a thundering version of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” it became clear that both the crowd and Stewart himself had come to laugh.
Stewart, who sat with his wife, Tracey, and their two children in a box overlooking the Concert Hall stage, was usually swaying back and forth with laughter. He cried a few times, but that seemed mostly because of a lack of oxygen from cackling until breathless.
One of those moments came as Steve Carell told the story of his first assignment on Stewart’s long-running “The Daily Show” to interview a venom researcher, who turned out to be a guy in a camper with a bunch of snakes (some “free range.”) After managing to produce the segment without getting bit and, you know, dying, Carell brought it to his boss.
“I remember him saying, ‘That would have been great had you been bitten by one of those snakes,’ ” Carell said. “ ‘That would have been funny.’ ”
The prize comes at a transitional time in Stewart’s career. He left “The Daily Show” in 2015 after 16 years on Comedy Central and launched an Apple TV Plus show in 2021. The new show is far more probing, and more interested in exploring the world’s problems rather than turning them into comedic fodder.
One theme that emerged over the evening was the legacy of Stewart’s comedy, with Carell describing him as “striving to make sense out of the insane.” Bee called him the “godfather of righteous anger.” Munn said her generation was raised on his comedy.
Munn also praised him for his humility, remembering seeing his desk, “a garbage can,” where — amid a clothing-covered treadmill, an old bottle of yellow mustard and everything he’d ever been given over the years — was his dusty box of Emmys.
Showcasing the global impact of “The Daily Show” was Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comic who, after discovering Stewart, stopped practicing medicine to focus on satirizing his government. He said he launched a “cheap knockoff” of “The Daily Show” on YouTube, which eventually led to a television show. When Youssef found himself being investigated by the Egyptian government, he said, Stewart gave him some advice: “Do you want to do comedy or do you want to do something that lasts for a lifetime?”
And that, Youssef said in a half-joke that turned Stewart’s misty eyes to tittering ones, is why he was forced to flee Egypt.
Of course, the night would be nothing without goofy-to-downright-dumb bits. John Oliver, convinced that Stewart had died, gave a fake eulogy. Ed Helms, dressed in a carnival barker’s red stripes and straw hat, sat at an organ and played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a nod to Stewart’s love of baseball.
These juxtaposed nicely with the more serious moments, including Springsteen returning with an acoustic guitar to play “Born to Run” and clips of Stewart’s monologue after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The political faces in attendance, who unsurprisingly came from the left side of the aisle, included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who said he “grew up on Jon Stewart”) and his husband, Chasten; White House press secretary Jen Psaki; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Before the show, Pelosi praised the comedian for not being a celebrity who wades blindly into politics, but one who is “focused on what he knows about and what he cares about.”
She was referring, in part, to Stewart’s work advocating for veterans of the wars in the Middle East and advocating for 9/11 first responders, publicly and repeatedly protesting and criticizing Congress for stalling on a victims’ compensation bill, a passion mentioned throughout the night. Pete Davidson — who joked, “Who couldn’t love this guy? The most controversial thing he’s done is be friends with me” — evoked the memory of his own father, a firefighter who died in the terrorist attacks, saying, “He’d be happy you were looking after him and his friends after all these years.”
As a surprise, several of those for whom Stewart has advocated were in the room. Among them was Israel Del Toro, who was severely wounded by an IED attack while serving in Afghanistan, and who said before the show that comedy, like Stewart’s, “helps healing.”
Del Toro and John Feal, a first responder injured in the 9/11 attacks, presented Stewart with the award.
The final speaker of the night was the previous recipient: Chappelle. “I wish you’d run for president,” he said. He was far from the first to bring up that prospect, both during the show and on the red carpet beforehand.
“I would give as much as the law would allow” to Stewart’s campaign, Kimmel joked before the show. The night, of course, would be full of jokes. But the praise for not just Stewart’s comedy chops, but also his serious work, only reinforced Kimmel’s earlier assessment: “We just need Jon Stewart around watching over us.”