So, Ellen, eh? Funny, sure, but the Kennedy Center’s selection of talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor certifies a mini-trend of the past three years: Older comedy legends are out; youngish contemporary types are in.
Back in the day (the day being 1998-2009), the Twain committee typically selected a certified Hall of Fame comedy legend for the honor. Past recipients included Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart and Neil Simon. That pattern established the Twain as a de facto lifetime achievement award, although officially the only requirement is that the prize goes to someone who has made “a significant contribution” to comedy.
A big change came with the selection of Tina Fey in 2010. Fey was then barely 40 and a comedy star for less than a decade. Nevertheless, she is a star with a highly visible career, and the TV presentation of Fey’s Twain ceremony—and the TV show is a key, if not the key, part of the Twain—did relatively big ratings for PBS. Most important, it brought in viewers who might not care about, or even know, the work of a Winters or a Simon.
Result: Youth wins. Will Ferrell (then 43) was named last year. And now Ellen, age 54.
The trendlet, unfortunately, augurs poorly for some highly deserving folk. Could it mean that such legends and near-legends as Phyllis Diller (94), Betty White (90), Sid Caesar (89), Jerry Lewis (86), Mel Brooks (85), Joan Rivers (78), David Letterman (65), Larry David (64), Jay Leno (62) and Robin Williams (60) are too gray for the Twain? Is even Jerry Seinfeld over the hill at 58?
If so, kind of sad for an award that likes to think of itself as the most prestigious in the business.