With a sincere thanks for “the greatest night of my life,” comedian Jay Leno accepted the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for Humor Sunday in a rowdy affair that featured a parade of funny regulars from the “Tonight Show.” As for his just-received bust of Twain, “it’s going on the front of my ’55 Buick,” he said.
So went another installment of the center’s annual Twain event, its 17th, performed at the center’s packed Concert Hall.
First up, appropriately, was Leno’s successor, Jimmy Fallon. “He did so much on NBC that we had to celebrate his career on PBS,” said Fallon of the Twain event slated for broadcast on public TV Nov. 23. Then Fallon rolled out a mix of heartfelt and irreverent observations about the evening’s honored guest which included a few of his signature thank-you notes. “Thank you, Mark Twain, for writing ‘Tom Sawyer,’ the greatest song ever recorded by Rush,” he said.
Also on hand were TV late-nighters Seth Meyers and Chelsea Handler, along with comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Klein, Wanda Sykes, JB Smoove and Al Madrigal. Betty White and Jamie Foxx offered jaundiced observations via video. All toasted Leno’s 22 years as host of the “Tonight Show” with personal insights.
“You made me feel like one of the guys on late night. I love you,” said Handler of Leno. “Jay shows up for everyone,” she told the audience. Seinfeld said Leno guided his career in many ways. “No one is more deserving of this award than Jay – except me.” His sharp routine had the audience rolling.
Kristin Chenoweth sang a personalized variation of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” accompanied by Leno sidekick Kevin Eubanks on guitar.
As always, the kudofest relied heavily on video clips, which in this case included vintage Leno stand-up routines and classic “Tonight Show” bits. Among the latter were Leno’s “tribute” to the O.J. Simpson trial, his wacky headlines and “Jay Walking” routines, his cutting political jokes, and a truly manic “Tonight Show” appearance of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
Frequent “Tonight Show” guest Garth Brooks offered a gentle roast of one-liners about the evening’s honoree, some of which fell flat. “Not so easy, is it?” hollered Leno, from the safety of his box seat accompanied by wife Mavis and assorted friends. Said Brooks: “I hope PBS runs this show at 11 p.m., since TV has proven that nobody watches Jay at 10!” – a dig at Leno’s brief stint at that hour on NBC during 2009.
Per its tradition, the affair ended with the recipient’s acceptance of the Twain prize on stage by KenCen Chairman David Rubenstein. Leno remarked that he always admired the appearance of humorist Twain, “especially the shock of white hair and the handsome chiseled features.” He said that if Twain looked like that today, “he’d probably be replaced by a younger and more talented Jimmy Twain.”
As a reminder that he’s not yet ready for the shroud, Leno launched into a sturdy standup gig of his own, reminiscing about his childhood, coping with generation gaps and other subjects. He said he planned ahead for his departure from the network. “When I left the Tonight Show, I didn’t leave dead broke like Bill and Hillary.” (CNBC has announced that Leno will star in a primetime series tentatively-titled “Jay Leno’s Garage” premiering in 2015.)
Leno thanked the evening’s guests, reserving special recognition for Budd Friedman, founder of Gotham’s Improvisation Comedy Club, who was seated in his box. Friedman was instrumental in launching the careers of numerous comedians including Leno, Klein, Andy Kaufman, Rodney Dangerfield and Freddie Prinze.
This year’s Twain event drew a record $2 million to benefit the center’s artistic and educational programs, said Rubenstein. The center recently announced a new initiative aimed at “elevating comedy to an art form.” Bankrolled by Capital One, it will bring additional high profile comedians to the facility, it said.