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Peabody Awards: Issa Rae, John Oliver, Carol Burnett, Hasan Minhaj Celebrate the Power of Television

Comedian Hasan Minhaj set a serious-but-irreverent tone right from the start at Saturday’s 77th annual Peabody Awards in New York, where kudos were presented to a range of news, documentary, public service and entertainment programs.

Host Minhaj opened the evening by noting the odd contrast of handing out awards for excellence in TV and digital media at a venue in the heart of the financial district, Cipriani Wall Street.

“This is the wokest award show in the least woke location,” Minhaj joked. “Are the Pulitzers being handed out at Mar-a-Lago?” Later in the ceremony, Minhaj had a zinger for Vice President Mike Pence. He noted that most people were unsettled by the themes in one of 2017’s honorees, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “unless of course you’re the Vice President, and then this show is the breakout comedy of the year.”

Barry Sonnenfeld and Neil Patrick Harris accepted the kudo for Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Sonnenfeld praised Netflix for allowing artists “freedom and responsibility.” He called it “the greatest experience in my 35 years in the entertainment industry.”

Al Jazeera was recognized for its documentary on female genital mutilation, “The Cut.” Correspondent Fatma Naib dedicated the win to the women who still face the threat of this gruesome procedure. Nick Schifrin, correspondent for “PBS Newshour,” dedicated the show’s win for its “Inside Putin’s Russia” report to the Russian journalists who have been killed or threatened for “seeking the truth” in Russia. NPR correspondent Renee Montagne’s voice broke as she spoke of the impact of NPR’s “Lost Mothers” series examining the rising numbers of women who die in childbirth.

“60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker accepted the honor for the “60 Minutes”/Washington Post report on how the DEA bungled the regulation of pharmaceutical companies as they flooded areas of the country with prescription opioids.

The producers of the “Independent Lens” documentary “Newtown” brought numerous victims of gun violence with them on stage to accept their award, including survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February and family members of victims of the 2012 slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“With renewed hope we stand united with the youth movement and their ongoing efforts to create and demand they change that they deserve,” producer Maria Cuomo Cole, noting the tragedy of 10 people killed and many more wounded in a school shooting just on Friday in Santa Fe, Texas. 

Bruce Miller, executive producer and showrunner of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” noted that he felt the weight of receiving an award for the acclaimed dystopian drama in a room full of prominent journalists. “Please don’t stop reporting,” he said. “Keep working to make sure ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ stays fictional. You’re doing god’s work.”

Peter Gould, co-creator of AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” echoed Miller’s sentiments. “To be here with you folks, especially news folks. just means the world to us,” Gould said. “Fiction is great. Fiction is important but god dammit we need facts.”

Gould couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the story of “Breaking Bad” character Saul Goodman and the real-life political scandal that has unfolded in the past few months involving President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. “We started off trying to tell an honest story about a dishonest man,” Gould quipped. “Little did we know … “

“Saturday Night Live” got a nod for the political satire it served up in 2017. Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy sent a video thank-you. “We take the art of satire very seriously,” McKinnon deadpanned. Former “SNL” head writer Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider accepted the kudo. Kelly noted that the only direction they received on political humor from “SNL” exec producer Lorne Michaels was: “Just make sure you go out and get me that damn Peabody.”

Mike Birbiglia was on hand to present a Peabody to host Minhaj for his Netflix special “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King.” As Birbiglia explained, “you can’t present an award to yourself.” Minhaj called out his wife and baby daughter for their support. “I just want to be as strong as she thinks I am,” he said of his daughter.

Jon Collins, host and reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, gave a shout out to “local newsroom and local journalism” for playing a vital role in “holding people in power accountable, to give voice to people’s loss and to uncover where the system is not working.” MPR was recognized for its “74 Seconds” series on the 2016 shooting of Philando Castille in Minneapolis.

Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO’s “Insecure,” paid tribute to “every single writer of color who has come before us who had to wok on a show that they didn’t want to be on so we have the opportunity to work on a show that we do.” She thanked HBO for giving them the platform to show “dark-skinned black women just living their lives.”

Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator and exec producer of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” used her moment at the mic to lobby for a third season pickup of the comedy. “You’re going to give it to us because we’re bringing home the fancy thing, right?” she said. Of the Peabody trophy itself, she observed: “Most of those other awards are pointy and phallic-shaped; this one is nice and round.”

BCC World News correspondent Clive Myrie got a laugh in accepting his award for a very serious subject, the expulsion of Rohingya refugees in an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. “It’s gratifying to see so many people who were not invited to the wedding,” he said, referring to Saturday’s nuptials of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Jenner Furst, executive producer of “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” dedicated the win for the six-part Spike TV documentary to its subject, a young African-American man held for three years on Rikers Island without being charged. Browder later committed suicide. “This is a story that should compel all of us to act now more than ever,” he said. 

Tony Yacinda, co-creator of Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary series “American Vandal,” joked that in the first pitch for the series that probes the crime of who sprayed painted dicks on 20 cars in a high school parking lot, executives warned them “it will be too obvious that you’re just pandering for a Peabody Award.” He also thanked the Peabody jurors for “watching and appreciating a show about spray-painted penises.” 

HBO’s “Vice News Tonight” was recognized for the arresting documentary produced within days of the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacists demonstration last August. Correspondent Elle Reeve said the importance of the “Charlottesville: Race & Terror” documentary was to show that the alt-right isn’t just a passing fad, and that it is drawing energy from younger supporters. She said she hoped it helped “strip away some of the denial in our country” about the emerging threat of white supremacist groups.

HBO was also represented by “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Oliver profusely thanked HBO for its support, “not because I have to but because I want to and I have to.” He credited the pay cabler with unwavering backing especially when they pursue such quixotic story possibilities such as acquiring “Russell Crowe’s leather jockstrap.” He thanked the staff for persevering even though it is “almost humiliatingly difficult to make this show.”

Special Peabody honors were presented to the Fred Rogers Co. and to “60 Minutes” for their immense contributions to television. Comedy legend Carol Burnett received the inaugural Peabody Career Achievement Award.

Burnett, who received a Peabody in 1962, recalled the story of her transition from being a player on “The Garry Moore Show” to the host of her own variety hour on CBS. Except that CBS brass didn’t think a woman had the ability to host a show that, like Moore’s, would mix comedy sketches and musical performances.

“They tried to give me a pretty dumb sitcom called ‘Here’s Agnes,’ ” Burnett said. But fortunately she had the contractual right to do a one-hour variety show, so CBS had no choice but to give a 30-episode first season order to “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978 and racked up countless accolades.

Burnett joked that she was already eagerly awaiting her next Peabody Award win in 2074. She drew a roar of applause by letting loose with her trademark Tarzan yodel (which she popularized on her variety show), and she closed out the night on a sentimental note with another callout to her beloved series.

“I am so glad we had this time together,” she said.

(PIctured: John Oliver)

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