WASHINGTON, D.C. — Comedian Dave Chappelle was presented with the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor Sunday night following a barrage of heartfelt tributes praising his courage, his spontaneity and his genius at drawing laughter from sobering racial commentary.
The Twain event, now in its 22nd year, was a non-stop love fest as a parade of admiring entertainers saluted Chappelle before a packed house at the center’s Concert Hall. It began with a tribute from Lorne Michaels about Chappelle’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” immediately following the 2016 presidential election, and ended with comedian Jon Stewart’s reflections about his former Comedy Central colleague and recent traveling companion on the road.
Slotted in between were Sarah Silverman, Common, Bradley Cooper, Morgan Freeman, Tiffany Haddish, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, rapper Q-Tip and others. It was accompanied by a decidedly mellow band led by music director Adam Blackstone, joined by singer Erykah Badu, harmonica virtuoso Frederic Yonnet, and Legend.
An animated Chappelle, sitting with family and friends in a box near the stage, took it all in with enthusiasm.
Highlights included a riotous testimonial by comedian/writer/producer Neal Brennan, a longtime collaborator and co-writer of “Chappelle’s Show.”
“He gave me my career,” said Brennan, who reminisced at length about projects including the ill-fated 1998 film “Half Baked.” He also discussed how the success of his groundbreaking Comedy Central sketch comedy series “Chappelle’s Show” came to a sudden halt when Chappelle left the show for a lengthy visit to Africa, a dark period in the comic’s life.
A trio of “SNL” regulars – Kenan Thompson, Colin Jost and Michael Che – jointly delivered accolades about Chappelle’s genius displayed on the SNL set and other venues. Silverman recalled that she met Chappelle in a D.C. comedy club when she was 19 and he was 17. “Dave is always funny and constantly growing. His critical thinking is his true art,” she insisted.
Selected use of video clips began with 19-year-old Chappelle’s appearance on “Star Search” hosted by Ed McMahon. Other clips included the riotous “Chappelle’s Show” segment “Clayton Bigsby, Part 1” and another with Cooper, who worked with Chappelle on last year’s “A Star is Born.”
Upon accepting the Twain Prize from KenCen Chairman David Rubenstein, Chappelle reflected about the “incredibly American genre” of standup comedy.
“No other country can produce this many comedians,” he said, while surmising that “there isn’t an opinion that exists in this country that is not represented in a comedy club by somebody,” including racists opinions. But comics can generally talk out their differences, he said, unlike others.
“The First Amendment is first for a reason,” he told the audience. “The Second Amendment is just in case the first doesn’t work out.”
The format of the Twain event, and the 90-minute TV show produced for PBS, continues to evolve in the second year under producing partner Done + Dusted. The team succeeded producers Bob and Peter Kaminsky, Mark Krantz, and John Schreiber, who co-founded the Mark Train Prize with the Center and creator Cappy McGarr. The program was directed by Chris Robinson.
D+D trimmed the show’s overuse of video highlights of the recipient’s comedic career with last year’s honoree, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The use of unrelated schtick from assembled comics has also been nixed in favor of relevant testimonials. Generally omitted from this year’s version was reliance on soft political targets such as President Donald Trump.
Both trends were visible this year in the tribute for Chappelle, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, attended the local Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and began his stand-up career at
local venues during high school.
Changes are also in store for the TV audience when the Twain program airs on PBS stations Jan. 7. Instead of the standard replay of the event, viewers will see a more nuanced production that blends the awards show’s highlights with moments captured during Chappelle’s busy weekend revisiting his childhood haunts.
“We will present a more engaging product that highlights Dave’s celebration as one of D.C.’s own,” promised Matthew Winer, the Kennedy Center’s director of special programming in comedy. He said the format changes accompany the center’s efforts to elevate comedy programming in general and broaden the Twain event’s image as the nation’s premier award for comedic achievement. A $3 million grant from Capital One supports the initiative and the Twain event.