WASHINGTON, D.C. — Comedian Jon Stewart was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize on Sunday in a raucous affair that celebrated his genius at exposing hypocrisy and injustice wherever they occur.
“This is incredible,” said an emotional Stewart upon receiving the miniature bust of Twain that followed two hours of roasting and tender testimonials by former co-stars from “The Daily Show” and others. Stewart, who last year began hosting an Apple TV+ talk show “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” was presented the award by a 9/11 first responder and a wounded Air Force veteran — representing two causes he has famously championed. The pair had been part of the audience alongside other responders and veterans invited for the occasion.
Emerging from a one-year COVID hiatus, the Twain event featured Jimmy Kimmel, Steve Carell, 2020 awardee Dave Chappelle, Pete Davidson, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Olivia Munn and on video, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, the latter who had tested positive for COVID. Also on hand was Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian heart surgeon-turned comedian known as “The Jon Stewart of the Arab world,” who praised the honoree for helping him introduce political satire in the Middle East.
Bruce Springsteen, Stewart’s fellow New Jersey chum, opened the show with guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and band with a rousing rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and later soloed on his trademark “Born to Run.”
The mixture of barbs and praise for the recipient – seated with his family in a nearby box – generally defined the evening. Kimmel set the tone by praising Stewart for his political satire while chiding his colleague for quitting his post just before Donald Trump was elected president.
The accolades were interspersed with video clips of Stewart in various stages of his career in standup comedy and Comedy Channel host, as well as his political causes. The latter included the 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in D.C. and Stewart’s 2019 testimony on Capitol Hill on behalf of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund reauthorization.
Davidson called him “the voice of reason for a generation,” while historian John Meacham praised Stewart as “an architect of public sentiment” who “gave a divided America a chance to find its moral bearings.”
Comedian Munn related how Stewart “changed my life” by hiring her in 2010 as a “Daily Show” correspondent. She said she was floored to discover that Stewart stored his show’s numerous Emmy awards in a cardboard box in the corner rather than on a prominent shelf. “I can’t wait to see what filthy box you’ll dump this award into,” she mused.
Carell also related his experiences as a “Daily Show” correspondent risking life and limb on dubious assignments that would result in a measly two-minute sketch. “A humorist is a comedian who’s been dead for 100 years but for Jon, we’ll make an exception,” he said. Former correspondent Bee declared of Stewart: “You are the godfather of righteous outrage,” she told the honoree.
Chappelle’s unscripted remarks offered the perspective of a fellow Comedy Central host and close pal. “Jon’s voice became synonymous with trust. He is a first responder who means what he says.” The sentiment was echoed by Colbert, who praised Stewart’s ability for “staying silly while giving a damn.” He said Jon’s true passion is “recreational anxiety.”
The show included several references to former Twain Prize recipient Bill Cosby, whose 2009 award has been revoked by the Kencen following his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, which was overturned last year. Stewart said he was happy to join the prestigious list of 23 recipients, “almost none of whom turned out to be serial rapists.” Comedian Oliver expressed his belief that Stewart in fact must be dead, since “there’s no way Jon would actually be at the Kennedy Center accepting the same award given to Cosby!”
A broadcast of the event will air June 21 on PBS stations.