Pop Culture

Tina Fey Wins Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Which raises the question, Why?

Today’s announcement that Tina Fey has been named this year’s recipient of the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor seems at first glance like cognitive dissonance. Setting aside for the moment the question of how funny she is/isn’t, Fey, as the 13th person to receive the award, turned 40 just eight days ago, making her Twain Prize all the more impressive, given that the average age of the 12 previous winners is 66.

A quick check of the website for The Kennedy Center reveals past winners to be such comedic icons as Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Neil Simon, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby. All of them spent years honing their craft, most as stand-ups, before building TV and movie careers of lasting, if variable, quality.

The Twain Prize has appeared as a kind of career capper, a summing up of those who, as the site says, “have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain [as] a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters…”

But Mark Krantz, co-executive producer of the award ceremony, tells the Washington Post, “A lot of people felt it was a lifetime achievement award for an old person. It never has been. It is a prize, really, about somebody’s depth and talent.”

So how do we measure Fey’s depth and talent? As every article about Fey is required by law to state, she was the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live (roughly presiding during the segue between the Jimmy Fallon/Horatio Sanz/Chris Kattan and the Amy Poehler/Maya Rudolph/Will Forte years—not especially noteworthy). Then she left to create and star in 30 Rock, which has become increasingly uneven over the past couple of seasons, while finding time to star in such big-screen classics as Baby Mama and Date Night.

Her social commentary, mostly seen on SNL, was often plainspoken, usually came off as borderline shrill and was rarely meant to be funny. (Who can forget her pro-Hillary Clinton screed during a guest appearance on the show in the midst of the ’08 election, “Bitch is the new black”? To which her 30 Rock co-star Tracy Morgan riposted the following week, in a much more successful mix of humor and forthrightness: “Bitch may be the new black, but black is the new president, bitch.”)

Fey’s certainly been a “creator of characters,” and she may never top her Sarah Palin eviscerations in the satire sweepstakes.

But I wonder if she’s truly the best possible recipient of the Twain Prize.

Since the award is apparently meant for living people only (Carlin had the bad taste to die four days after being named its 2008 recipient) the prize could be conferred to such grand old men of comedy as Sid Caesar or Mel Brooks (possibly omitted so far in an effort not to essentially turn it into a Your Show of Shows emeritus award, given Simon’s and Carl Reiner’s previous recognition), the Smothers Brothers (plenty satirical in their day, they announced their retirement from touring on May 16), or even—if the awards committee’s in the mood to stir up some controversy—filmmaker and Roman Polanski apologist Woody Allen or Jerry “I don’t like any female comedians” Lewis.

(Speaking of which: How about Joan Rivers? If the gushy, apparently inadvertently sad Rivers profile in this week’s New York magazine is anything to go by, she’d be in D.C. within 10 minutes of the announcement.)

Or, if being old really isn’t going to b e a qualifier going forward, what about David Letterman, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and/or Stephen Colbert? Whether you find them funny or not, they’ve pushed the envelope and “had an impact on American society” in a much more significant manner than Fey.

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