WASHINGTON – John Stewart, who accepts the Mark Twain Award for American humor at the Kennedy Center, warned on Sunday night that speculation about the future of comedy amid heightened audiences’ cultural sensitivity ignores a real and enduring threat: authoritarian governments around the world.
“Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s leading,” Stewart said. “When society feels threatened, comedians are the first to be expelled.
Stewart named Egyptian comedian Basem Yousef, whose political comedy show, inspired by Stewart, earned him both fame and self-imposed exile. Yousef’s story is “an example of the real threat to comedy,” Stewart said.
The intersection of comedy and politics was the main theme, as celebrities and comedy royals gathered to honor Stewart, who set the modern pattern for mixing themes during his 16-year run on The Daily Show.
Stewart, the 23rd winner of the award, was honored with recommendations from fellow comedians and previous award winners Mark Twain. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chapel’s 2019 Twain Award Ceremony, and Chapel returned the favor.
“It’s a miracle to watch you work. You are a cure for what this country is suffering, “said Chapel, who noted that Stewart withdrew from The Daily Show a year before Donald Trump was elected president.
The 59-year-old Stewart – born Jonathan Stewart Leibovitz – became known as a stand-up comic book and hosted many failed talk shows before taking on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 1999. He became a cultural and political force while practicing satirical his eye on politics and the increasingly polarized national media.
Several of Sunday’s speakers were former Daily Show correspondents, including Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.
Karel described his time on the show as full of “excitement, fear, physical stress and laughter.” He noted that Stewart seemed happy to send him on strange tasks, including eating Crisco, dealing with a snake trailer, and drinking iced tea from Long Island until he vomited. Stewart, he said, “always supported us and always applauded us for the comfort and safety of his office.”
Oliver, meanwhile, sent a video message stating that the real John Stewart would never spend “two hours writhing in his seat listening to people tell him how much he means to them.” Therefore, Oliver concluded, Stewart must be dead, and he continued to give a long eulogy.
New Jersey-born Bruce Springsteen performed an acoustic version of “Born to Run” and praised Stewart as a patriot determined to tell the truth of power.
Stewart’s influence is felt far beyond America’s borders. Yousef, an Egyptian cardiac surgeon, launched a modest YouTube show that was modeled directly on Stewart’s model and became an iconic figure during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Describing his show as an “apparently very cheap replacement” for The Daily Show, Yousef detailed how he appeared on Stewart’s show in 2012, and Stewart came to Cairo to do the same in 2013.
Two weeks after the appearance, the Egyptian military ousted a democratically elected Islamist president amid mass national protests. Yousef said he had asked Stewart how to navigate the changing political climate, and Stewart advised him to stick to his principles, even if it caused problems or cost him popularity.
Yousef, whose show was eventually canceled and now lives in the United States, began cursing Stewart from the stage. “I could have been sold very rich by now!” He shouted mockingly.
After retiring from The Daily Show in 2015, Stewart became an active supporter of a number of social causes and one of the most prominent voices in support of health care for the first responders on September 11 in New York. He recently returned to television as the host of Apple TV +’s The John Stewart Problem.
Stewart’s political influence was evident on Sunday from a guest list that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigeig and White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Pelosi, on the red carpet before the ceremony, said she had interacted with Stewart many times while he lobbied for various causes. She praised his “level of commitment and knowledge”, which far exceeds the usual political participation of celebrities.
She also laughed and said that Stewart was “not a patient person” when he felt his cause was fair.
This was Mark Twain’s first ceremony since the Chappelle ceremony in 2019. The award missed 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to this two-year break, the award has been presented annually since 1998, with Richard Pryor receiving the first awards.
Other recipients include Carol Burnett (the oldest recipient at 80), Tina Faye (the youngest at 40), Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Lily Tomlin. The 2009 recipient, Bill Cosby, was fired in 2018 amid numerous allegations of sexual assault.
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Authoritarian governments are a threat, not a comedy
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