Jon Stewart receives Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

A host of celebrities and comedy kings gathered at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night as comedian, talk show host and political influencer Jon Stewart received the Mark Twain Award for Lifetime Achievement in Humor.

Stewart, the 23rd honoree, will be honored with testimonials and sketches from fellow comedians and past Mark Twain Prize winners. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chappelle’s Mark Twain ceremony in 2019.

During pre-event red carpet entrances, guests paid tribute to Stewart’s career. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel recalled knowing and collaborating with Stewart on various projects for decades, most recently on Live in Front of a Studio Audience – Kimmel’s remake of classic episodes of The Fact of Life and Diff’rent Strokes” in 2019.

“He’s just always funny,” Kimmel said of Stewart. “You could probably wake him up in the middle of the night and he’d say something funny within four seconds.”

Kimmel also credited Stewart’s activism on several issues, saying, “He does a lot more than most people realize.”

Stewart, 59 – born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz – rose to prominence as a standup comic and host of several failed talk shows before taking over Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in 1999. His 16-year career as a Daily Show host made him a cultural and political force, bringing his satirical gaze both to politics and to the increasingly polarized national media.

In perhaps his most iconic moment, Stewart walked on the popular CNN debate show Crossfire in 2004 and challenged the show’s entire premise of left-versus-right debate. Stewart told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala they had a “responsibility for public discourse,” which they belittled with disingenuous political roleplay.

Stewart’s performance catapulted him to a new level of notoriety and political relevance, possibly sealing the fate of Crossfire, which was canceled three months later.

Stewart’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of America. Egyptian surgeon Bassem Youssef launched a humble YouTube show based directly on Stewart’s model, which became iconic during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

“I think it’s actually too late. He should have received this award 15 years ago,” said Youssef, who now lives in the United States and pursues a full-time comedy career. Youssef said he was particularly inspired by Stewart’s “honesty and the way he tackles complicated things with intelligent humor.”

Since retiring from The Daily Show in 2015, Stewart has become a vocal advocate for a range of social causes and one of the most prominent voices in support of health care for 9/11 first responders in New York City. He recently returned to television as the host of “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on Apple TV+.

Mark Twain Prize winner Jon Stewart is introduced Sunday at the start of the 23rd Annual Mark Twain Prizes for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Mark Twain Prize winner Jon Stewart is introduced Sunday at the start of the 23rd Annual Mark Twain Prizes for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

Stewart’s political influence was evident Sunday from a guest list that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

Pelosi said she interacted with Stewart on numerous occasions while he was advocating for various causes. She praised his “engagement and knowledge,” which far exceeded the usual political commitment of celebrities.

She also said, laughing, that Stewart is “not a patient man” when he believes his cause is just.

When Stewart’s selection was announced in January, Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter hailed his body of work as “equal parts entertainment and truth.”

Rutter said Stewart’s career “shows that we can all make a difference in this world through humor, humanity and patriotism.”

This is the first Mark Twain ceremony since Chappelle in 2019. The award was skipped in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from this two-year hiatus, the award has been presented annually since 1998, with Richard Pryor receiving the first honor.

Other recipients include Carol Burnett (the oldest recipient aged 80), Tina Fey (the youngest aged 40), Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Lily Tomlin. 2009 recipient Bill Cosby had his award revoked in 2018 following multiple allegations of sexual assault. Jon Stewart receives Mark Twain Prize for American Humor


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