Home > Film & stuff > Ellen DeGeneres Isn’t Even the Funniest Talk Show Host– Why is She Getting the Mark Twain Prize?

Ellen DeGeneres Isn’t Even the Funniest Talk Show Host– Why is She Getting the Mark Twain Prize?

Mark Twain

You don’t have to look too hard to find an awards ceremony or a designation that reveals itself to be insincere or undistinguished. The Oscars, more often than not, honor the wrong film (no, it’s not always subjective), the Grammys have been a joke for as long as I can remember, and even awards with supposedly more cache, like the Nobel or Pulitzer, are tainted with political ambition and bias. Recently, an announcement came out revealing that Ellen DeGeneres will be the recipient of the Kennedy Center’s 2012 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. That’s right, a daytime talk show host who has an uncanny knack for convincing her guests to dance will receive an award that’s designated for contributions to American humor. What’s the deal, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? Rosie didn’t shoot enough Koosh balls at her audience to make you giggle? Well, maybe that hacky loudmouth will have a shot at the Twain award next year.

Now, the first Twain Prize was awarded in 1998 to a very worthy honoree named Richard Pryor. Not all of the award recipients have been standup comics, but many of them are/were, Ellen included. Pryor is considered by many to be the standup who all other standups aspire to be. He’s king, and everyone else is just competing for second place. Not everyone agrees and some people are put off by Pryor’s vulgarity. I don’t really understand these people, but fair enough. The point is, however, that the majority of people who know about and love comedy recognize that Pryor is as important to American humor as Mark Twain. The same goes for other recipients such as Bob Newhart, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby. These are names synonymous with comedic greatness. I have listened to countless hours of comedians talking about which humorists influence his or her work, and I’ve read books, interviews, and essays discussing the same. Would you like to know which names keep coming up? Richard Pryor. Bob Newhart. George Carlin. Bill Cosby. You know who no one mentions? Ellen DeGeneres.

Ellen is a likable person. She’s charming, accessible, and quick-witted, which is why she has excelled in the daytime talk format. Women who are home in the middle of the day watch her and they feel like they’re watching a friend. That is a gift that many TV personalities don’t possess, but Ellen has it in spades. Good for her. What Ellen is not, however, is a brilliant, Mark Twain-esque comedian who all other comedians look at in awe. She was a popular standup comic in her early days, but she never set the world on fire. I doubt many of you own any Ellen DeGeneres comedy albums. Her material was cute and sometimes clever, just like her show is now, but it was never groundbreaking, challenging, or unique. Then she had a sitcom. What do you remember about that show? I remember that she came out of the closet as a gay woman. Oh! Wait, there was that one episode where… nope, nevermind, just the lesbian thing. The show was forgettable at best, it just happened to briefly strike a cultural nerve. That’s admirable and rare, but that one moment doesn’t make a career in comedy.

Then came her aforementioned talk show and her rise back to stardom. Ellen is formatted to be fun and silly and totally innocuous. She doesn’t challenge guests the way that Letterman used to, she doesn’t do edgy comedy, and she doesn’t offend (unless you’re an ultra-Christian right-winger who hates her dangerous homo lifestyle. If so, go walk into traffic, dummy.) All of those traits, the overall safeness, is perfectly fine. I don’t think you’re a bad person if you like her show or like her brand of comedy. She certainly appeals to a wide swathe of the population. My point is this– Ellen has not made a culturally significant impact on the history of American comedy. It just ain’t so. She’s not even the funniest or most interesting talk show host on air right now! If the Twain folks at the Kennedy Center wanted a talk show host, why not Craig Ferguson? Sure, he may be Scottish, which I suppose is a deal breaker, but his show is so bizarre and subversive to whole format that I feel like someone should give him award. The guy runs that show like his own personal playhouse. It’s sort of amazing.

Anyway, I’ve put together a little non-comprehensive list of some folks who I believe should be receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor instead of Ellen DeGeneres. Some of these comedians deserve the prize more than the others, but ALL of them deserve it a helluva lot more than her. None of these forthcoming names have won the prize before, but I hope they all do at some point. (Warning: In some of the clips below, profanity is abound)

  • Woody Allen: This is a no-brainer. The man recorded one of the most popular comedy albums of all-time and has written, directed, and starred in some of the funniest films that have ever been made. He hasn’t stopped working as a professional humorist since he began around the middle of last century, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. The man is a true comic genius if there ever was one and he deserves the Twain prize every year until he dies.
  • Johnny Carson: He passed away several years ago, but he deserves to posthumously receive this award. No one has ever topped Johnny in the talk-show host category (definitely not Ellen), and he spent decades on television as the most famous person alive due his comedic timing and acerbic wit. Carson is an icon, just like Mark Twain, and he truly changed the face of American comedy.
  • Louis CK: If the Kennedy Center wants to go a bit younger and more culturally timely, why not Louis CK? His TV show Louie on FX is groundbreaking in the world of comedy. In addition to starring, he writes, directs, and edits the show himself and has near complete autonomy, which is almost unheard of. He even put together and self-distributed his own comedy special this year that sold like hotcakes. His comedic style is challenging, profane, and angry, but it’s also brutally honest and genuine. Apparently none of these traits tickled the Kennedy Center’s funny bone.
  • Trey Parker: As the man who does the bulk of the writing on the funniest and most scathing show on television, South Park, Parker should be a shoo-in for the Twain prize. However, considering Parker and his co-creator, Matt Stone, spend much of their episodes skewering public figures and pointing out hypocrisy, I’m guessing he won’t be getting an invitation to the ceremony anytime soon (that room is full of self-important assholes who don’t like to be mocked). In addition to South Park, his play The Book of Mormon is still the toast of Broadway after running for over a year. He’s an expert satirist who Twain would surely admire.
  • Colin Quinn: Sadly, Mr. Quinn has never been all that impactful on a popular culture level. His run on Saturday Night Live was not especially memorable (though I loved his “Weekend Update” segments), and his brilliant show on Comedy Central, Tough Crowd, was cancelled, even though it was one of the funniest things on TV. Most importantly, Quinn is a diligent standup comedian, constantly putting out new material and honing his craft. He’s almost always the smartest guy in the room and his humor is always slyly insightful. His one man show, Colin Quinn: Long Story Short, is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. In it, Quinn manages to boil down the history of Earth in less than 90 minutes. It’s a triumph.

Well, there are few diverse nominees who I believe have significantly impacted the landscape of American comedy. There are many others I could carry on about, people like Jerry Seinfeld, Patrice O’Neal, Billy Wilder, Dave Attell, Bill Murray, and so on, but what’s the point? Ellen DeGeneres is the 2012 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It’s a sad comment on the state of humor in this country, and it reaffirms something I’ve been noticing for years– there’s an insidious effort to quell controversy and discussion in an effort to sanitize our speech and our thoughts. Ellen is the embodiment of clean, non-confrontational comedy, fitting for a daytime audience, but not all of us want to live in a daytime network TV world. Some of the people I mentioned in my list have real things to say in their comedic work, important things that aren’t always pleasant to think about.

Don’t we need these people to challenge us to think and make us laugh? The Kennedy Center doesn’t seem to think so.

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