Hi. I’m Me. Where’s My Prize?


I heard the bad news on the radio, but the press confirmed it: David Letterman has been selected to receive something called the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award won’t be presented until October 22, but to satisfy a world breathlessly awaiting news about this coveted prize, the media were activated early. Way early. Well, bad news usually arrives with haste.

Here’s part of the announcement as it appeared in the Washington Post. Have towels ready, because this is a gush:

David Letterman, who reinvented late-night television with his irreverent and distinctly original comic sensibility, will receive the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Letterman, 70, will be honored with the 20th-annual prize at a gala performance Oct. 22. The event will be televised later nationally. [I take that as a threat.] The Twain, considered the most prestigious honor in the world of comedy, will be awarded to Letterman five years after he was made a Kennedy Center Honoree.

“Reinvented”? “Irreverent?” “Sensibility?” You gotta be kiddin’. The guy isn’t even funny. Tell me one funny thing he’s ever said. See! You can’t.

And why drag Mark Twain into it? I don’t especially like Twain. Some of his stuff is good; lots of it is simply tiresome (and there is lots and lots of it). He’s seldom funny, and never so seldom as when he insists on telling you that this is what he’s being. But some of his aphorisms are memorable: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And as I was taught — I believe by a professor with the unusual name of Blake Nevius — Twain actually did “reinvent” something. Before Twain, America’s professional humorists made money by laughing at people who were socially inferior to them. Twain made money by laughing with people whom he treated as social equals. As Nevius put it, “unlike the others, he wasn’t above his material.”

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one.

The really horrible thing, however, is the idea of somebody deciding to give an award for American humor at a “gala” at which people in tuxedos will schmooze and chuckle, presumably about how much better they are than people without tuxedos. There are far too many awards, anyway — and for humor? Gimme a break. Anybody with a sense of humor has already gotten the point of the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz, the awards-giving scene. The point is that awards are silly and unnecessary and unconsciously funny. If you have the qualities for which an award is given, you should probably laugh at the very idea of an award. If you don’t have those qualities — well, do you think that giving a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will inspire some wannabe comic to become the next (ugh) David Letterman? It won’t happen. Such awards have no purpose — no legitimate purpose, anyhow.

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one. I’m picturing a mob of creepy-looking guys in monkey suits who, contrary to all evidence, think they’re cool, talking about how funny David is, and never having a clue that they are the funny ones. Well, they, and the president, and Congress — all of whom should be getting an award, if you’re giving out awards for laughs.

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Weak. And if Twain is such a hack, what did Mencken see in Huckleberry Finn?

Willard Brickey

I happen to think Letterman was hilarious for many years, though his political views were abhorrent and he tended towards unfunny bitterness in his later years. This is a common vice of aging. (Viz. Kurt Vonnegut, and, for that matter, Mark Twain). As far as awards for comedy go, see Jerry Seinfeld's "All Awards Are Stupid".

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Perhaps this is an example of how irony is funny. Humor is not supposed to be taken seriously. Awards are serious. So does this mean that a humor award is an oxymoron? Maybe the humor is, "Look at all of these dressed up morons here for an award to David Letterman for being funny." As far as your question about a memory of humor from Letterman, all I remember about him is, "Worldwide Pants."

Don't Worry. Be Happy,

Scott Robinson

Thinking more about humor, I do remember that Letterman also had Top 10 lists. I don't remember anything he top 10'd about (I do remember that you would critique my "'d" usage). In contrast, when I remember Chris Farley, I remember the "Someday, you'll be living in a van down by the river." on Saturday Night Live. I also remember the time when he talks to the waitress in the diner about why he screws up sales to get more chicken wings and his sales pitch that "I can shit in a box and put a guarantee on it but all you get is a guaranteed piece of shit." in the movie Tommy Boy.

In Memory,

Lori Heine

Back in college, one of my professors required us to attend a "humor conference" hosted by the university. It was one of the most tedious, totally un-funny events it has ever been my displeasure to experience.

Turns out that humor can't be analyzed or "studied." When professorial types wax pompously on the subject, they freeze-dry it. Many of the students who attended the conference remarked that the event itself was a joke.

I think it's one of the reasons I ended up transferring to a different university.

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