WASHINGTON (AP) — A host of celebrities and comedy royalty gathered Sunday night at the Kennedy Center as comedian, talk show host and political influencer Jon Stewart receives the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in humor.
Stewart, the 23rd recipient of the prize, will be honored by testimonials and skits from fellow comedians and previous Mark Twain recipients. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chappelle’s Mark Twain ceremony in 2019.
During red carpet entrances prior to the event, guests paid early tribute to Stewart’s career. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel recalled knowing and working 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 would say something funny within four seconds.”
Kimmel also paid tribute to Stewart’s activism on multiple issues, saying, “He does a lot more than most people realize.”
The 59-year-old Stewart — born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz — rose to prominence as a standup comic and host of multiple failed talk shows before taking over Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 1999. His 16-year run as “Daily Show” host turned him into a cultural and political force as he trained his satirical eye on both politics and an increasingly polarized national media.
In perhaps his most iconic moment, Stewart went on CNN’s popular “Crossfire” debate show in 2004 and challenged the show’s entire premise of left-wing vs. right-wing debate. Stewart told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala they had a “responsibility to the public discourse” that they were cheapening with insincere political role-playing.
Stewart’s appearance rocketed him to new levels of prominence and political relevance and may have sealed the fate of “Crossfire,” which was canceled three months later.
Stewart’s influence was felt far beyond America’s borders. Egyptian surgeon Bassem Youssef started up a modest YouTube showthat was directly modeled on Stewart’s and became an iconic figure 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 U.S. and is pursuing a full-time comedy career. Youssef said he was particularly inspired by Stewart’s “honesty and the way he tackles complicated stuff using intelligent humor.”
Since retiring from “The Daily Show” in 2015, Stewart has become a vocal proponent of a number of social causes and one of the most prominent voices in support of health care for Sept. 11 first responders in New York City. He recently returned to television as host of “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on Apple TV+.
Stewart’s political influence was apparent 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 had interacted with Stewart on multiple occasions while he was lobbying on different causes. She praised his “level of commitment and knowledge” that far outstripped the usual celebrity political involvement.
She also laughingly said that Stewart is “not a patient man” when he feels 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 “demonstrates that we all can make a difference in this world through humor, humanity, and patriotism.”
This will be the first Mark Twain ceremony since Chappelle’s in 2019. The award skipped 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from that two-year break, the prize has been presented annually since 1998, with Richard Pryor receiving the first honors.
Other recipients include Carol Burnett (the oldest recipient at age 80), Tina Fey (the youngest at age 40), Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Lily Tomlin. 2009 recipient Bill Cosby had his prize rescinded in 2018 amid multiple allegations of sexual assault.