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Jon Stewart says the 'fragility of leaders' is the real threat to humor

Jon Stewart accepts the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Scott Suchman
The Kennedy Center
Jon Stewart accepts the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Mark Twain once said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." Using humor to shine a light on the truth is what the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is all about. Jon Stewart, this year's recipient of the prize, was honored at The Kennedy Center for his satire and his activism. Stewart has been a fierce advocate for veterans, 9/11 first responders and their families.

This being an event full of comedians, The Mark Twain Prize is more of a roast than a dignified celebration. Jimmy Kimmel quipped, "Jon hosted the most important political satire of our generation and quit right before Trump was elected. That's like going to Woodstock and leaving after Sha Na Na."

As one of the correspondents on The Daily Show, Steve Carrell told of an early assignment, "to visit a venom research facility in Nebraska." Carrell explained that when he arrived, "the research facility was a mobile home full of snakes." Carrell says Stewart loved the interview. "As he watched it he jokingly said over and over it would've been 'great' if I'd actually been bitten by a snake."

In its early days, The Daily Show took some heat for its lack of diversity. For a time, Samantha Bee was its sole female correspondent. As she praised Stewart for plucking her "from obscurity," she also joked, "It is my greatest pleasure to speak to you tonight as the woman behind the man, behind the man, behind the man, behind all the other men."

For 16 years The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relentlessly skewered politicians and the news media. The show won two Peabody Awards and 20 Emmys. Even though it was on Comedy Central, it was also where a lot of people got their news.

Dave Chappelle, who won the Mark Twain Prize in 2019, said Stewart's voice was vital after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "The news was off the chain and Jon was the only voice that helped people decipher that madness," he said.

Stewart's ability to cut through the spin and sensationalism captivated Bassem Youssef, who watched Stewart on CNN from his home in Egypt. Youssef went on to create a series modeled partly after The Daily Show. Stewart and Youssef became friends and made guest appearances on each other's shows.

Youssef explained that the Egyptian authorities disapproved of his show and there was a warrant for his arrest. "I called Jon and said, 'I'm so scared. I don't know what to do. The new authority is too powerful.' " Youssef says Stewart advised him to, "Make fun of the fact that you cannot say anything. Make fun of the fact that you are afraid. People will feel you, and fear will be your satire." Youssef says they "did exactly that and people felt it and it was the most popular episode ever."

Accepting the Mark Twain Award, Stewart talked about the current state of comedy in American culture.

"Comedy survives every moment. Having Bassem here is an example of the true threat to comedy," said Stewart. The real threat, Stewart believes, is "not the fragility of audiences" or "the pronoun police," but rather, "the fragility of leaders."

Before The Daily Show, Stewart's career had its ups and downs. He started doing stand-up in 1987. He hosted a short-lived show on MTV. He told the Kennedy Center audience that, in comedy, you get back up again, "There isn't any fixed point in comedy where you make it or you don't make it. It's the journey with the greatest friends I could ever possibly have made."

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will broadcast on PBS stations on June 21.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.