WASHINGTON – Jon Stewart paced the stage as if it were 1987 and he was back in the late-night slot at the Comedy Cellar in New York’s West Village.
“There’s a lot of talk about what’s going to happen to comedy – you know, ‘the Slap’ – and will comedy survive in this new moment? Comedy survives in every moment,” Stewart said, referencing the recent Chris Rock/Will Smith brouhaha. He gestured at the bronze bust of Mark Twain set on a podium beside him. “This man’s decapitated visage is a reminder that what we have is fragile and precious.”
Stewart, 59, was standing center stage at the Kennedy Center concert hall, where he became the 23rd recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humora prestigious honor that began with Richard Pryor in 1998. The show airs at 9 EDT/PDT Tuesday (check local listings) on PBS and pbs.org.
The April 24 gathering of comedy luminaries including Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle, Pete Davidson and many from the crew of Stewart’s groundbreaking “The Daily Show” – Steve Carell, Samantha BeeOlivia Munn, Ed Helms and, via video, John Oliver and a COVID-sidelined Stephen Colbert – signaled the return of the event, suspended since 2019 because of the pandemic.
Stewart’s passion for music also received a notable spotlight with Gary Clark Jr. and his four-piece band serving as the house band. But the loudest cheers were reserved for “Bruuuuuuuuce” as Stewart’s brother in New Jersey-dom, Bruce Springsteen, sauntered out to storm through a potent “Come Together” with Clark and later returned for an affecting acoustic read of “Born to Run.”
A few well-known faces sat quietly with their significant others in the performers’ box, including Kim Kardashian with boyfriend Davidson and comedian John Mulaney with partner Munn.
But for more than two hours, Stewart’s nearly 30-year-career and expressive eyebrows were celebrated, from his boyish antics on MTV’s “The Jon Stewart Show” to the politics-skewering intellectualism and silly sight gags of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” to his current stance as a grizzled elder statesman focused on change in Apple TV+’s “The Problem with Jon Stewart.”
At times, the jokes bordered on a gentle roast. Stewart, said Munn, left “The Daily Show,” “to pursue his dream of dressing like a maintenance worker for the rest of his life.” Colbert, beamed in live from his home library, joked that “Years before anyone had heard of COVID, Jon wore nothing but stained sweatpants and avoided human contact.”
Even some compliments were couched in thorns.
“The most controversial thing he’s done is be friends with me,” Davidson said. “Friendship isn’t something he half(does) … like acting. Or gives up on … like directing.”
But amid the velvet-coated barbs resided genuine appreciation for Stewart’s kindness as well as his outreach to military veterans and 9/11 first responders. Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro and John Feal, who has worked with Stewart as an advocate for 9/11 first responders, were the surprise presenters of the Twain Prize, moving Stewart to tears as he tightly hugged the two men.
And Chappellethe most recent recipient of the award in 2019, teased Stewart in his unscripted remarks that the shindig was “like getting a preview to your funeral,” before lauding his longtime friend for his reliability and humanity.
“It’s a miracle to watch you work,” Chappelle said, as he turned and faced Stewart off to the side of the stage. “You are a cure to what ails our culture.”
Here are a few other highlights from the ceremony:
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Jimmy Kimmel tweaks Bill Cosby
In the history of the Mark Twain Prize, only one award has been revoked. In 2018, the Kennedy Center rescinded Bill Cosby’s 2009 Twain statue, as well as his 1998 Kennedy Center Honors after Cosby was found guilty of indecent aggravated assault.
Kimmel said to Stewart, “They didn’t make you a new trophy. We’re just giving you Bill Cosby’s old one.”
The late-night host also reminisced about meeting Stewart in 1995, “when Jon would wear a leather jacket. He looked like a more Jewish Fonzie (or) Sylvester Shalom.”
Steve Carell remembers the pain
A deadpan car started his homage by stating, “A humorist is a comedian who has been dead for over 100 years. We’re making an exception for Jon.”
The onetime “Daily Show” correspondent recalled some of the ridiculous stunts Stewart engineered for the TV show, including sending Carell to a potentially deadly snake farm, making him eat Crisco on camera and ingesting six Long Island Iced Teas to study the effects of drinking on cognitive abilities.
But Carell ended with a sweet sentiment: “Jon strives to make sense of the insane and find joy in the darkness.”
Samantha Bee shares her gratitude
As the first woman hired on “The Daily Show” in 2003 – not coincidentally, she said, the first year the team won an Emmy Award for best comedy show – Bee is still appreciative of her former boss, whom she called, “the godfather of righteous outrage.”
If Stewart hadn’t hired her, Bee said, “I’d be one of those Disney princesses who goes to children’s birthday parties and teaches them the hard truth about aging.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Stewart: PBS airs Mark Twain Prize special with Chappelle, Kimmel