Jay Leno: First Late Night Host to Get Twain Prize
Jay Leno -- who retired four months ago as host of the Tonight Show for 22 years with one dramatic, controversial hiccup in the run -- has been tapped to receive the Kennedy Center’s coveted 2014 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
That means a parade of Leno friends, peers, guests—no sure if the intern will show up or, for that matter, Conan O’Brien—at the really big show Oct. 19. Leno is the 17th recipient of the prize, the latest in a list that includes Richard Pryor, who inaugurated the event by being the first recipient on a somewhat anarchic and profane night as friends and peers like Chris Rock and Robin Williams saluted the ailing comedian in an irreverent style that had rarely been seen at the Kennedy Center.
Subsequent festivities—all televised, all big-star red carpet events—were not quite so footloose and featured salutes to a varied parade of talents, including, among others, the beyond-category Jonathan Winters, the great banjo player and comedian Steve Martin, the irrepressible Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, who turned the award down twice because of the profanity-full first award show, a parade of Saturday Night Livers like Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, playwright Neil Simon and the funky George Carlin. Fey was the youngest performer (40 at the time) to receive the award. Three of the last awardees have been women—Fey, last year's winner Carol Burnett and Ellen DeGeneres.
There is a certain amount of belated irony in the choice of Leno. The successor to the incomparably cool Johnny Carson, Leno’s undeniably the last king of late night television—having trounced David Letterman, the popular choice of the cool and the hip, and the first late night host to win the award. Leno is a survivor, often decidedly middle brow, a worker bee of the highest order, who works almost as obsessively on a monologue as Van Gogh might have on a painting. He survived a very public dispute-wrangle-and-dance with NBC, whom he regularly skewered on his show, when NBC made Conan O’Brien his successor, letting Leno implode on an hour-long prime time show. while O’Brien regularly gasped for air and ratings in his Tonight Show incarnation.
Leno came back and worked the audience like the pro that he has always been, having done his bit for 22 years, being an equal opportunity host in his targets, having presidents on his show as well as up and coming comedians, the usual movie stars and pop queens, kids, political candidates, and contest winners and animal trainers. He was recognizably one of a kind with his malleable face, the buffet of hair that turned white, the news bits, the man on the street bits, otherwise known as jaywalking.
Let’s hear it for Jay Leno. The Mark Twain Award for American Humor is the best kind of applause.