Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

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Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
A bronze bust of Mark Twain on a pedestal
The Kennedy Center award is modeled after Karl Gerhardt's bronze bust of Twain.
Awarded forhaving "had an impact on American society in ways similar to" Mark Twain
LocationWashington, D.C.
CountryUnited States
Presented byJohn F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
First awarded1998
Currently held byKevin Hart (2024)
WebsiteOfficial website
Television coverage

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is an American award presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. annually since 1998, except for the years 2020 and 2021. Named after the 19th-century humorist Mark Twain, it is presented to individuals who have "had an impact on American society in ways similar to" Twain.[2] The Kennedy Center chose Twain in recognition of his role as a controversial social commentator and his "uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly."[2] A copy of Karl Gerhardt's 1884 bust of Twain is presented in an autumn ceremony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, during which the honoree is celebrated by his or her peers. The event is a significant fundraiser to benefit the Kennedy Center, which sells tickets as well as access to dinners and after-parties featuring the celebrities.

As of 2024, 25 individuals have been awarded the honor: six women and 19 men. Bill Cosby's award was rescinded by the Kennedy Center in 2018. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no awards in 2020 or 2021.[3]


Venue, the Kennedy Center

In 1997, Murray Horwitz brought the idea of a dedicated comedy award, on par with the Oscars, Grammy Awards or Tony Awards, to John Schreiber and Mark Krantz, partners in an entertainment firm. The original conceptualization was an award which would celebrate one comedian, unlike the Kennedy Center Honors, which were more all-encompassing, and the venue would be the White House. They took the idea to Ann Stock, then the White House social secretary. The White House was considered an inappropriate venue at the time, so the Kennedy Center was suggested. Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky and Cappy McGarr were brought onboard and Comedy Central would coproduce and broadcast the show. At this stage it was decided to name the prize after Mark Twain.[4]

President Barack Obama with Will Ferrell and Viveca Paulin in 2011

The inaugural recipient of the award was Richard Pryor.[5] The first two years of the prize honoring Pryor and Jonathan Winters were taped and broadcast on Comedy Central.[5] Since then, the award presentations have been taped for broadcast on PBS.(McGarr 2021, pp. 173, Chapter 27) Carol Burnett received the award at age 80 in 2013, while the youngest recipient has been actress and comedian Tina Fey, at age 40 in 2010.[6][7][8] The Kennedy Center's intent is to give the award to living persons, but one recipient, George Carlin, died in 2008 before receiving his award. Carlin died five days after the official press release that he would be awarded the prize.[9] Bill Cosby accepted his award at the Kennedy Center in 2009. He had twice refused the honor, stating that he was disappointed with the profanity used in the inaugural ceremony honoring Richard Pryor.[10] After Cosby was convicted of sexual assault in 2018, the center stripped Cosby of his award and his 1998 Kennedy Center Honors.[11] Mel Brooks has refused the award thrice.[12] Robin Williams has also refused the award.[13]

Since Carl Reiner, honorees are given the opportunity to meet the president, although some refuse. Twain had interactions with Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt.[14][15]

President Obama with awardee Carol Burnett in 2013

McGarr, a Kennedy Center board member who is a co-founder and co-executive producer of the Twain Prize, writes in his book that the mission of the prize is "to honor the greatest contributors to American comedy of our time".[16] Each awardee has a background in humor which has been a source of joy for many, showcased extensively on more than one occasion in more than one form, and as a part of the American comedic tradition having influenced industry and culture, is a legacy for American humorists to take inspiration from.[17] Honorees have included a writer, an actor, a producer, a stand-up comedian and a media proprietor, among others.[18] In awarding the prize to Lorne Michaels in 2004, a Canadian-American, McGarr explained that "the Mark Twain Prize honors American humor, not necessarily American humorists".[19]

According to a 2013 article in The Washington Post, little is known about the selection process to receive the award. A Kennedy Center spokeswoman stated, "A short list is compiled by the executive producers [of the ceremony] and presented to a group comprised of representatives from the Kennedy Center board of trustees, as well as the Kennedy Center senior management and programming staff". But McGarr stated in 2013 that "there's really no committee... It's really a consensus decision. There's not any single person who decides." He also added the award's executive producers — McGarr, Mark Krantz and Peter and Bob Kaminsky — have always decided in consultation with the Kennedy Center's chairman and president, David Rubenstein and Michael Kaiser. He also stated that the primary criteria is that "to choose people who've had a full lifetime of making us laugh and who've had a great influence on the people who've followed them."[20]


Mark Twain Prize for American Humor awardees
Year Image Recipient Notes
1998 Richard Pryor in 1986 Richard Pryor[21] Those there to honor Pryor included Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase, Tim Allen, Danny Glover, Damon Wayans, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Belzer, Morgan Freeman, Ruth Brown and Dick Gregory;[22] Gene Wilder appeared in a pre-taped video.[23]
1999 Jonathan Winters in 1963 Jonathan Winters[24] Those there to honor Winters included Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Robert Wuhl,[25] Eugene Levy and Michael McKean.
2000 Carl Reiner in 1960 Carl Reiner[26] Those there to honor Reiner included Steve Martin, Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Seinfeld,[26] Rob Reiner, Joy Behar, Richard Belzer, and George Wallace; Mel Brooks and Ray Romano appeared in pre-taped videos.[27]
2001 Whoopi Goldberg in 2008 Whoopi Goldberg[28] Those there to honor Goldberg included Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Wanda Sykes, Cedric the Entertainer, Chris Tucker, Alan King, Bruce Valanche, Caroline Rhea, Tommy Davidson and Harry Belafonte.[28]
2002 Bob Newhart in 2002 Bob Newhart[29] Those there to honor Newhart included Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, The Smothers Brothers, Don Rickles, Tim Conway, Bernie Mac, Jane Curtin, Fred Willard, Julia Sweeney and Steven Wright.[30]
2003 Lily Tomlin in 2014 Lily Tomlin[31] Those there to honor Tomlin included Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Elaine Stritch, Doris Roberts, George Lopez, Darrell Hammond, Catherine O'Hara, Miss Piggy and Dolly Parton; Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin appeared in pre-taped videos.[31]
2004 Lorne Michaels in 2008 Lorne Michaels[32] Michaels, a Canadian-American, is the only recipient as of 2023 born and raised outside of the United States.[33] Those who honored Michaels included Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Tim Meadows, David Spade, Paul Simon, Conan O'Brien, Christopher Walken, Senator John McCain,[34] and Amy Poehler.
2005 Steve Martin in 2011 Steve Martin[35] Those who honored Martin included Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Larry David, Dave Barry, Eric Idle, Diane Keaton, Claire Danes, Queen Latifah, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Mike Nichols.[36]
2006 Neil Simon in 1974 Neil Simon[37] Those there to honor Simon included Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Jason Alexander, Robert Klein, Paul Reiser, Christina Applegate, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Redford.[38]
2007 Billy Crystal in 2018 Billy Crystal[39] Those who honored Crystal included Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Lovitz, Martin Short, Rob Reiner, Bob Costas, Barbara Walters,[39] and John Goodman.
2008 George Carlin in 2008 George Carlin[40] The award is not intended to be given posthumously, but Carlin's death occurred between the announcement and the ceremony.[41] Those there to honor Carlin included Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Denis Leary, Margaret Cho, Garry Shandling, and Lily Tomlin.
2009 Bill Cosby in 2011 Bill Cosby[42] Those who honored Cosby included Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sinbad, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Steven Wright, Willie Nelson, Carl Reiner, Dick Gregory, Rita Moreno, and Phylicia Rashad.

(Cosby's award was rescinded in 2018 due to a sexual assault conviction.)[11][43]
2010 Tina Fey in 2014 Tina Fey[44] Those who honored Fey included Alec Baldwin, Amy Poehler, Steve Martin, Steve Carell, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Hamm, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Jennifer Hudson, Betty White, and Lorne Michaels.[7]
2011 Will Ferrell in 2013 Will Ferrell[45] Those who honored Ferrell included Conan O'Brien, John C. Reilly, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay, Tim Meadows, Matthew Broderick, and Ed Asner.
2012 Ellen DeGeneres in 2011 Ellen DeGeneres[46] Those there to honor DeGeneres included Jane Lynch, Sean Hayes, Jimmy Kimmel, John Leguizamo, John Krasinski, Steve Harvey, Kristin Chenoweth, and Lily Tomlin.
2013 Carol Burnett in 2014 Carol Burnett[47] Those there to honor Burnett included Julie Andrews, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones, Martin Short, Tony Bennett, Vicki Lawrence, and Tim Conway;[48] Carl Reiner and Ellen DeGeneres appeared in pre-taped videos.
2014 Jay Leno in 2008 Jay Leno[49] Those there to honor Leno included Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Robert Klein, J.B. Smoove, Jamie Foxx, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler, Kristin Chenoweth, and Garth Brooks.
2015 Eddie Murphy in 2010 Eddie Murphy[50] Those there to honor Murphy included Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, Jay Pharoah, Tracy Morgan, Trevor Noah, George Lopez, Kevin Nealon, and Kathy Griffin.[51]
2016 Bill Murray in 2018 Bill Murray[52] Those who honored Murray included David Letterman, Emma Stone, Bill Hader, Aziz Ansari, Miley Cyrus, Jane Curtin, Jimmy Kimmel, Brian Doyle Murray, and Sigourney Weaver.
2017 David Letterman in 2016 David Letterman[53] Those there to honor Letterman included Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Martin Short, John Mulaney, Norm Macdonald, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmie Walker, and Eddie Vedder; Michelle Obama appeared in a pre-taped video. Al Franken appeared but was cut from the broadcast due to sexual harassment allegations against him.[54]
2018 Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2017 Julia Louis-Dreyfus[55] Those there to honor Louis-Dreyfus included Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Bryan Cranston, Tony Hale, Lisa Kudrow, Keegan-Michael Key, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and Jack Johnson; Larry David appeared in a pre-taped video.
2019 Dave Chappelle in September 2018 Dave Chappelle[56] Those who honored Chappelle included Q-Tip, Jon Stewart, Bradley Cooper, Morgan Freeman, Aziz Ansari, Lorne Michaels, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Sarah Silverman, Neal Brennan, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che, Colin Jost, Chris Tucker, Tiffany Haddish, Common, John Legend, and Chrissy Teigen.[57] Eddie Murphy appeared in a pre-taped video. The PBS broadcast of the ceremony was unique, because footage of the ceremony was interspersed with footage of Chappelle performing standup in a comedy club.
2022 Jon Stewart in 2016 Jon Stewart[3] Those who honored Stewart included Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Dave Chappelle, Pete Davidson, Ed Helms, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Meacham, Olivia Munn, Bassem Youssef, and Bruce Springsteen. Stephen Colbert appeared remotely via video chat and John Oliver appeared in a pre-taped video that satirized a eulogy.[58][59][60]
2023 Adam Sandler in 2017 Adam Sandler[61] Those who honored Sandler included Dana Carvey, Luis Guzmán, Tim Herlihy, Idina Menzel, Rob Schneider, Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Judd Apatow, Drew Barrymore, Steve Buscemi, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Pete Davidson, and David Spade.[62]
2024 Kevin Hart Kevin Hart Those who honored Hart include Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, J.B. Smoove, Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Chelsea Handler, Nick Cannon and Keith Robinson.[63][64]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ White, Peter (March 14, 2024). "Netflix To Air Mark Twain Prize For American Humor; Kevin Hart To Be Feted". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved March 14, 2024.
  2. ^ a b "The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor". The Kennedy Center. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Bahr, Sarah (January 19, 2022). "Jon Stewart to Receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  4. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 84–86)
  5. ^ a b de Morales, Lisa (December 1, 2015). "TV One to repeat PBS's Mark Twain Prize ceremony honoring Eddie Murphy". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 2, 2017.
  6. ^ Clark, Cindy (October 20, 2013). "Carol Burnett honored with Mark Twain Prize". USA TODAY. Retrieved August 12, 2022.
  7. ^ a b McCarthy, Sean L. (November 15, 2010). "Watch the entire telecast from PBS of Tina Fey's ceremony honoring her with the Mark Twain Prize". The Comic's Comic.
  8. ^ Farhi, Paul (May 15, 2012). "Mark Twain prize skews young". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 12, 2022.
  9. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 120–121, Chapter 20)
  10. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (October 27, 2009). "Bill Cosby receives Mark Twain Prize". The New York Times. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Holloway, Daniel (May 7, 2018). "Bill Cosby's Kennedy Center Honors, Mark Twain Prize Revoked". Variety. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  12. ^ Fraley, Jason (September 28, 2021). "Mark Twain Prize creator recalls bringing Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray to White House". WTOP News. Retrieved July 27, 2022.
  13. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 135, Chapter 22)
  14. ^ Malloy, Allie; Kosinski, Michelle (October 22, 2016). "Bill Murray holds court with White House reporters". CNN. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  15. ^ "Carol Burnett visits with Obama in White House after winning top US humour prize". Yahoo News. The Associated Press. October 22, 2013. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  16. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 198, Chapter 30)
  17. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 9 (Foreword by Ken Burns), 18, 90–91, 198)
  18. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 169)
  19. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 107–108, Chapter 17)
  20. ^ Farhi, Paul (May 21, 2013). "How Kennedy Center chooses Twain Prize winners". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
  21. ^ Johnson, Allan (January 20, 1999). "Kennedy Center Honors Pryor with Initial Mark Twain Award". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  22. ^ "Richard Pryor Honored With First Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". Jet. November 9, 1998. pp. 16–18 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ Kaltenbach, Chris (October 22, 1998). "Polite society embraces Pryor Tribute: The comedian is lauded for the barrier-breaking humor that the mainstream didn't always find so funny". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved August 4, 2022.
  24. ^ "Jonathan Winters Wins Twain Prize". The New York Times. April 30, 1999. p. E29. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  25. ^ Molotsky, Irvin (October 21, 1999). "Winters Gets Praise and Humor Prize". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 4, 2022.
  26. ^ a b "Carl Reiner Honored With Mark Twain Prize for Humor". San Francisco Chronicle, SFGATE. October 26, 2000. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  27. ^ Ahrens, Frank (October 25, 2000). "A Grand Night for Rolling in the Aisles". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved August 5, 2022.
  28. ^ a b Brennan, Patricia (November 18, 2001). "The Mark Twain Prize: Whoopi!". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  29. ^ Oldenburg, Don (April 4, 2002). "Bob Newhart Gets the Call For Twain Prize". The Washington Post.
  30. ^ "On Stage at the Kennedy Center: The Mark Twain Prize 2002 (Bob Newhart)". PBS. Archived from the original on November 24, 2018.
  31. ^ a b "On Stage at the Kennedy Center: The Mark Twain Prize salutes Lily Tomlin". PBS. Archived from the original on November 24, 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  32. ^ "'SNL' creator Michaels honored". Today. The Associated Press. October 26, 2004. Archived from the original on November 24, 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  33. ^ (McGarr 2021, pp. 107–108, Chapter 17)
  34. ^ "On Stage at the Kennedy Center. The Mark Twain Prize 2004 - Lorne Michaels". PBS. 2004. Retrieved August 8, 2022.
  35. ^ Gans, Andrew (May 10, 2005). "Steve Martin to Receive Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize". Playbill. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  36. ^ "Steve Martin Celebrated in PBS' "The Kennedy Center Presents: The 2005 Mark Twain Prize"". WETA. June 29, 2005. Archived from the original on November 24, 2018.
  37. ^ Gans, Andrew (October 15, 2006). "Neil Simon Receives Mark Twain Prize for American Humor Oct. 15". Playbill. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  38. ^ "The Kennedy Center Presents: The 2006 Mark Twain Prize celebrating Neil Simon". PBS. 2006. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  39. ^ a b Harris, Paul (October 14, 2007). "Crystal nabs Twain prize for humor". Variety. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  40. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (June 12, 2008). "Bleep! Bleep! George Carlin To Receive Mark Twain Humor Prize". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  41. ^ "George Carlin becomes first posthumous Mark Twain honoree". Yahoo! News. Reuters, Nielsen. June 23, 2008. Archived from the original on June 28, 2008. Retrieved June 25, 2014.
  42. ^ Farhi, Paul (October 27, 2009). "Bill Cosby is awarded the Twain Prize for humor at the Kennedy Center". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  43. ^ a b "Kennedy Center rescinds Bill Cosby's Honors and Twain awards". The Washington Post. May 7, 2018.
  44. ^ Fallon, Kevin (November 15, 2010). "Watch Tina Fey Receive Mark Twain Prize (and Thank Sarah Palin)". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  45. ^ Powers, Lindsay (May 12, 2011). "Will Ferrell to Receive Mark Twain Comedy Prize". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  46. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (May 16, 2012). "Ellen DeGeneres selected to receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  47. ^ Daily, Mary (October 22, 2013). "Carol Burnett: UCLA's class clown takes national honors". UCLA Today. Archived from the original on October 24, 2013.
  48. ^ Garrett, Rena (October 30, 2013). "Carol Burnett: The Mark Twain Prize can be seen on Sunday, November 24th at 8 pm". KENW-TV.
  49. ^ Clark, Cindy (October 20, 2014). "Jay Leno honored with Mark Twain Prize". USA Today. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  50. ^ Falcone, Dana Rose (April 10, 2015). "Eddie Murphy to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 5, 2015.
  51. ^ "Eddie Murphy: The Mark Twain Prize". Mark Twain Prize. Episode 1. November 23, 2015. PBS. a lineup of the biggest names in comedy salutes the 18th recipient ... Dave Chappelle, Kathy Griffin, Arsenio Hall, Sam Moore, Kevin Nealon, Trevor Noah, Jay Pharoah, Joe Piscopo, Chris Rock, and others
  52. ^ McGlone, Peggy (October 23, 2016). "Bill Murray accepts Mark Twain Prize: 'As much as I dreaded this ... there's love'". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  53. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (May 16, 2017). "David Letterman Wins Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". The New York Times. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  54. ^ Nordyke, Kimberly (November 19, 2017). "Al Franken Cut From PBS' David Letterman Tribute Amid Groping Claim". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved March 29, 2020.
  55. ^ Rao, Sonia (May 23, 2018). "Julia Louis-Dreyfus to receive the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  56. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (May 7, 2019). "Dave Chappelle to Receive Mark Twain Prize for Humor". The New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  57. ^ Petski, Denise (August 1, 2019). "Dave Chappelle To Receive Mark Twain Prize; Bradley Cooper, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart & Jon Stewart Among Guests – Update". Deadline Hollywood.
  58. ^ Mason, Jeff (April 25, 2022). "Comedian Jon Stewart feted for humor, advocacy with Mark Twain Prize". Reuters. Retrieved April 25, 2022.
  59. ^ John Oliver on Jon Stewart | 2022 Mark Twain Prize (Video). The Kennedy Center. 2022. Retrieved July 27, 2022 – via YouTube.
  60. ^ Jon Stewart Acceptance Speech | 2022 Mark Twain Prize (Video). The Kennedy Center. 2022. Retrieved July 27, 2022 – via YouTube.
  61. ^ "Adam Sandler to receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". December 13, 2022. Retrieved December 13, 2022.
  62. ^ Grein, Paul (March 8, 2023). "Adam Sandler to Receive 2023 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". Billboard. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  63. ^ "Kevin Hart will receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy". November 15, 2023.
  64. ^ "Kevin Hart Receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor". The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2024.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]