I got a note yesterday from my pal Dr. Greg Van Buskirk, one of the funnier chemists you'll find. (And yes, the list is longer than you'd think -- I say that based on the assumption that most people probably think the list is zero. So, Dr. Buzz has the field pretty much to himself. And to his credit, he's worn the mantle well.) Anyway, he noted that he has long-loved the work of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and thought her acceptance monologue for the Mark Twain Prize was wonderful -- althhough he noted that as great as he thinks she is, he has a hard time rationalizing her receiving the Prize over some legends who have been overlooked.
And I agree. To be clear, this is just a totally subjective honor, and in the grand scheme of things it's not a huge deal who receives it, and everyone who has done so far has been a wonderful comic talent. That said, the Mark Twain Prize is different from an industry award honoring itself. It's a national honor. And so I do think it deserves a step back to put it in perspective.
Much as I love Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and I absolutely adore her and her work, and she gets big bonus points for having gone to the beloved Northwestern) and some of the other recipients, like Will Ferrell, I do question them getting the prize above some legends who set a groundwork for comedy. Like the AFI award, which I gave up watching many years ago, the Mark Twain Prize lately has seemed to be turning into an award for acting given to star names in order to get TV ratings. To be clear, comic acting is a terrific skill, and I always appreciate it when comic actors receive the prize. But given that Mark Twain, who the prize, after all, is named for, was...a writer, I personally like it when recipients also have some involvement writing. I don't "insist" on it, but I do think it adds foundational substance to the prize when disciplines overlap.
I also think such a prize is best-served when those received it aren't just wildly talented, but legends in their field who had an impact on generations after them, honoring the fullness of their influential career. After all, they only give one Prize a year. It's not like a sports hall of fame where they can vote in half a dozen at a time. If you're really great in your prime, that standard will always be there, and hopefully you'll get even better and perhaps more adventurous. So, you'll be high on the list in five years, or 10 -- or more. Jonathan Winters was brilliant in his prime -- when he received the Mark Twain Prize, there was a richness to his being honored at that point instead.
We all can have personal favorites who think would have highly deserving of receiving the prize in years past, after it began in 1998. And listing them is just a Name Game. But it's an enjoyable game, and my list tends to focus on legends who pushed the field of comedy forward.
For starters, I'll add a personal choice, and though I was friends with him and am biased, but I'm also right, and that's putting Larry Gelbart on the list -- I mean, all he did was write A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Oh God!, Tootsie, Barbarians at the Gate, the Tony-winning City of Angels, Your Show of Shows, develop the TV series M*A*S*H, and on and on. Or here's a few legends who are either still alive -- Mel Brooks (he's 92, I'm not quite sure what they are waiting for), Mike Nichols and Elaine May (alas, they missed Nichols by four years, but May is still around to accept on both their behalf). Woody Allen. Jerry Seinfeld. Garrison Keillor. All of whom write. As did Billy Wilder. Robin Williams. And Stan Freberg, all of who were are around after the award as initiated. Or for that matter, if you're going to give the prize to someone who has largely acted (and for all her other work is mainly known for two TV series), why not Tom Hanks? Or Dick Van Dyke. (He too is 92, so perhaps he's also fallen in the "Let's wait and see" category...) Or Mary Tyler Moore, who they waited too long and missed by a year. (And not just for her two classic series, but running a production company that created a couple dozen comedy series -- hey, they gave the prize to Lorne Michaels.) Or Goldie Hawn. Or hey, here's someone they overlooked -- Bob Hope! (Hmm, think he'd done enough comedy?) Or Sid Caesar. Jack Lemmon. And...well, fill in your own blank.
Again, I adore Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and I've liked all the people they've honored. But liking someone's work -- and even loving it -- are not the same as thinking they're close to legend status deserving (yet) a national prize. And much as I love her work, I not only don't think she's at the status of "legend" that these others are -- I suspect that she'd say she isn't either. And to be clear, I'm not singling her alone out. There are others who, for me, don't reach that level -- yet. Like Will Farrell, Jay Leno, and a few others. Very talented, funny, terrific careers. But there's a higher bar for me, and there are still other steps to get there.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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