This past weekend, the 22nd annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was awarded to stand-up and sketch comic Dave Chappelle.
Demand for tickets to the ceremony were, according to David Rubenstein, Chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, greater than anything the Mark Twain Prize has experienced over the course of the last two plus decades—this despite the fact, he joked, “that our hometown comedic prodigy actually now lives on a farm in Ohio.” So many of Chappelle’s friends and colleagues came out to support him that they overflowed orchestra boxes on both sides of the theater. Chappelle, himself, was so touched by the honor that he returned to the red carpet after his initial slip-through-the-back arrival and stopped to talk to everyone, up to and including those of us (Paste included) stationed in the lowly, unlit online press pen at the end of the line, where he lingered so long answering questions we all missed Morgan Freeman emceeing the official start of the ceremony.
Morgan Freeman, in the dramatic spotlight his reputation deserves. Image courtesy The Kennedy Center/Tracey Salazar
All good things having limits, the show’s handlers did eventually force the issue, and after taking one last minute to answer a final question for the reporter from his hometown newspaper, Chappelle was officially whisked away. As the star of the night, he, of course, was ushered into his box seat in plenty of time to catch his local performing arts high school alma mater’s Radical Elite Show Band perform a raucous, dance-filled rendition of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” As for the rest of us, we were left to race down the Hall of Nations to avoid being locked out of the ceremony entirely—and even then, we ended up having to linger outside the theater’s doors until the night’s first video package could give our late entrance some cover.
Duke Ellington High School’s Radical Elite Show Band performs “Let’s Go Crazy.” Image courtesy The Kennedy Center/Tracey Salazar
We will have more to say both about the substance of the ceremony and the scope of Chappelle’s comedic legacy when the special finally makes its way to local PBS stations this coming January. For those desperate to know, however, if any part of the evening addressed the generational tensions between Chappelle’s most recent Netflix specials and the evolution in what transgressive, boundary-pushing stand-up material looks like now, more than a decade after Chappelle first took a sabbatical from life as a public and comedic figure, the answer, on the whole, is no. At the same time, at least for anyone at home in specific corners of Extremely Online Comedy Discourse, the same factors that will lead the average viewer to that no will instead produce an answer that is very much yes. The entire evening, really, played like some kind of comedy culture hologram, sincere celebration when angled one way, knowing winks at a certain slice of comedy fans when angled another.
Here’s what I mean: The rogues’ gallery of celebrity guests officially announced before the day of the ceremony included Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Neal Brennan, Common, Bradley Cooper, Morgan Freeman, Tiffany Haddish, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Lorne Michaels, Trevor Noah, Q-Tip, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and Frédéric Yonnet. Once we got into formation in the red carpet press pen, however, we learned that Tiegen and Noah would not be in attendance, but that, as surprise last-minute additions, Erykah Badu, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che, Colin Jost and Aziz Ansari would.
Chappelle’s cultural impact is so broad and far-reaching, stretching from stand-up to sketch comedy to music to social justice, that every single name on each of these lists makes perfect sense. And yet, not one person I sent a screenshot of the last three late-addition names to after updating my notes doc needed additional commentary to get the (for lack of a better term) joke of it all.
Here is what I also mean: Of all the video packages that punctuated the evening, in between those that tracked his start as a DC-raised teen stand-up, his 2006 Block Party film, and his blade-sharp approaches both to race and racism and to politics, there was also one titled The Line. It featured clips of Chappelle at his most boundary-pushing and pugilistic, and ended with a shot from his 2017 Netflix special, The Bird Revelation, which sees him declaring, “I didn’t come here to be right; I came to fuck around.” While plenty of guests both onstage and on the red carpet—Congressman Karen Bass (D-CA) included!—made explicit reference to Chappelle’s genius in putting his thumb in the middle of the most controversial themes of the moment and telling jokes that provoke strong, often polarizing reactions that get America talking, this video package was presented fait accompli, its existence comment enough on its content.
Immediately following this video? Surprise guest Aziz Ansari.
Really, though, the most searing example of the holographic foil across the ceremony came courtesy of Chappelle, himself, who, when he finally walked onstage to accept his award at the end of the night, did so with a lit cigarette in hand. “I want everyone in America right now to look at me. Look at me, smoking indoors! I didn’t ask anybody, I just did it. What are they going to do, kick me out before [I accept] the prize? This is called leverage!”
Dave Chappelle accepts his Mark Twain Prize, cigarette in hand. Image courtesy The Kennedy Center/Derrel R. Todd
In front of him, a sea of Washingtonians, both black and white, all dressed in their Kennedy Center finest, broke into tension-busting laughter. He laughed, too, but he quickly took a more sober turn. “There’s something so true about this job, when done correctly,” he said, “that I will fight anybody that gets in a true practitioner of this art form’s way. Because I know you’re wrong. This is the truth, and you are obstructing it. I’m not talking about the content. I’m talking about the art form. Do you understand?”
As he hit this, the sincerest, most deeply felt thesis of his approach to the very art he was being celebrated for, and as the audience swept itself up into cheering applause, fumes from his first cigarette hit us back in Orchestra DD. Minutes later, after thanking Neal Brenna, Stan Lathan, his mom, and his wife for supporting his lifelong drive to make art by being himself, waves and all, he lit a second one.
The 22nd annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will air on your local PBS station on January 7, 2020.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.