The Kennedy Center owes Mark Twain a huge apology.
Last year, when the Kennedy Center named Tina Fey the 2010 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, I was compelled to offer my opinion that Fey is not funny and that the only reason she was being honored was because of her imitation of Sarah Palin. Humor, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. So some people liked what I had to say about Fey’s brand of “comedy” while others vigorously made their objections known.
Well, last week the Kennedy Center named Will Ferrell the 2011 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. I am now compelled to offer my opinion that Ferrell is not funny and that the only reason he is being honored is because of his imitation of George W. Bush. Once again operating with the understanding that humor is in the eye of the beholder, some people will like what I have to say about Ferrell’s brand of “comedy” while others will vigorously make their objections known.
The year before Fey was awarded the Twain prize, the Kennedy Center bestowed it upon Bill Cosby, a true pioneer of American humor. Here is how I described the Kennedy Center honoring Cosby and Fey in consecutive years:
The idea of honoring Tina Fey the year after Bill Cosby is kind of like the Baseball Hall of Fame enshrining “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry the year after inducting Mickey Mantle. The Mick and Marvelous Marv were both baseball players but the similarities end there. Cosby and Fey are both comedians but there too the similarities end.
Well, honoring Fey and Ferrell in consecutive years is more of a lateral move. If going from Cosby to Fey is like going from The Mick to Marvelous Marv then going from Fey to Ferrell is like going from Marvelous Marv to Choo Choo Coleman. Indeed, much of the Saturday Night Live cast from the mid-1990s onward could be likened to the 1962 New York Mets.
But Ferrell is nearly single-handedly responsible for making me stop watching SNL on a regular basis. I simply found his antics annoying and unfunny. At best, he was a tenth-rate version of John Belushi or Chris Farley. At worst, watching his act was like tuning into someone run his fingers down a blackboard week in and week out.
Nevertheless, I realize Ferrell gained a fan base on SNL which turned out enthusiastically for his movies such as Old School, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Yet the Kennedy Center tells us:
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.
Notwithstanding his success at the box office, Mark Twain is probably the last person who comes to mind when discussing the “humor” of Will Ferrell. Running naked while shouting, “Let’s go streaking!!!” doesn’t exactly convey an “uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.”
This brings me to George W. Bush. Now Ferrell is hardly the first SNL cast member to impersonate a U.S. President and he won’t be the last. But make no mistake. Ferrell portrays Bush as a stupid and venal man. Contrast that with Dana Carvey’s mimicry of George H.W. Bush, which was done with affection and in many ways humanized the 41st President. By Ferrell’s own admission, he declined the opportunity to meet Bush because he doesn’t share his politics. Indeed, when Ferrell was told that Tina Fey thought Ferrell’s portrayal of Bush “almost made him likeable,” he responded by saying he tried to make him “fumbling and bumbling.”
Consider also the reception Ferrell received when he took his act to Broadway in February 2009 shortly after Bush left office with “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George Bush.” Shortly before its opening, Patrick Healy of the New York Times wrote, “And who better than liberal New York theatergoers, they (Ferrell and co-writer and director Adam McKay) hoped, to appreciate a cutting post-mortem on the Republican president?” Well, not surprisingly, Ferrell’s Bush was a smash hit with the liberal intelligentsia of the Upper West Side and was nominated for a Tony Award. Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News shared this sentiment when he wrote, “Unlike Dubya, Ferrell is lightning fast on his feet and turns each ad lib into a burst of hilarity, a mission accomplished, if you will.” Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press echoes Dziemianowicz by writing, “As a thinker, Ferrell is a lot faster with a quip than the bumbler he is impersonating.”
I think you get the idea. The only purpose of Ferrell’s portrayal of President Bush is to reinforce liberal hatred of him even after he has left public life. How else does one explain the video Ferrell made of Bush’s reaction to the death on Osama bin Laden on his website, funnyordie.com? Of course, if a comedian of conservative inclination were to write and star in a play about President Obama, there is little doubt these same critics would cry racism before the curtain went up. But for publicly deriding a prominent conservative public figure, like Tina Fey before him, Will Ferrell is celebrated, feted, and given prestigious awards such as the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The only comfort I take in all of this is that Twain’s contributions to American humor will be remembered decades after Ferrell’s off-key, one-note act has been long forgotten.
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