Are they kidding?
That was my first thought when I heard The Kennedy Center had named Tina Fey the 2010 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last week. Fey will receive the honor in Washington D.C. on November 9. The ceremony will subsequently be broadcast on CBS as it has been since 2000.
The Mark Twain Prize was established in 1998 "to recognize those who create humor from their uniquely American experiences." Past recipients include Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels.
In 2009, the award was bestowed upon Bill Cosby. 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.
If Fey is being honored for creating humor from her uniquely American experience, then the best that I can tell it is because of her imitation of Sarah Palin. Not that I object to her impersonation because Palin certainly doesn't. Of course, Palin was such a good sport about it that she went on SNL to meet her mimic. (4) In Going Rogue, Palin recounts dressing up as Fey during one Halloween. Palin writes, "I was Tina Fey before she was me."
But let's not kid ourselves. When Fey receives the prize in November, a week removed from the midterm elections, the ceremony will turn into little more than yet another opportunity for the so-called sophisticates from D.C., New York and Hollywood to pillory Palin. If not for the former Alaska Governor, would Fey have been honored this year? In which case, it would merely confirm that Fey is being honored for all the wrong reasons.
Now some might argue that I am merely objecting to Fey's liberal politics. That is hardly the case. Robin Williams is as liberal as they come. Over the years, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party. But whatever his politics it would be foolhardy to deny his comedic genius. If Williams's contributions to American humor aren't unique, it would be impossible to imagine someone fitting of the word. The Kennedy Center, however, has yet to honor Williams. Can anyone honestly tell me that Tina Fey is more deserving of the Mark Twain Prize than Robin Williams?
Others still might argue that there's more to Fey than Sarah Palin. They might point to her being the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live. They might also point to her success as the star and executive producer of the NBC show 30 Rock, which is loosely based on her experiences at SNL.
Well, being the first female head writer at SNL is all well and good but it doesn't amount to a pinch of salt if the show isn't funny. Admittedly, I haven't watched the show nearly as much as I did in the 1980s and the early 1990s (not to mention the reruns from the 1970s). But there's the Catch-22. Why would I watch a comedy show week after week if it doesn't make me laugh? Why would I watch a comedy show if I cannot find amusement in it? Why would I watch a comedy show if it can scarcely make me crack a smile? Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein said of Fey, "Like Mark Twain, Tina Fey offers her brilliance unconditionally." Yet when I watch Fey I have to ask myself, what is the brilliance of which Rubenstein speaks?
I did watch part of Fey's recent turn as SNL host back in April. Oy Fey!!! Sorry, her skit with Justin Bieber gave me the creeps. Perhaps some people find the sight of a middle-aged woman fantasizing about a barely adolescent boy funny, but I sat on the couch stone-faced. I had to flip the channel by the end of the first half hour.
As for 30 Rock, outside of Alec Baldwin, isn't it little more than a pale version of The Larry Sanders Show? Yet I haven't seen The Kennedy Center place a call to Garry Shandling.
By this point, some of you might accuse me of not finding women funny. While I generally find women less funny than men the argument doesn't apply here. Because if anyone should be honored with the Mark Twain Prize it ought to be Carol Burnett, a woman who with the tug of her ear could tug at your heart. How can she not be recognized for her contributions to American humor? She was the first amongst equals on one of the greatest shows in the history of television. How can she not be recognized for her contributions to American humor? Granted, Burnett was presented with the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003. However, this hasn't prevented Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and Neil Simon from receiving both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize.
Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I am well aware there are many people who consider Tina Fey to be funny. But the idea of honoring Tina Fey for her humor seems like a bad running joke in a comedy sketch that just won't end. As Mark Twain wrote in one of his many letters, "Humor unsupported rather hurts its author in the estimation of the reader." It might only be one man's opinion, but Tina Fey just isn't funny.