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Mark Axelrod

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Underwear, Fake Arrows in the Head and the Distinguished Mark Twain Prize

Posted: 07/23/2012 4:23 pm

Will Farrell seems to have an uncommon desire to run around in his underwear. Perhaps, it's a fetish, but whether it's in some of his films (e.g. Talladega Nights) or on television (e.g. multiple SNL skits) if there's an opportunity to drop trou, well, Farrell is all for it and I presume he has a "hand" in the writing of those scenes. That apparent fetish of his coupled with his special kind of Farrellian humor really begs the question: What's his relationship to Mark Twain?

As I've written before, the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has, for 16 years, been awarded to comedians and, except for Neil Simon and a few texts by Steve Martin, not to American literary writers. This seeming malfeasance on the Kennedy Center committee (whoever they are) will, no doubt, continue for decades to come and yet one has to question why. Beyond the fact that Twain was not a "comedian" his humor is in stark contrast to those who have won the award. Regardless of what one may think of Tina Fey's talents or Bill Cosby's talents it's difficult to draw some comparison with Twain who, beyond his extraordinary literary talents and acerbic wit, was both a polemicist and a human rights activist. I imagine one can be both a humorist and polemicist, but generally those people are not comedians. You know, like Che Guevara. It appears that the Kennedy people have, over the years, extracted Twain's witty one-liners and on the basis of those one-liners believe that, well, he'd do well in stand-up and therefore decided to create and give the award to comedians.

But I imagine one would be hard-pressed to find in Will Farrell's oeuvre lines like:

Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him. Man has done this in all the ages. There is not an acre of ground on the globe that is in possession of its rightful owner, or that has not been taken away from owner after owner, cycle after cycle, by force and bloodshed

Or:


Man is the only Patriot. He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people's countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his. And in the intervals between campaigns, he washes the blood off his hands and works for the universal brotherhood of man, with his mouth.

Pretty funny stuff, eh?

So, what I find extraordinary is that this annual ceremony has now become institutionalized and valorized to the extent that one might think the recipient is actually Twainian in some measure. Of course, one could never imagine Twain lecturing in his underwear while wearing a headpiece with fake arrow through his head (à la Steve Martin), but the wisdom of the Kennedy Center committee seems to have legitimized those sorts of comedic gimmicks to be tantamount to Twain's mastery of irony. For me, it's a rather astonishing conundrum that Twain's enormous literary talents have, in effect, been reduced to a level of stand-up slapstick or some niftily crafted repartee. I don't mean to demean the talents of Farrell or anyone else who has won the award, but to acknowledge that Twain was not of that ilk. For me, giving a Twain award to a comedian is a bit like giving the Walter Payton Award to broadcaster. I guess the comparison ends at kickoff.

 
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