I love Tina Fey, but there was something a bit Obama-getting-the-Nobel-Priz-ish about the news that she'll receive the 2010 Mark Twain Prize for Humor this November at The Kennedy Center, marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the man the New York Times eulogized as "the greatest American humorist of his age."
Fey, 40, is hilarious and irreverent. Her work on SNL was terrific -- her dead-on Sarah Palin impression in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign alone puts her ahead of such safe past recipients as Billy Crystal and Bob Newhart. And even if her movie roles have been less than uproarious, her NBC-TV series 30 Rock is one of the best sitcoms in years.
But Twain's humor went so much deeper in its critique of Americans' foibles and hypocrisies. At a time when the need for unsparing political satire has never been greater, a more interesting choice might have been someone in the tradition of prior Prize-winners George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
One of these five, for instance:
1. The deliciously subversive and multi-talented Harry Shearer, whose syndicated radio program Le Show is as droll, biting, and funny as ever after 21 years.
2. Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show defies gravity as his performance -- e.g. his recent tour de force send-up of Glenn Beck -- somehow gets even better.
3. Matt Groening. Life in Hell. The Simpsons.
4. Steven Colbert, whose 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner performance added truth-to-power luster to the side-splitting satire of The Colbert Report.
5. Chris Rock, who's been successful and hysterical in just about every area of show business -- stand-up, TV and movie writing, acting and directing, documentary -- and remains unafraid to bite the hand that feeds him.
Bonus pick: Mort Sahl. A legend in political satire for over fifty years, Sahl influenced many who came after him, including Woody Allen ,who said he'd never have become a comic if not for Sahl. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Sahl would have made Twain proud with this: "There were four million people in the American Colonies and we had Jefferson and Franklin. Now we have over 200 million and the two top guys are Clinton and Dole. What can you draw from this? Darwin was wrong."
It's unfortunate these are all men, as are other worthies like the South Park guys and the Family Guy guy. But Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg have already won: if only Lucy were still around. And who knows what Gilda would have done if she'd lived all these years...
Twain's singular genius was accompanied by his fearlessness in expressing that genius. But even Twain held his tongue while he was alive, insisting that his unexpurgated autobiography -- a massive document of some half-million words, the majority of which have never before seen the light of day --- remain unpublished until this centennial year. University of Berkeley Press will roll it out as a trilogy, beginning in November, so while Tina is accepting her award, we can find what Twain really thought.
Twain, who died with a copy of Carlyle's French Revolution on his night table, wouldn't have been surprised by today's political and financial shenanigans. More than a century ago, he said "A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain." Of course, his quintessential Americanism would be anathema to today's "take back America" crowd, who probably think Huckleberry Finn was a character out of Moon River.
And what would Twain -- who said "If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed" -- make of contemporary media culture? No doubt Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting and sexting would never be the same after a couple of Twainian bon mots.
But Twain was fascinated by technology and would have gotten a kick out of the fact that the Internet is now a boon for Twain-aholics. Among many resources, the Mark Twain Project Online stands out, providing access to a galaxy of "reliable texts, exhaustive notes, and the most recently discovered letters and documents."
If your exposure to Twain began and ended with Tom Sawyer in junior high, you're in for a treat. You can start with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, about which Hemingway said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." (And we might as well clear this up: "my Huckleberry friend" in Moon River references a fruit-picking childhood friend of lyricist Johnny Mercer.)
On nearly every page, you get gems like hits: The slave Jim escapes from his owner when he learns he's about to be sold for $800 and shipped to New Orleans. Like Huck, Jim must survive with no money, no possessions and no prospects. But that's okay, he tells Huck, because "I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, en I's wuth eight hundred dollars."
Given the commodification of dissent in corporate America, it's doubtful Fey or anyone else will achieve Twain's trifecta of talent, courage and mass popularity. But worrying about what we can't control will only invite the kind of unhappiness that caused the great man himself to reflect that, "My life has been a series of disasters, most of which never happened."
Follow Michael Sigman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/majorsongs