Anyone expecting a reprisal of the drama from 2010’s so-called “late-night wars” at Sunday’s presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor would be quickly disappointed. After Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein introduced the sold-out event, which raised $2 million for the performing arts center, he ceded the stage to Jimmy Fallon, Leno’s Tonight show successor, whose heartfelt, snark-free tribute made it clear he considers their relationship more mentor-mentee than competitors. As if to make doubly sure the audience understood the point, later in the evening came a video bit featuring Fallon and Leno singing a duet about the situation to the tune of West Side Story’s “Tonight, Tonight.”
That sense of support rather than competitiveness would prove to be a theme of the evening, which featured remarks from many comedians who expressed a debt of gratitude to the longtime Tonight show host, 64. Chelsea Handler, tempering her typical biting sarcasm with genuine affection, explained how Leno helped her launch her standup career on the Tonight show, and made her feel like “one of the guys” despite being one of the only women in late-night. Wanda Sykes also credited Leno for being the first to have her on his show as the featured comedian (“though a white guy did cancel right before”), and brought the house down with the first—and funniest—Ebola joke of the night. (“This stuff is so scary, I’m just going to go back to ‘black’—I’m not ‘African’ anything.”) The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal thanked Leno for continuing to make standup a priority despite his television success, and Late Night host Seth Meyers catered to the Washington crowd by highlighting Leno’s long tradition of political humor.
The portrait that emerged was one of a humble and hard-working man who loves the power of a good joke and cares deeply about supporting other comedians—and about building up his car collection, a well-known penchant that received more jabs throughout the evening than Leno’s famous jawline. Robert Klein, JB Smoove (with the only other Ebola joke of the evening), and Jamie Foxx and Betty White (via video) also feted Leno; in between, clips were shown to illustrate highlights of his long career—his inaugural Tonight show appearance in 1976, sporting an impressively thick, black mop of hair; his 1986 Saturday Night Live opening monologue; the bits that became his hallmarks as a Tonight show host, such as Jaywalking and Headlines. Longtime friend Jerry Seinfeld described meeting Leno in 1978 as a 23-year-old and showed a poignant clip of a Tonight show appearance by Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, the latter’s irrepressible zany energy streaming from the screen.
Leno, seated in a balcony next to his wife of 34 years, Mavis, and surrounded by his longtime collaborators, received several standing ovations throughout the evening, beginning with his entrance as he flashed Richard Nixon double Vs. Throughout the performances he clapped and nodded, even offering an occasional good-natured heckle of his own. (When Garth Brooks, who came out to deliver a monologue in Leno style, gloated that humor wasn’t so hard and then stumbled on a line, Leno shouted, “Not so easy, is it?”)
After Kristin Chenoweth performed a musical number accompanied by former Tonight show musical director Kevin Eubanks, Leno himself took the stage to accept the award. After poking fun at Rubenstein’s public-speaking skills, he joked that he had always found Twain dashing thanks to his full head of white hair but pointed out had he been alive today he probably would have been upstaged by “a younger, more talented Jimmy Twain.” He talked about his early influences, including Richard Pryor; the experience of “getting older in a young business”; and his love of playing pranks on his father; then expressed his gratitude to his wife, recommending that everyone “marry their conscience.” As the performers filed out onstage once again to end the evening with yet another standing ovation, they served as a visual reminder of Leno’s continuing influence on the comedy landscape, both in shaping its past and in paving the way for the new generation.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be broadcast on PBS November 23. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.