An investment banker and Democratic fundraiser, Cappy McGarr served twice on the Kennedy Center’s board and, in 1998, co-created its Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His new book, The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous, offers stories about his adventures.
As somebody who thinks a lot about humor, how’s it changed during Trump and Covid?
Because we live in such trying times, humor is more important than ever. We started the prize so we can stop once a year and honor those who have made us laugh and brought a smile or tear to our face.
The Twain Prize has been awarded to so many greats, including Richard Pryor, David Letterman, and, most recently, Dave Chappelle. Which event was your fave?
I don’t have a favorite—just moments embedded in my mind. We honored Whoopi Goldberg right after 9/11. She was hesitant to come perform. That day, Senator Tom Daschle had discovered anthrax in his office. It was a crazy time. But to Whoopi’s credit, she said we need to pick ourselves back up through this horrible tragedy and start making people laugh again. That was the right thing to do.
What will we see with future Mark Twain Prizes? Who do you still want to honor?
The one who said no, I think, three or four times has been Mel Brooks. He’s 95, so I don’t think we have the opportunity to honor him. But if he called, we would do a special ceremony for him. We have a long list of really funny people we have not honored, whether it be Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock.
You write that “Washington needs to laugh more.” How can we make that happen?
Your guess is as good as mine. The best speech a politician can give is when they start with self-effacing humor. Not everyone does it. For example, President Trump didn’t use any self-effacing humor at all. Maybe if he did, people would have thought, “Wow, that’s a funny guy.” You never know how humor is going to be taken. Some people take humor over the line.