My wife chided me for not pronouncing her name correctly, “It’s
DeGeneres, not Dee-Jen-Heiress.” But I think I’ve got it right now,
and am in love with her humor.
For the first time in the 15 year history of the Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor I was able to watch the 90-minute event as it aired on
PBS. In thanking PBS Ellen teased, “I’m so glad to be a part of your
farewell season.” Even Oscar the Grouch had to guffaw.
Finally, this year for the first time, the Mark Twain Prize goes to a
humorist instead of a comedian. We've had hundreds of comedians in
this great land of ours but very few humorists, Ben Franklin, Twain
(portrayed today by Hal Holbrook), Will Rogers, Garrison Keillor...and
the difference between a comedian and a humorist is ever so vast.
The comedian's job is to make us laugh, and laughter is good for us,
it’s like massage on the inside, cuts down on the doctor bills, keeps
us from souring. But the comedian oftentimes bestows this favor upon
us at the expense of somebody else, or at the expense of decency, and
leaves feeling guilty for laughing at pejorative humor.
President Taft once said, "Mark Twain never wrote a line that a father
could not read to his daughter." Yet George Carlin, a previous winner
of the Twain Prize, was famous for his "Seven Dirty Words You Can
Never Say on Television."
The humorist's job is merely to show us the good natured side of the
truth. The humorist is not looking for a laugh, the humorist is
looking for a nod of acknowledgement or perhaps the hint of a smile.
Twain reminds us that “Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a
sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom. Humor must
not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must
do both if it would live forever –which is thirty years.”
As she took the stage to accept the prize, Ellen lamented the fact
that she had to follow so many funny people, and how she had hoped to
follow Ken Burns, thus making light of a truism that Sam illuminated
so long ago. “Set a diamond upon a pall of black if you'd have it
She went on to say, “I have not read Twain, but then he has not seen
my HBO special.” To wit an admirer of both responded, “It would be
impossible to give the faintest idea of her talk on paper. Written or
spoken by another it would lose half its points of value. We can only
congratulate those who heard her and pity those who did not.”
Lilly Tomlin stole my heart when she called Ellen, “Our Huckleberry
Friend.” Ellen, like Huck, stuck by her friend to confront society
and challenge conventional thinking, conventional notions.
Twain railed against human foibles and humbuggery, yes, but he did it
with a scalpel, not a switch-blade. Twain's discriminating
irreverence was drawn not from the warrior's quiver, but from the
artist's pallet. He would not kick a humbug in the shin, but would
place a bench strategically in his path so that he might bark his own
It’s one thing to have a sense of humor, it is something more to have
a humorous outlook on life. Ellen DeGeneres has a health-giving
outlook on life, and is a humorist of the blood royal. To my mind she
is the very first to truly deserve the Mark Twain Prize for American
Humor. We might go another generation to find another of her rank, or
perhaps another generation for her to find us...
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PO Box 4522
Incline Village, NV 89450
Diligently train your ideals upward toward a summit where you will find your
chiefest pleasure in conduct, which while contenting you, will be sure to
confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community. -Mark Twain