Jon Stewart, accepting the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, warned Sunday night that speculation about the future of comedy amid increased audience cultural sensitivity was ignoring a true and enduring threat: authoritarian governments around the world.
“Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether,” Stewart said. “When a society feels under threat, comedians are who gets sent away first.”
Stewart pointed to Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, whose Stewart-inspired political comedy show earned him both fame and self-imposed exile. Youssef’s story is “an example of the true threat to comedy,” Stewart said.
The intersection of comedy and politics was the main theme as celebrities and comedy royalty gathered to honor Stewart, who set the modern template for mixing the topics during his 16-year run hosting TV's “The Daily Show.”
Stewart, the 23rd recipient of the prize, was honored in testimonials from fellow comedians and previous Mark Twain Prize recipients. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chappelle’s Mark Twain ceremony in 2019, and Chappelle returned the favor.
“It is a miracle to watch you work. You are a cure for what ails this country,” said Chappelle.
The 59-year-old Stewart rose to prominence as a stand-up comic and host of multiple failed talk shows before taking over Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 1999. He became a cultural and political force as he trained his satirical eye on politics and an increasingly polarized national media.
Several of Sunday’s speakers were former “Daily Show” correspondents, including Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. Colbert appeared remotely during the ceremony after having tested positive for COVID-19 last week.