Jay Leno, longtime host to NBC’s Tonight Show, will receive the top award for comics as the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. The award will be presented to Leno on Sunday, October 19th and will be aired in all PBS stations.
Leno hosted the iconic late night show for more than two decades and more than 35,000 episodes. He took the reins from longtime host, Johnny Carson, in 1992.
According to the Kennedy Center, Leno first appeared as a guest on the show in 1977, and made numerous appearances on the show leading up to taking the show over fulltime 15 years later. Leno will not receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain award, however, based on his large national television presence. In fact, the award will recognize Leno’s long history of off-camera performances in front of live audiences “I’ve always said that I’m a stand-up comedian who was lucky enough to get a TV show,” said Leno during a recent interview with NBC.
According to Leno, he has been doing comedy on the road since he was 19 years old. Now he averages more than 150 stand-up gigs a year, and can be found traveling across the country no less than three days a week.
The premise behind Leno’s prize is more connected to Leno’s traveling comedy show, directly paralleling the famous writer, Samuel Clemens, after which the Mark Twain award is named. In addition to writing, Clemens found significant fame in public speaking. In fact, according to PBS who produced The West, a historical documentary that traces well-known characters from the Wild West, Twain is best noted for his ability to connect with a live audience during public lectures. His words within such great works as Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made him a historically significant writer, but it was his pubic speaking that made Twain a contemporary personality and man of words during the 19th Century. “He polished his lucrative talent as an entertaining lecturer,” said PBS.
Twain’s public speaking career began in 1866, after visiting Hawaii. His letters and humorous stories that he regularly sent to a San Francisco newspaper had made him famous. He gave his first public lecture to a packed San Francisco theater in 1866. He continued his appearances, giving sixteen lectures in various locations throughout California and Nevada. “His crude delivery was infinitely preferable to a polished lecturer,” said a reporter with the San Francisco Bulletin in 1866 after seeing Twain’s lecture.
Twain’s love of the road was begun in earnest when he later launched an ambitious 42-venue tour which wove itself through Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. He went on the road again two months later, hitting Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Michigan, and Delaware.
Like Twain, Leno has made a name for himself as a traveling comedian, using the impromptu performances to polish and sharpen his delivery. When he receives the Mark Twain Prize, The Kennedy Center will recognize Leno as a man who made people laugh while impacting American society with the same level of enjoyment as the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist.
By Vincent Aviani