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Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize: Conservative humorists need not apply

- - Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize, the nation's highest honor for humorists, is ostensibly awarded to artists who have impacted American life by using humor as Twain did, to skewer hypocrisy and injustice.

Apparently, though, only liberals are qualified to win.

Monday at 9 p.m. (check local listings), PBS will air the "Fourteenth Annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize" ceremony. Spoiler alert: Will Ferrell won.

Of the 14 Twain prize honorees, Bill Cosby is the only one who has publicly expressed anything approaching a conservative view. In fact, before relenting in 2009, Mr. Cosby twice refused to accept the award as a means of protesting the streams of profanity that presenters used at the first Twain ceremony, held in honor of Richard Pryor.

Practically every other recipient of the Twain Prize - a list including Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Tina Fey, and Lilly Tomlin - has been an outspoken lefty of one stripe or another. In 2004, Lorne Michaels even won the thing, for goodness sake, meaning it's easier for a Canadian to be named America's top humorist than it is for a conservative born in the U.S.A.

In fact, a little Republican-bashing seems to be a shortcut to the Twain prize.

Will Ferrell is hysterical, no doubt. Films like "Old School" and "Anchorman" are comedy classics. But they aren't exactly politically-charged satire. How does a guy whose signature gag is stripping to his underwear and running get himself regarded - pardon the oxymoron - as a serious humorist? Easy. In 2009, Mr. Ferrell debuted a one-man Broadway show, "You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush." Ta-dah! Instant political gravitas. True, spoofing a president who was already out of office wasn't particularly brave. Or topical. Nevertheless, the show was a huge hit, nominated for a Tony, and made into an HBO special.

Last year's Twain honoree, Tina Fey, took the same route to the Kennedy Center stage. Miss Fey wrote and performed brilliantly for years on "Saturday Night Live," then she built a truly innovative sitcom in "30 Rock." She only got the Twain prize, though, after her superb - and vicious - impression of Sarah Palin rocked the 2008 presidential election.

Defenders of the Kennedy Center will claim the pickings are slim on the other side of the ideological divide. All the funny people are liberal because, at least one argument goes, humor is an inherently subversive medium. Progressives therefore thrive in comedy, while conservatives - defenders of the status quo - are stodgy and dull by nature. As evidence, they will point out that very funny liberals like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seem to have no counterparts on the right. That's nonsense, of course.

Humor is far too primal and universal to be monopolized by holders of any given political view. For every Mark Twain, after all, there's an H.L. Mencken. And the notion that an entertainer spoofing a Republican president is somehow a subversive act is totally absurd. Show business is overwhelmingly run by liberals. Bush-bashing or espousing other lefty views is about as radical as being a Muslim in Mecca.

Greg Gutfeld, host of the late-night talk show "Red Eye" on Fox News, is as funny as anyone they've got on Comedy Central. Dennis Miller can still muster up hilarious once in a while. What of the great P.J. O'Rourke, author of 16 books and masterful debunker of well-meaning utopians?

The creators of "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are equal opportunity offenders. Much of their consummate lampoonery, though, has been aimed at liberal scared cows, like Michael Moore and Rob Reiner, government-mandated diversity, and the often appalling smugness of environmentalists. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone's 2004 film "Team America: World Police" sent up America's interventionist foreign policy with a gusto that would have gladdened the anti-imperialist heart of Samuel Clemens, yet the film is also a devastating critique of the feel-good, Blame America First useful idiocy spewed by Hollywood's celebrity liberals.

Or why not Mike Judge and Greg Daniel? Mr. Judge is now working on the resurrected "Beavis and Butthead." Mr. Daniels, as the showrunner for NBC's "Parks & Recreation," is the wit behind that Big Government-hating government official and consummate man's man, Ron Swanson.

Together the pair spent ten years making Fox's "King of the Hill," an incredibly effective communicator of common sense conservative values.

Along with his boy Bobby, Hank Hill of Arlen, Texas, battled bureaucratic nightmares, political correctness run amok and New Age silliness run amoker. In the classic episode "Phish and Wildlife" Hank even teaches a bunch of hypocritical hippies occupying a park about the joys of self-reliance.

Maybe next year, just for diversity's sake, the Kennedy Center will honor Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. Or maybe we'll get to see Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone accepting a very well-deserved Twain prize. Anything is possible in America, but that seems about as likely as Will Ferrell staging a one-man show that spoofs President Obama.