Ellen DeGeneres works clean, commandeers a genial talk show and can throw out a funny retort on command.
But does she belong in the same company as Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Neil Simon?
Not on your life.
Yet the folks behind The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor just named DeGeneres its latest award winner. The first few Twain Prizes went to the old guard (think Jonathan Winters and Carl Reiner). Now, the honor typically skews younger, with last year’s head-scratching choice of Tina Fey being a prime example.
The list of more deserving winners is embarrassingly long. Mel Brooks. Joan Rivers. Robin Williams. Jerry Seinfeld. Eddie Murphy. Woody Allen. Don Rickles. Jim Carrey. Ben Stiller. Billy Crystal. Dennis Miller.
Choosing DeGeneres smacks of gender politics. She’s an outspoken advocate on gay rights, and her coming out episode on her old “Ellen” series was a culturally defining moment. It just wasn’t necessarily funny.
In fact, does DeGeneres have a catch phrase to her name? A distinct character or sketch that is part of our pop culture? Her movie career consisted of “Mr. Wrong” and some cameo parts, and one wonderful vocal performance in “Finding Nemo.” Her “Ellen” series was never a fan or critical favorite.
She’s simply a sweet, engaging performer, and there’s not a thing wrong with it. Plus, she’s not a divisive entertainer like many of her peers. When she makes a statement, it’s typically rendered with kindness.
But she’s woefully under qualified to earn the Mark Twain Prize, and the honor is diminished by her selection.
Cappy McGarr, an executive producer of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor telecast told The Washington Post the honor wasn’t political.
“The Kennedy Center is apolitical. We have had so many people who have their own brand and type of humor. We don’t pick winners because of any advocacy they do. It is all about funny and a funny life,” McGarr said.
Now, just look at the aforementioned list and see if you buy that.