In 2010 I came up with a list of folks who should get the Mark Twain Prize. In 2011 I argued certain comedians should have gotten the award before Will Ferrell. As a lifetime achievement award, it cannot be posthumously given, and some of these folks are old, and Ferrell (if he deserves it) was only 44 when he got it.
Since then, silence. So, in brief: I was glad to see Bill Murray get it this past year for 2016. Indifferent to Eddie Murphy’s 2015 win. Not so glad to see Jay Leno receive it in 2014. Very happy to see Carol Burnett (who had been on my list in 2010) get the award in 2013. Indifferent to Ellen DeGeneres’ 2012 win.
Mary Tyler Moore had been on my original lists, and I find it somewhat tragic she did not get the award (especially before Jay Leno or, again, Will Ferrell).
Others from my list have been lost along the way as well, such as Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar, and Robin Williams. So I decided to update and expand the list to 15:
1. Betty White, 95. I mean, come on. She’s been around longer than anyone has iconic status for good reason.
2. Dick Van Dyke, 91. He is so talented – one of the great physical comedians. The plots of The Dick Van Dyke Show were clever, and he was always so sincere. And Mary Poppins!
3. Mel Brooks, 90. Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers. The man worked with Sid Caesar and won an EGOT.
4. Mort Sahl, 89. He wrote jokes for Kennedy. I know his work afterwards (he has doubts about the assassination) is problematic – but this award would be a great way to bury the hatchet. The guy practically invented modern stand-up comedy.
5. Tom Lehrer, 88. He wants to be remembered for mathematics, and that’s nice and all, but his comedy recordings are part of the National Recording Registry, and his math isn’t.
6. Dick Gregory, 84. Admittedly, I suppose most people haven’t thought much about Gregory since the 60s, when he was on fire as a great envelope-pushing comedian. Really, he’s the only one who used it as a form of activism in the Civil Rights era, which is pretty remarkable.
7. The Smothers Brothers, 79+77. After a string of noteworthy comedy albums they got their own show, The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, which helped change the comedic landscape of television.
8. Garrison Keillor, 74. Honestly? Not a huge fan. But I would respect his induction as a uniquely American comedic voice for the residents of Lake Woebegone.
9. Matt Groening, 62. The Simpsons, alone. But let’s not forget the off-beat Life in Hell or Futurama. And he got Conan O’Brien started.
10. Harvey Fierstein, 62. A pretty big force in Broadway’s comedy world. His play La Cage Aux Folles successfully crossed into film and Kinky Boots won Best Musical. And Hairspray proved his acting chops.
11. Julia-Louis Dreyfus, 56. She started out on SNL, then Seinfeld (which I don’t like, but whatever), and kept her career going with Veep. All earning a record *twenty-two* Emmy nominations.
12. Jon Stewart, 54. Basically changed how media, news, and television works. Fought an eight year crusade against George W. Bush and spawned Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert.
13. Janeane Garofolo, 52. Remember the 90s? Remember when Garofolo was the coolest new comedian on the block?
14. Chris Rock, 51. He’s had a great standup career. His television and movie work is mixed, but usually he’s one of the highlights of whatever he’s in.
15. Louis C.K, 49. Admittedly, C.K. is my only under-50 comedian, just because he has been so very influential in such a short period of time. There’s a reason he consistently ranks as one of the best standup comedians out there, and his show Louie was sufficiently incredible to win a Peabody.
Of special note – there are a bunch of great female comedians out there today, and, if we’re going to break the rules, you could easily swap my 15th, Louis C.K., for Amy Poehler, Sara Silverman, Margaret Cho, Tig Notaro, or many others. It’s sad that Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and especially Mary Tyler Moore (and many others) didn’t get the award while they were alive – the trailblazing comedians who made it possible for the rising generation of women in comedy. (Luckily a few have, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin. But there’s a big age gap between them and the new guard.)