Wall Street Journal March 22, 2024

Laughter Is the Best Medicine for Prejudice

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor reminds us that the comic career is surprisingly diverse.

By CappyMcGarr

This year marks the 25th edition of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which will be presented Sunday to Kevin Hart. The award has been given annually since 1998—except in 2020 and 2021, when no one wanted to be in a crowded theater—to comedians who evoke the legacy of Samuel Clemens.

Comedy is a universal language that brings people together. Twain recipients—they include Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Carol Burnett and Eddie Murphy—hail from a host of underrepresented backgrounds.

Since its earliest days, comedy has helped members of the working class and racial and ethnic minorities gain a foothold in society. Stand-up, sketch and improv can be traced back to American vaudeville in the early 20th century. Aspiring stars performed in small-time venues catering to working-class immigrant patrons, who paid no more than a dime or two.

As stand-up comedy emerged as a genre—the Marx Brothers, Frank Fay and others stumbled on it by riffing between acts—it retained the scrappy, underground status associated with vaudeville. But a lack of mainstream recognition proved a boon for experimentation—and for performers who might have otherwise been excluded, particularly blacks and Jews.

Jewish comics thrived in the Borscht Belt, a constellation of summer resorts in the Catskills. Black artists toured the Chitlin’ Circuit—venues where they could safely perform during the height of Jim Crow. In both cases, underrepresented performers honed their craft before sympathetic audiences. Eventually, many broke out—including Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory. Laughter became a path to acceptance as audiences went from laughing at people they didn’t understand to laughing with people they were beginning to understand.

No wonder a majority of Mark Twain Prize recipients have been black or Jewish. (And ever the overachiever, Whoopi Goldberg is both.) Both communities have used humor to cope in the face of subjugation.

The documentary “The Last Laugh” spotlights Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, who kept a sense of humor during her time at Auschwitz. “Our treatment was so ridiculous that you either had to cry or laugh about it,” she said. “Wherever there are survivors, any kind of survivor, they must have some humor.” Corliss Outley, a professor at Clemson University writes that black Americans used comedy as resistance from the very beginning: “As enslaved individuals, humor has been a way to not only connect us. It was a way of hiding things from the master. All in plain sight.”

The Mark Twain Prize commemorates this history. By invoking Twain’s name, it acknowledges the deep American roots of the art. For all the jokes about racism in his works (which are very funny), Twain was one of the earliest satirists of bigotry in this country. It’s fitting that a bust in his image is presented to those thumbing their nose at authority figures who seek to divide.

Twain once wrote, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” Sure enough, Twain Prize winners have wielded wit and one-liners to stand against antisemitism, racism, misogyny and other pudd’nheaded ideas of the past. As the current president might say: Not a joke.

Mr. McGarr is a co-creator of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a special adviser to the chairman of the Kennedy Center.