Jon Stewart on Comedy: Call Your Senators!

The comedian accepted the Mark Twain Award with a lecture about authoritarianism

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Jon Stewart was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday night, and all the stars were out to join him. In attendance at the Kennedy Center in D.C. were notable clown elders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and newcomers to the comedy scene like Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Pete Davidson was also there with national headliner Kim Kardashian.

Based on reporting from the Hollywood Reporter, it seems that Davidson had the best joke of the night. “Jon is loyal at friendship, it isn’t something he half-asses, like acting, or gives up quickly, like directing,” the SNL star quipped. That’s a good, solid joke. Pete attempts about one of those a year, so our condolences to Lorne that this is where he decided to use it.

Former Daily Show correspondent and new mama Olivia Munn also tried her best. “Jon made it cool to have an opinion on the news — and that’s why every goddamn asshole now has an opinion on everything,” she said. We’ll let her have this one — she’s been through a lot.

But what did the esteemed recipient of the award have to say? Well, Stewart made a killer joke about the fact that Bill Cosby’s award has been revoked. “I am the 23rd recipient of this very prestigious award, and you know it’s prestigious because almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists,” he said. Hell yeah, brother. Damningly, the list of other recipients does include some notable sexual harrassers, someone who has repeatedly done blackface, a prominent transphobe, and Jay Leno.

Stewart then did what we have all been waiting for him to do: he made a joke about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. Yes! “There’s a lot of talk right now about what’s going to happen in comedy. You know, there was the slap…. But it’s not the fragility of audiences,” he said, in a nod to the perceived menace of cancel culture. “It’s the leaders. It’s not the Fresh Prince, it’s the crown prince.” Damn, that is good.

The Problem with Jon Stewart host went on to say that comedians are “the banana peel in the coal mine” and that “authoritarianism is the threat to art, theater, poetry.” I imagine Speaker Pelosi was nodding along like someone particularly moved during a sermon, and perhaps even got down on one knee, momentarily confused about which issue she was supporting.

“What we have is fragile and precious, and the way to guard against it isn’t to change how audiences think, but to change how leaders lead,” Stewart said. I’m going to be honest here, I don’t really know what this means. If Joe Biden becomes a better president will people at open mics get funnier? Or is it like… a free speech thing? I just don’t know, and I refuse to tune into Apple TV+ to find out.

What I do know is that fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen ended the night with a “slow-jams-style” version of “Born to Run.” That was probably sick.