Twain Humor Award Too Soon For Tina?

The Mark Twain humor award is a great honor for the “30 Rock” star. But Fey is far from done

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, May 27, 2010  |  Updated 5:06 AM EDT
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Tina Fey has been tapped for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

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Let's get something straight from the outset: Tina Fey is one of the top comic talents of our time.

As a writer and performer, she drove "Saturday Night Live" for nearly a decade, and her 2008 return for cameos as Sarah Palin led a standout season. Thanks largely to her contributions, "30 Rock" is perhaps the most consistently funny of current long-running sitcoms.

But news that she's been tapped as the next recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor feels, like the "greatly exaggerated" reports of the great writer's death all those years ago, somewhat premature.

Fey, who turned 40 last week, is the youngest entertainer ever selected for the nation’s top humor award. She probably hasn't even peaked as a comic force.

The honor seems akin to electing Albert Pujols to the Hall of Fame today when he's still only halfway to carving out a career as one of baseball’s greatest players.

We'll concede the sports analogy isn't perfect. Athletes generally have a relatively short career span while comedians, as George Burns, Bob Hope and others have proven, can spend long lifetimes in entertainment.

Past Twain Prize recipients, among them greats like Carl Reiner, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Richard Pryor have stood the test of time in their lifetimes, and sadly, in the latter two cases, beyond.

Carlin died in 2008 at age 71, shortly after learning he’d been picked for the Twain Prize.

We're not saying the award should be reserved for folks getting ready to play the great nightclub in the sky. Many of the living 10 honorees, among them Steve Martin and Lilly Tomlin, are still active, relevant performers.

But we'll humbly posit that there are others who should be in line before Fey, including Mel Brooks, who achieved one of his greatest triumphs – the musical version of "The Producers" – as he approached 75. (Yes, we know he won Kennedy Center Honors last year, but he’s also deserving of the humor prize).

Let's throw some other names into the mix to stir up debate: Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, David Letterman and Carol Burnett, who is in the midst of a popularity revival, riding on the petticoat-tails of Betty White-mania.

"I assume Betty White was disqualified for steroid use,” Fey quipped about getting the Twain nod.

It's a funny line – and a smart one, addressing the age issue. That's the kind of wit that puts Fey among a great generation of comics who have transcended joke-telling to earn the title of humorist: Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher.

They all, hopefully, will get a turn on the Kennedy Center stage in the years to come.

The Twain show, which will be taped Nov. 9, no doubt will be well worth watching and serve as further proof that Fey is only just getting started.

But we’ll give the final word to Twain, who once said, “Genius has no youth, but starts with the ripeness of age and old experience.”

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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