INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - My wife chided me for not pronouncing her name correctly, "It's DeGeneres, not Dee-Jen-Heiress." But I think I've got it right now, and am in love with her humor.
For the first time in the 15 year history of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor I was able to watch the 90-minute event as it aired on PBS. In thanking PBS, Ellen teased, "I'm so glad to be a part of your farewell season." Even Oscar the Grouch had to guffaw.
Finally, this year for the first time, the Mark Twain Prize goes to a humorist instead of a comedian. We've had hundreds of comedians in this great land of ours but very few humorists, Ben Franklin, Twain (portrayed today by Hal Holbrook), Will Rogers, Garrison Keillor ... and the difference between a comedian and a humorist is ever so vast.
The comedian's job is to make us laugh, and laughter is good for us, it's like massage on the inside, cuts down on the doctor bills, keeps us from souring. But the comedian oftentimes bestows this favor upon us at the expense of somebody else, or at the expense of decency, and leaves feeling guilty for laughing at pejorative humor.
President Taft once said, "Mark Twain never wrote a line that a father could not read to his daughter." Yet George Carlin, a previous winner of the Twain Prize, was famous for his "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television."
The humorist's job is merely to show us the good natured side of the truth. The humorist is not looking for a laugh, the humorist is looking for a nod of acknowledgment or perhaps the hint of a smile.
Twain reminds us that "Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom. Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever - which is thirty years."
As she took the stage to accept the prize, Ellen lamented the fact that she had to follow so many funny people, and how she had hoped to follow Ken Burns, thus making light of a truism that Sam illuminated so long ago. "Set a diamond upon a pall of black if you'd have it glisten."
She went on to say, "I have not read Twain, but then he has not seen my HBO special." To wit an admirer of both responded, "It would be impossible to give the faintest idea of her talk on paper. Written or spoken by another it would lose half its points of value. We can only congratulate those who heard her and pity those who did not."
Lilly Tomlin stole my heart when she called Ellen, "Our Huckleberry Friend." Ellen, like Huck, stuck by her friend to confront society and challenge conventional thinking, conventional notions.
Twain railed against human foibles and humbuggery, yes, but he did it with a scalpel, not a switch-blade. Twain's discriminating irreverence was drawn not from the warrior's quiver, but from the artist's pallet. He would not kick a humbug in the shin, but would place a bench strategically in his path so that he might bark his own shin.
It's one thing to have a sense of humor, it is something more to have a humorous outlook on life. Ellen DeGeneres has a health-giving outlook on life, and is a humorist of the blood royal. To my mind she is the very first to truly deserve the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. We might go another generation to find another of her rank, or perhaps go another generation for her to find us...
- Learn more about McAvoy Layne at www.ghostoftwain.org.