On Sunday night Dave Chappelle experienced the most epic of homecomings as the DC native received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The country’s highest honor in the art form, only 22 comedic legends have won the award over the years.
It was a full-circle moment for Chappelle who started doing stand up while still in high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC. Because of Chappelle’s hometown roots, tickets to attend the event were all but impossible to come by. “I had to put this ticket on layaway” joked one patron. David Rubenstein, Chairman of the Kennedy Center remarked that demand for tickets to the event was greater than anything the Kennedy Center has seen in twenty years.
People from different periods of Chappelle’s life came to celebrate the comedian: from his high school marching band to Neal Brennan who co-created, directed, and co-wrote the Chappelle show, to contemporaries that he works with today like his current touring partner Jon Stewart.
The less buttoned-up of the two big annual televised celebrations at the Kennedy Center, the Mark Twain Prize recognizes “individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist, and creator of characters, Clemens was a fearless observer of society, startling many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective on social injustice and personal folly.”
Sarah Silverman was the first to grab the low-hanging fruit that was Chappelle winning a prize named for Mark Twain. “It’s perfect that you are getting the Mark Twain Prize because you both use the N-word in your masterpieces.”
Throughout the evening, Chappelle’s colleagues, collaborators, and friends praised the fearless comedian. It was clear that while they may not always agree with Chappelle, they always respect him. His work ethic, wit, philosophic nature, charisma on screen, endurance, spontaneity, and his unique ability to keep his personal compass pointing north were all noted.
Morgan Freeman, Tiffany Haddish, Aziz Ansari, Mos Def, Lorne Michaels, Michael Che, Colin Jost, Kenan Thompson, yasiin bey, and Bradley Cooper all took the stage to congratulate and celebrate the comedian.
Chappelle’s musician friends also came out to celebrate. Performances by Common, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Frédéric Yonnet, and John Legend were all highlights of the event. The collection of talent that graced the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was an embarrassment of riches. Dave Chappelle keeps talented and hilarious company.
Woven between songs and speeches were clips from Chappelle’s storied career. There were clips of him performing on Star Search in 1989, his 5 Netflix specials, and of course the Chappelle Show.
Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter reflected, “Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘against the assault of humor, nothing can stand.’ For three decades, Dave has challenged us to see hot-button issues from his entirely original perspective. Dave is a hometown hero here in Washington, DC, where he grew up. We’re so looking forward to welcoming him back home.”
On the red carpet, Chappelle remarked on the celebration of his career and the importance of the arts: “There’s something divine about artistry. It’s the God-like part of a person, writing a song, tell a good joke, all these things, it’s…the best part of our nature. That’s why even if you’re not a professional practitioner of art, life without art would be miserable.”
Chappelle continued, “If I could never laugh at a great joke I would die. If there was no beautiful music or paintings, what kind of life would that be? You touch a higher part of yourself, connect with people. Society is better with good art so art should be protected and it should be cultivated.”
Previous recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize are Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009; rescinded in 2018), Tina Fey (2010), Will Ferrell (2011), Ellen DeGeneres (2012), Carol Burnett (2013), Jay Leno (2014), Eddie Murphy (2015), Bill Murray (2016), David Letterman (2017), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (2018).
This year’s ceremony marks the 22nd consecutive year that the Kennedy Center’s marquee comedy award ceremony will be broadcast nationally on PBS. It’s scheduled to air on January 7, 2020, at 9 pm.