(UPDATED, VIDEO) Tina Fey Becomes Youngest Winner of Mark Twain Prize for Humor

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Earlier this week, Tina Fey was honored at the Kennedy Center as the thirteenth recipient -- and at 40, the youngest -- of the esteemed Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It's yet another accolade in an ever-growing list for the plucky actress/writer/producer and comedienne. Not bad for a self-described "super-nerd."

Tina Fey, the recipient of the 2010 Mark Twain Prize, arrives for the 12th Annual Mark Train Prize at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington on November 9, 2010.  UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

"Humor must not professionally teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever."
--Mark Twain

Luckily, the rest of us get to attend without having to wear make-up or find parking, via PBS broadcast tonight (9 p.m. ET -- check local listings). In accepting the award (a bust of Twain), Fey was honored by a clown bus of gifted comedians, including Steve Martin, Fred Armisen, Steve Carell, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Hudson, Jane Krakowski, Seth Meyers, Lorne Michaels, Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler and Betty White. I understand that Alec Baldwin also makes an appearance as Mark Twain himself, which makes me laugh just thinking about it.

Founded in 1998, the Mark Twain Prize has been awarded to 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) and Bill Cosby (2009).

"I guess the only reason they didn't give this award to Betty White is because she didn't pass the steroids test,"
--Tina Fey

With her work as a writer (SNL, Mean Girls, 30 Rock), actress (SNL, Baby Mama, Date Night, Megamind) and producer (30 Rock), Fey is widely celebrated among her comedy brethren for her relentless work ethic and down-to-the-bone-marrow sense of comedy. She became a true student of the craft ever since she discovered, as so many of us have, that being funny can make people like you, whether they are prepared to or not. Plus, it's a gas. There is no more powerful feeling in the world than making people have an involuntary physical response -- laughter.

And let's face it, Tina Fey is the the ice cream of celebrities. No matter who you are, how you vote or what your tastes may be, she's awfully hard not to love. In fact, I'd like a big bowl of Tina right now, maybe with some Amy Poehler syrup.

"You know, the one who made television funny again, the one with the stiletto words."
--Esquire, "The Real Tina Fey"

Back when I was occasionally writing for the bad ass magazine BUST, Tina was featured on the Spring 2004 cover, in black fishnet stockings and a red toy typewriter. I was so proud. As far as I can tell, it was her first magazine cover -- but my god, it certainly wasn't her last.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."
--Mark Twain

For so many geeky, brainy girls, Fey's unequivocal success has represented a victory for all of us. She not only broke through that famous fraternity, Saturday Night Live (1997-2006), but ultimately thrived there. After becoming the show's first female head writer in 1999, she assumed "Weekend Update" co-anchoring duties with Seth Myers, and later, with Amy Poehler (the first time two woman had "manned" the desk together) From there, it was a straight trajectory to the launch of her creative baby, 30 Rock, and, of course, her real baby, Alice, with husband Jeff Richmond. (He's also the composer for the show.)

"I like to crack the jokes now and again, but it's only because I struggle with math.”
--Tina Fey

And then there was that unplanned pot o'comedy gold delivered to Fey (and SNL) when Sarah Palin burst onto the scene in the 2008 election; the resemblance to Fey was striking. Fey herself did not see it until her daughter caught Palin on TV and exclaimed: "Mommy!" The now-famous skit with Fey as Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton has become the most downloaded SNL video of all time.

And although I get the sense that Fey doesn't particularly care for Palin as a pundit, she is wise enough to acknowledge how much the controversial Mama Grizzly has done for her career, even thanking Palin directly in her Kennedy Center acceptance speech: "I would be a liar and an idiot if I didn't thank Sarah Palin for helping get me here tonight. My partial resemblance and her crazy voice are the two luckiest things that have ever happened to me."

Fair enough. But it was her reprise of the impression on David Letterman the other night that had me rolling. Not to mention her observation of Fox News' fawning: "They address her as Gov. Palin, which is like calling me ‘Dairy Queen employee.’ I was once, but I quit.”

For me, Tina has been something of a soul sister. Overlooking her persistent likability, blazing talent and raging success, we are practically twins:

  • We have both marinated in the world of improv. (It's like flying. Totally addicting. I've tried to stop. Can't.)
  • We both wear glasses. (Just in case our brilliance is not evident.)
  • We both have facial scars. (Hers is on the left, mine is on the right.)
  • I attended Mark Twain Elementary, which is really quite similar to securing the nation's top humor prize and being honored at the Kennedy Center packed full of celebrities.

So you see, the similarities are uncanny.

"Twitter seems like a busman's holiday: just more writing. I have no plans to do it. I'll just stick with my 24/7 webcam. I'm old-fashioned that way."
--Tina Fey

But honestly, Fey is the type of woman I have always admired, the kind who gets things amazing things done by sheer talent and polite tenacity. For the love of God, she married the guy she lost her virginity to, has a witty comeback for everything, can totally rock a little black dress and is nice to absolutely everyone with the perfect exception of Paris Hilton, whom she loathes. She's the woman I'd like to think I could be, if I could just get up earlier.

Congratulations, Tina. I look forward to you becoming my generation's Betty White.


Update: Media reports have cried "foul" over the editing of Tina Fey's acceptance speech, citing the exclusion of her thorny Sarah Palin jokes. Folks are up in arms, citing political censorship. Having viewed the edited speech on PBS Sunday night and the full 13:41-minute speech posted on the PBS site, I find these concerns overblown. Here's the full speech:


Watch the full episode. See more Mark Twain Prize.


For one thing, plenty was edited out for the broadcast as it ran 19-minutes over, a fact that Fey jokes about during the full speech when she is thanking her fellow "30 Rock" producer, Robert Carlock. Another factor that may have played a role? They weren't funny. Compared to the rest of her excellent speech, Fey's timing was off and the jokes fell flat -- not good for broadcast.

Finally, if PBS truly wanted to keep Fey's political opinions from her adoring public, then why is the full speech so easily available on its website?


~ClizBiz

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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