Back to IndieWire

Jay Leno Shouldn’t Get the Mark Twain Award For Humor (But Not Because He’s Not Funny)

Jay Leno Shouldn't Get the Mark Twain Award For Humor (But Not Because He's Not Funny)

Everyone’s definitions of comedy are different. Poll a random group of strangers about who should win an award for being best at being funny, and the answers can range from Louis CK to a football to the groin. 

However, if there’s one figure who’s elicited no amount of distain from people who are ostensibly his peers, it’s Jay Leno. “As a comedian, you can’t not have disdain for what he’s done. He totally sold out,” Jimmy Kimmel told Rolling Stone last year, and many agree with him. General consensus is that while Leno is one of the hardest-working stand-ups in the business, his name will never be mentioned in connection with the greats, like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, except as to serve as poor contrast.  

Which is why it was a genuine shock when it was announced that the now-retired “Tonight Show” host is this year’s recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor, a prestigious award that the comedian will be handed in a broadcast gala this October. 

There are a number of reasons to find Leno’s selection to be offensive, ranging from the deeply significant to the petty. There’s plenty about Leno to mock, after all — the obsession with classic cars, the cheap man-on-the-street gags, and of course his role in the passive-aggressive maelstrom that was Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” ascent and descent. (The AV Club’s headline announcing the news that Leno would be receiving the Mark Twain prize: “Jay Leno to receive Mark Twain humor prize, step down, receive it again.”)

Leno didn’t start off this way — in the 1980s, Leno had an edge that made him one of the form’s more exciting performers. But that edge is dull as butter today, replaced instead by an “average Joe” persona, highlighted by his love of bottom-common-denominator punchlines and off-duty Canadian tuxedo wardrobe. 

Comedians are of course judged on the quality of their comedy — but it’s also worth considering the quality of their contributions to the art. And it’s here’s where things get galling. 

The fact is that the Mark Twain Prize has gone to the right people before: Past winners include Carl Reiner, Tina Fey and Bill Cosby. For the most part, the honor comes to a comedian who isn’t necessarily working actively — Richard Pryor and Carol Burnett were well into retirement when they were honored, that certainly applies to Leno, who’s keeping up with an active stand-up schedule but is a long way from five nights a week on NBC. But it also usually goes to a comedian who’s made a real impact on the community. 

Has Leno done that? Not in any measurable way. He did create a model for late night that emphasized a good time over a hard line — something for Jon Stewart to react against on “The Daily Show,” and something for Jimmy Fallon to improve upon with both “Late Night” and his “Tonight Show” takeover.   

But beyond peddling rimshots and tossing softballs for 21 years, Leno simply hasn’t contributed much. One simple, but vital, way he could have made a real difference wouldn’t have been at all hard — all he would have had to do is follow in Johnny Carson’s footsteps and, on a semi-regular basis, feature young stand-ups instead of musical guests on his show during his “Tonight Show” tenure. 

In the 1980s, performing for Carson was almost a guaranteed path to success — comedian does five minutes at the end of “The Tonight Show,” Carson likes it enough to invite said comedian to the couch for a quick chat, comedian wakes up the next morning with sitcom offers. 

“The Tonight Show” kicked off the careers of Ellen Degeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Bill Maher, Louie Anderson, Steven Wright and who knows how many others — but it’s a tradition that Leno did not continue once he took over, instead favoring bands promoting their latest singles.

In fact, over the last fourteen months of Leno’s “Tonight Show” run, exactly two stand-ups performed on the show: Jason Collings and Adam Hunter. By comparison, Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” beat that in its first two months. And David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson regularly bring on up-and-coming stand-ups whose careers benefit enormously from the national exposure. 

In the end, after over two decades on television, Leno’s defining moment as a host remains asking Hugh Grant “what you were thinking?” when Grant was caught with a prostitute. That happened in 1995. If that moment of television was a person, it would be old enough to enlist in the military. 

It’s a moment that is not only extremely dated (I think we’ve all forgiven Grant by now) but notable not because it reflects Leno’s house style, but because it went so completely against the grain of what the “Tonight Show” host had defined as his nice guy persona. 

That persona has always felt a little false; Mark Twain, in comparison to other literary figures of his day, was also an Average Joe type who tailored his language for less-educated readers, but there was a greater social conscience underlying his work: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” for example, is taught in schools for its broader social messages. 

Meanwhile, in a statement regarding the award, Leno said this: “What an honor! I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s. In fact, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is one of my favorite books!”

Welcome to the 21st century, where a comedian’s attempt to sound humble and “aw, shucks” means a joke at the expense of a great writer’s legacy. 

(And also, “A Tale of Two Cities”? That’s not even a funny title. If you’re going to pretend to confuse Twain’s work with that of other great 19th century authors, might I suggest Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”?)

Come October, the Kennedy Center will throw a nice party for Jay Leno. Leno’s friends will come out and praise his long career and comedy stylings; Leno will probably not wear a denim jacket, and there will probably be some jokes about his car collection. It’ll be a lovely evening. And it will contribute just as much to the world of American comedy as Jay Leno ever has.  

Additional research by Melina Gills. 

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , , ,



But an unfunny, rapist, Bill Cosby received the award in the past. Certainly Leno is funnier than him! By the way…they should take away Cosby’s award. Nothing funny about rape!


Most of the SNL people are way overrated and only moderately funny. Again they are supported and propped up by liberals and the media loves them. Such as article writers as this and many other writers in various publications.




      Mark Twain would have thought it pretentious and idiotic to name an award after him so it’s really kind of moot who gets it. I guess it really is a comedy award in more ways than one.


SOUR GRAPES!!! Must be Letterman’s fan club writing articles on here. Lot’s of people love Leno. The main reason some celebs and people in show business don’t like him is because he’s not a nutjob liberal with crazy far left ideas. If Seinfeld supports him what does that tell you? Seinfeld is another classy stand up guy just like Leno that doesn’t have to be raunchy and classless to be funny.


Many are undeserving, Tina Fey, smart but not funny, Billy Chrystal, connected, but not funny. Will Ferret, Allen de generis, not funny, Steve Martin, a jerk. No Sour Grapes just UNfunny.


Leno’s "Tonight Show" managed to beat Letterman (& Kimmel) in a highly competitive world. In fact, post 2004, late night has been bringing NBC a lot of revenue!

The phantom

Ms. Miller: why not get out a little and enjoy life instead of writing petty articles like this. So, Letterman and his old cuts of beef routine is funny? And, Fallon looks as nervous as a kindergartener on their first day of school.


Well… Personally, I don't think Mark Twain would be too happy with many of the recipients… But to excoriate Jay Leno because he spoke to the common man is absurd. What was so Ph*&^*king great about Carlin — Half his comedy was so predictable I found him a yawn (as anyone who was a REAL hippie (Herb Cain regretted coining that word) what they thought about "The Hippie-Dippie whatever" and they'd laugh in your face BECAUSE they were enjoying "The Committee," "The Firesign Theatre," "The San Francisco Mime Troupe" …genuine antithetical comedy theatre.

Will Rogers spoke to the common man in his own language and has been raised over the lifetime of the interpretation of his work to some kind of demi-God of comedy — Will Rogers was speaking in the tongue of the times… Which, over the years, has been elevated to a different perspective.

Steve Martin — WTF is so funny about, "Excuse meeee….!" Or walking around with a fake arrow on top of his pate….?

As far as Kimmel goes… he's Ok. …but I don't see anything extraordinary in his stuff.

If you're worried about Leno…substitute Furgeson (Sp) — He's creative. As for Colbert — He's an ACT. Who Cares.

Steve Allen was funny. Fred Allen was funny. George Burns was not. Mel Brooks is Mel Brooks…. If you laugh at that predictable stuff nominate him. Carl Reiner was deserving. Sid Caesar was Brillliant…! Tosh is great. Richard Pryor when he was flying was incomparable…. There are so many others…

But Comedy is a business, and as a business…these STUPID awards make money — If you know anything about Twain, You Know that he's rolling in his grave every time one of these fokakta awards is given out….. !

Mr. Wrath

Sour. Sour, sour, sour. Sour! SOUR! SOUR! SOUR GRAPES!

Rafael Markalo

Wow, a person's interest in classic cars is reason to mock them? Really? I have to agree with the consensus here; this article is absolutely childish. And this gem, which I can't believe a breathing human being typed with a straight face: "Welcome to the 21st century, where a comedian's attempt to sound humble and 'aw, shucks' means a joke at the expense of a great writer's legacy."

Again, who writes this kind of hyperbolic, maudlin baloney? I do agree that Jay Leno is a milquetoast comedian, but all this article convinced me of is that his harshest critics are significantly overblowing his issues.

Billy Joel

Sad to see another person knock on Jay. Maybe his humor wasn't always the most clever, but unlike the other late night hosts, Jay was consistent on making me laugh, night after night, throughout the years. As a plus, his ratings were strong and was always a class act, despite what others may want you to believe. I hope Jay and his wife are happy in their retirement, will their money and lovely car collection.

Astute Allie

Another "take a cheap shot at Leno" nobody, hoping to gain recognition for a nasty opinion.
If Leno were so untalented, how did he reign over the late night ratings for so long? P-l-e-a-s-e, no disses about the supposed "dull-minded Midwestern idiots who inflated his ratings." TIRING!!!!!!!

Bill McDonald

So I'm reading your article and you get to Jay's joke pretending that Mark Twain's wrote "A Tale of Two Cities." Here's where you're going to show how much smarter you are and this is what you come up with: "If you're going to pretend to confuse Twain's work with that of other great 19th century authors, might I suggest Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw'"?
You can suggest it all you want, but I guarantee you the number of people who would get that reference in America is somewhere between zero and CNN's primetime audience. (hardly anybody.) I wrote freelance for Leno for 20 years and took apart the entire phony narrative behind the late night drama in my book, "Punchline Blues." It shows how Leno's reputation was trashed by CNN's genius Jeff Zucker and how idiots like you bought the story line.
Here's one of my recent jokes so you can judge my chops: "Dick Cheney wrote an op-ed this week with his daughter Liz. I know…you're thinking, "Wait a sec, he's the Lord of Darkness – can't he do it himself?" Turns out it was "Take Your Daughter to Hell" Day.
Bland enough for you? The key to Leno's approach was that he provided a comedy buffet. And on that buffet table were some cutting edge jokes including one of mine about the Iraq War that was reprinted in Time Magazine. Were there bland jokes, on the table? Yes. Were there ridiculously silly jokes? Yes. Were there jokes as edgy as anything Kimmel does? Yes.
It's what you do if you want to entertain a wider audience in America. Hardly anyone has heard of "The Turn of the Screw" and to suggest that would have been a better joke means you should turn one because you have a screw loose.

Karen Cooper

What a little Buzz Monkey you are Liz, in case that term is foreign to you: Buzz monkey–a person who strings together random buzzwords in a desperate attempt to sound intelligent.

Sadly, you sound like a whining, discontented child. Odds are, you are a child, the writing and feeble attempts at derision, only outline your own immaturity.

By the way, look up "pompous" as well. Then reread all of your snide and petty comments. Somewhere Mark Twain and Henry James are turning in their graves like Black & Decker drills–they would find this form of writing, truly deplorable. I would love to hear their "subjective" opinion of your skills………..not much I wager.

Matthew Toplikar

This article is soooooooo lame and petty. If you really look at any comedian who's doing late night talk shows, THEY ALL SELL OUT. That 's part of the job. Jay Leno never did it any less or more than any of them. This strange "common knowledge" that Jay Leno is a hack because he modified his act to fit a different audience shows a real lack of knowledge about late night television and comedy in general. David Letterman did the same thing when he moved from his 12:30 "Late Night" show slot at NBC, to the earlier 11:30 "Late Show" slot at CBS. Guess who else does "Man on the Street" bits…. Conan O'Brien!

I've never understood this hate that people have for Jay Leno. It's like it's just been decided that people in my generation hate him. Everyone just kind of goes along with that, and no one's really thought it through as to why. All of the reasons listed above are dubious at best.

Please stop wasting time and energy hating a man who doesn't even have a television show anymore. It's beneath you. It's beneath all of us. Hating on Jay Leno has become soooooo BORING.

Giving him a lifetime achievement award for 40 years of success in the business is not a crime. It's expected, and would not be questioned if he were any other comic who has had such a large audience over such a long period of time. Sure he's not Carlin. But no one is.

Mark Andrews

Why does it matter to Indiewire, WHO gets this award? As a matter of fact, does anyone really care WHAT they think? I don't.

I had never heard of this website before, now I know why. Celebrating 17 years, huh? Guess I'm too "average" to appreciate the subtle nuances of such sophistication.

One thing I do know, you can't fix stupid–you guys just can't be fixed……..


Seems a lot of folks leaving comments have a hard time accepting Leno's legacy as a hard-working, mediocre talent. An incredibly lucky talent, but mediocre nonetheless.

While it may be harsh, I agree with the above writer's unapologetic assessment.


How sad, that elitist pseudo intellectuals, have no concept of what type of humor average people like. (Stay away from the Roadrunner cartoons, your head will explode.)

Since I don't know your expertise–why, do you consider yourself an expert on anything?

Another sad, disgruntled Conan O'Brien fan–he at least got 35 million dollars–what's your excuse?


This "commentary" is going to get most of its run from people who come here from Breitbart, where they're mocking you for your little temper tantrum.

That's far more attention it would have received on its own, since few people come here.

Let me know if you need a new pacifier.

Mystery Man

Luckily, Leno and 99.9% of the country have no idea you guys exist. And this article will make the last .1% wish they hadn't either. Jeez, get a clue will you.


er..and you are?

Val Messier

This has little to do with Leno's average Joe persona but a lot to do with Leno's lack of being part of the in-crowd. He's frumpy, a bit middle of the road, takes a lot of shots at a lot of hollywood and pop culture windbags – reminding us that they are not the center of the universe nor of the culture. They are just vaudeville acts and glorified circus performers. He is better than any of the recent lilliputian awardees at sticking it to the clown acts who think they are demigods. Congratulations, Jay.

Wash King

Jay Leno did a super job taking over for Johnny Carson. He kept the Tonight Show number one. Now the show is going down hill, it should be an afternoon for show children. Fallon has a long way to go. To belittle Jay Leno is sour grapes.

Ed Dummont

Quoting Kimmel like he's the Yoda of comedy is hysterical. Seriously, is this your first job?

Pat McGraw

Wow, the taste of sour grapes throughout this article reeks. Something else that is "subjective" is talented writing, guess you lose the contest there.


Such a disproportionately pissy opinion piece. Leno's been the gutsiest late-night host over the last five years.


You guys suck.

Scott E Phillips

I stopped reading when you decided it was fair to mock Jay because he loves old cars. That's the dumbest thing I've read all week.


Kudos to you for writing this article. All anybody seems to say about Leno is that he is "nice." That doesn't necessarily make someone talented (not that I actually BUY into Leno's nice-guy image).


This was a good article until the writer tried topping Leno's Mark Twain joke with an equally lame Mark Twain joke.


Sour grapes incarnate article.


Leno isn't liked by his show biz associates because he isn't left wing enough. I have always found him entertaining.


Egads, Leno wasn't even funny back then. How'd he ever make it this far???


Fey deserving? Maybe if she can maintain it for years. Degeneres? Murphy hasn’t been funny in 20 years. The award is a joke.


This article is the Kanye equivalent of “Ima give you back the mic, but Beyonce’s album was better.”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *