On Sunday night (October 27), Dave Chappelle received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The prestigious award was given just miles from where the 46-year-old spent a big part of his youth.“That’s why I love my art-form. ‘Cause I understand [that] every practitioner of it, whether I agree with them or not, I know where they’re coming from. They wanna be heard; they got somethin’ to say. There’s somethin’ they noticed; they just want to be understood,” Chappelle told the audience from the stage. In a black suit with sneakers, he continued, “I love this genre; it saved my life.” On stage, Chappelle spoke to his peers. “I’m very grateful that you guys took your time for this night. It’s very important to me. I want you to know it [the award] belongs to all of us. I’m your guy. The thing that you guys taught me the most was what’s most important is community. I’m honored to be a part of your community, and I love the way that each of the communities that I’ve ever been a part of has taken the time to shape me,” he said. Dave also singled out his mother, his Netflix specials collaborator Stan Lathan, and early comic influence, Tony Woods.
Chappelle was joined by his family, as well as creative peers, including Yasiin Bey, Q-Tip (who is responsible for the Kennedy Center’s Hip-Hop programming), Common, Erykah Badu, John Legend, and Frederic Yonnet. Those artists performed in celebration of their friend and fellow entertainer.
Meanwhile, comedians including Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Stewart, Morgan Freeman, SNL creator Lorne Michaels, Sarah Silverman, Bradley Cooper, Aziz Ansari, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che, and Colin Jost honored their comic peer from the stage, per an NPR report.
Stewart, who headed The Daily Show at the time of its meteoric rise into popular culture, praised Dave’s principles with humor. “[Comedy Central] offered Dave $50 million to just give us … one more [season of Chappelle’s Show]. But Dave, at that moment, was conflicted because of the difficulty of how the show was to do, because he wondered about its impact on the audience that he meant it for. And he wondered if the creative process wasn’t right for it. And he walked away. And it was that moment that I remember thinking: ‘Comedy Central has $50 million?’” Both The Daily Show and Chappelle’s Show were juggernauts for the network in the early 2000s.
The night’s honored guest thanked his mother, Yvonne K. Chappelle Seon, for enriching his dream, “But early in my career, if you remember, Mom, you used to sit in the club with me…She’d do a full day of work. You’d be back there falling asleep, just waiting for me to go on. She would watch my show every night. Do you know how long that car ride is home?” Seconds later, Dave made light of the tender acknowledgment. “How many of you have ever heard your mother say: ‘P*ssy jokes were a little too much tonight, son’?”
Leading up to the event, Chappelle praised the medium of standup. He deemed it “an American phenomenon,” and his favorite form of expression while speaking with NPR. “It’s the best part of the First Amendment to me that I’m able to express myself this way and make a viable living doing it,” the guest of honor said. “And it’s not necessarily an easy living but… [it is] worth everything that I’ve been through — especially to get a night like tonight, and have people just recognize it’s not an easy thing to do. And it’s humbling to get an award.”
The televised special of Sunday’s event will air January 7, 2020, on PBS.