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[illustration: Mark Twain]
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

~ Mark Twain  

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The Mark Twain Prize (2003)
For Teachers


The Mark Twain Prize recognizes those who create humor from their uniquely American experiences. By examining how humor is used in public life in the United States, students develop a deeper understanding of American society and the relationship of citizens in a democracy to their government. By comparing the use of humor in the U.S. to that of other cultures, students gain a better sense of both the commonalities and the differences among various peoples.

Humor takes many forms and serves many functions. At a basic level, it may be used as pure entertainment, a distraction from life's routines. At a deeper level, humor can lessen tensions and defuse a potentially explosive situation. For some, humor is a weapon used by the weak against the strong, giving the underdog a feeling of power. In skillful hands, humor can be used in an opposite way — to disarm an individual or group perceived as threatening.

What makes something funny? It depends on the individual. Much humor is based on human frailties and anxieties about our deepest fears and desires. Individuals differ in how sensitive they are and in how easily they will laugh about their human condition.

Humor is also contextual. Tastes in humor — as in other aspects of life — change over time, so that what might have been hilarious to an Elizabethan might barely bring a smile to the lips of someone today. Likewise, humor differs from place to place, and what may send a Frenchman into gales of laughter may leave an American merely looking puzzled.

Preferences in humor differ by class and gender, by age and ethnicity. Thus, understanding the context helps us to appreciate and understand the humor in a particular joke, commentary or situation.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the ideals of democracy and their influence on the development of forms of personal expression;
  • Analyze and articulate the characteristics of American society as expressed by humorists of different eras;
  • Analyze the relationship between culture and humor in the U.S. and in other countries.


These activities address national curriculum standards developed by NCSS.

Culture & Cultural Diversity: enable learners to analyze and explain the ways groups, societies, and cultures address human needs and concerns;

Time, Continuity & Change: guide learners as they systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and interpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

Power, Authority & Governance: challenge learners to apply concepts such as power, role, status, justice, and influence to the examination of persistent issues and social problems.


A production of WETA, Washington D.C.
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