As a social commentator, satirist and creator of memorable characters, Samuel Clemens - the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist also known as Mark Twain - was a fearless observer of society, who outraged many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, along with The John Schreiber Group and CoMedia, Inc., created the Mark Twain Prize in 1998 as a way to recognize the art of humorists and to honor one of the world's greatest exponents of humor, Mark Twain.
The 2002 Mark Twain Prize was broadcast nationwide on November 13, 2002.
Richard Pryor was awarded the inaugural Mark Twain Prize in October 1998. Lawrence J. Wilker, the Kennedy Center's then-president, said that Pryor, like Twain, forced American to confront the "large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition... They were both (Pryor and Twain) trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous." The program honoring Pryor featured such leading artists including Chevy Chase, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams.
Jonathan Winters was the recipient in 1999. Both the Winters and Pryor ceremonies were broadcast on cable television's Comedy Central.
Carl Reiner, winner of 12 Emmys and an inductee into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, was honored with the third annual prize in 2000. Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Belzer, Reiner's son, Rob Reiner, and host Dick Van Dyke were on hand to share personal tales and anecdotes of their relationship with Carl Reiner. The 2000 performace was the first to appear on PBS.
The humor of Whoopi Goldberg, the fourth recipient of the annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, is rooted in the human comedy — generous, broad, intelligent, and earthy. As an actor, she has been able to mine the humor in tragedy, and as a humorist she has never strayed far from the trying conditions that make us human and funny. From small cabarets to great arenas, on the television screen and on the movie screen, her dazzling array of characters and emotions is varied and unrestrained. In all her roles, Whoopi Goldberg has always projected the wisdom and understanding that all great humorists have recognized in the common man, and woman.
The celebration of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor also includes a series of lectures, symposia, and master classes. All proceeds of the gala evening celebration, are administered by the Kennedy Center Education Department in the form of grants to nurture the talent of young American humorists.
All recipients of the prize receive a copy of an 1884 bronze portrait bust of Mark Twain sculpted by Karl Gerhardt (1853-1940). The bust and images of it are courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut.