Jon Stewart, accepting the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, warned Sunday night that speculation about the future of comedy amid increased audience cultural sensitivity was ignoring a true and enduring threat: authoritarian governments around the world.
"Comedy doesn't change the world, but it's a bellwether," Stewart said. "When a society feels under threat, comedians are who gets sent away first."
Stewart pointed to Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, whose Stewart-inspired political comedy show earned him both fame and self-imposed exile. Youssef's story is "an example of the true threat to comedy," Stewart said.
The intersection of comedy and politics was the main theme as celebrities and comedy royalty gathered to honor Stewart, who set the modern template for mixing the topics during his 16-year run hosting TV's "The Daily Show."
Stewart, the 23rd recipient of the prize, was honored in testimonials from fellow comedians and previous Mark Twain Prize recipients. Stewart himself spoke during Dave Chappelle's Mark Twain ceremony in 2019, and Chappelle returned the favor.
"It is a miracle to watch you work. You are a cure for what ails this country," said Chappelle, who noted that Stewart stepped down from "The Daily Show" one year before the election of Donald Trump as president.
The 59-year-old Stewart — born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz — rose to prominence as a standup comic and host of multiple failed talk shows before taking over Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in 1999. He became a cultural and political force as he trained his satirical eye on politics and an increasingly polarized national media.
Several of Sunday's speakers were former "Daily Show" correspondents, including Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.
Carell described his time on the show as full of "excitement, fear, physical distress and laughter." He noted that Stewart seemed to delight in sending him on bizarre assignments that included eating Crisco, dealing with a trailer of snakes, and drinking Long Island ice tea until he vomited. Stewart, he said, was "always supporting us and always cheering us from the comfort and safety of his office."
Oliver, meanwhile, sent in a video message noting that the real Jon Stewart would never spend "two hours squirming in his seat listening to people tell him how much he means to them." Therefore, Oliver concluded, Stewart must be dead and he proceeded to deliver an extended eulogy.
Fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen performed an acoustic version of "Born to Run" and praised Stewart as a patriot determined to speak truth to power.
Stewart's influence was felt far beyond America's borders. Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon, started up a modest YouTube show that was directly modeled on Stewart's and became an iconic figure during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Describing his show as "clearly a very cheap knockoff" of "The Daily Show," Youssef detailed how he appeared on Stewart's show in 2012 and Stewart came to Cairo to do the same in 2013.
Two weeks after that appearance, the Egyptian military overthrew a democratically elected Islamist president amid mass national protests. Youssef said he asked Stewart how to navigate the shifting political climate, and Stewart advised him to stick to his principles even if it caused trouble or cost him popularity.
Youssef, whose show was eventually cancelled and who now lives in the U.S., began cursing Stewart from the stage. "I could have been a very rich sell-out by now!" he yelled in mock anger.
Since retiring from "The Daily Show" in 2015, Stewart has become a vocal proponent of a number of social causes and one of the most prominent voices in support of health care for Sept. 11 first responders in New York City. He recently returned to television as host of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" on Apple TV+.
Stewart's political influence was apparent Sunday from a guest list that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Pelosi, on the red carpet before the ceremony, said she had interacted with Stewart on multiple occasions while he was lobbying on different causes. She praised his "level of commitment and knowledge" that far outstripped the usual celebrity political involvement.
She also laughingly said that Stewart is "not a patient man" when he feels his cause is just.
This was the first Mark Twain ceremony since Chappelle's in 2019. The award skipped 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from that two-year break, the prize has been presented annually since 1998, with Richard Pryor receiving the first honors.
Other recipients include Carol Burnett (the oldest recipient at age 80), Tina Fey (the youngest at age 40), Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Lily Tomlin. 2009 recipient Bill Cosby had his prize rescinded in 2018 amid multiple allegations of sexual assault.