The Cowbell Tolls Early for Will Ferrell

Sure, his Mark Twain Prize ceremony promises to be laugh filled. But there’s something funny about him getting the honor this soon.

We always want more cowbell. We never stop laughing through repeated viewings of "Anchorman," "Talledega Nights" and even "Blades of Glory.” We'll be first on line if "Step Brothers II" ever gets made.

And we'll be tuning in to PBS Monday night in hopes for more laughs as Will Ferrell receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. But there's something funny – and not in a “ha-ha” way – about Ferrell meeting the Twain at this relatively early age (44) and stage of his career.

We’re getting a case of déjà vu back to last year when another one of our favorites, Tina Fey, became, at 40, the youngest recipient in the award’s 13-year history. Even Ferrell humorously suggested he might not be worthy in a mock-braggadocio quip he made at the Oct. 23rd ceremony, boasting he had turned down the award 13 times before.

He also joked that the show will be watched "by hundreds of people across this country" on PBS, which taped the event for broadcast on Monday. But we wonder whether the awards for Fey and Ferrell represent a grab for a larger, younger TV audience at the expense of honoring those who should be at the front of the laugh line.

Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, David Letterman, the all-but-forgotten Dick Gregory and Carol Burnett, are among those deserving of recognition for careers that span decades. We’re not suggesting the Twain ceremony become the comedy equivalent of old-timers day. But it’s worth noting that George Carlin died at age 71 in 2008 soon after the announcement he would be getting the honor.

Carlin and Richard Pryor are among the recipients who best embodied the spirit of Twain as a biting social satirist. Others, like Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart, also transcended stand-up as comic storytellers with echoes of the Twain influence.

If the folks at the Kennedy Center want to draw a younger crowd, perhaps they should consider the likes of veteran funnymen like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher, who tap the Twain vein in different ways.

That’s not to say similarity to the great humorist should be the primary qualifications for the award. One of the most deserving is 2005 recipient Steve Martin, a kind of white-haired godfather to Ferrell. Both are masters of the comedy of the silly who have elevated their acts over the years.

Ferrell’s Broadway show, "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush,” went far beyond a mere “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Funny or Die, the website Ferrell co-founded, has helped revolutionize how comedy is created and distributed, both for the better.

Martin, whose career has spanned stand-up, books, movies and plays, has been entertaining mass audiences since getting his start with the Smothers Brothers in the late 1960s, and is still a major comic force. Ferrell has been with us since helping revive “SNL” in the mid-1990s, and we’re expecting a lot more from him in the years to come.

We’re also expecting much from Monday’s show, whether or not the honor is premature. Check out a Funny or Die video below, in which Ferrell gets comic kudos from the like of potential future award winners like Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis and Larry David, who bellows: “He doesn’t even know who Mark Twain is!”

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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