Comedian and actor Dave Chappelle will be honored with this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center.
It is the nation’s highest honor for comedy, and as a recipient, Chappelle, 45, joins the ranks of previous winners Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. The Washington, D.C., performing arts venue announced the decision Tuesday afternoon.
The honor is especially meaningful for Chappelle because he’ll be feted in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He started sneaking into comedy clubs when he was 14 and spent years honing his craft at the DC Improv Comedy Club.
It’s also special because Chappelle tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to memorize Twain’s words to audition for a spot at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. In spite of Chappelle’s addled memory and lackluster acting abilities, the selection committee for the public high school saw something in him, and Chappelle graduated in 1991. In 2015, he returned home to surprise graduates as that year’s commencement speaker.
Chappelle didn’t have an interest in acting at the time, and like many a comedian, he’s had turns in not-so-great films and some better ones. He’s come quite a ways since Half Baked. Robin Hood: Men in Tights arguably remains a slapstick classic. He was totally believable as the sensible George “Noodles” Stone in A Star Is Born, one of the best films of 2018.
“Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘against the assault of humor, nothing can stand,’ ” Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter said in a press release. “For three decades, Dave has challenged us to see hot-button issues from his entirely original yet relatable perspective. Dave is a hometown hero here in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. We’re so looking forward to welcoming him back home.”
Chappelle has mystified his public since 2005, when he bailed on his eponymous Comedy Central sketch show after two seasons, at what then was the height of his commercial success. But he has eased back into public life with sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall and his Juke Joint series, which combines music and comedy and other forms of live performance. He also recorded two specials for Netflix, both released in 2017: Equanimity and The Bird Revelation.
The gala and ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize will take place Oct. 27 at the Kennedy Center and will air on PBS on Jan. 6, 2020.