Pine Nuts: The Mark Twain prize for American humor

McAvoy Layne / Columnist
McAvoy Layne

Just as there is a vast difference between the comedian and the humorist, there is an equally vast difference between the opinion columnist and the journalist.

But let me try to make my case…

The comedian’s job is to make us laugh, and laughter is good for us, it keeps us from souring, and cuts down on the doctor bills like crazy. Albeit sometimes the comedian incites laughter at the expense of another person, and we leave the hall feeling a little guilty about being provoked by pejorative comedy.

Laughter without a thread of philosophy woven into it, is but a sneeze at humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.  And if a piece of humor is to last, it must do two things, it must preach and it must teach, not professedly, but if done effectively, that piece of humor will last forever -which is thirty years.

The humorist is showing us the good-natured side of the truth, and is not looking for a laugh, but merely looking for a nod of acknowledgement, or perhaps the hint of a smile that appears when one recognizes effective irony or satire. But most importantly, humor lessens people’s hatred. In today’s congress the only bipartisan common denominator appears to be humor impairment, though there will always be those who will laugh at a senator’s bad joke.

Now, the difference between the opinion columnist and the journalist is similar to that of the comedian and the humorist.

As Mark Twain might like to remind us, “The heaven-born mission of journalism is to disseminate truth; and elevate the tone of public morals and manners, and make all men more gentle, and in all ways better, and holier, and happier.” Twain’s humor is like that of his friend Howells, it “flows softly, is pervasive, refreshing, health-giving, and makes no more show, and no more noise than the circulation of the blood.” 

In full disclosure, the stump-tail opinion columnist deals in sagebrush humor, malaprops, hyperbole, half-truths, innuendos, double entendres and assonance.  These are tools a journalist will not touch with a bargepole.  No, a journalist will not risk her reputation by reaching into the grab-bag of tools available to the opinion columnist, as it should be. The author John Irving reminds us, “It’s hard work and great art to make life not so serious.”

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be (or was) awarded to Adam Sandler at a performance featuring some of the biggest names in comedy at the Kennedy Center on March 19. Watch Sandler’s acceptance speech, and just for fun, decide for yourself whether Adam Sandler is a comedian or a humorist.

In closing, a former winner of the Mark Twain Prize, Jon Stewart attests, “Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine.”

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at

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