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Jon Stewart says comedy a ‘bellwether’ for democracy in Mark Twain Prize speech

Jon Stewart made the case for comedy as a key indicator of a healthy democracy on Sunday, warning that the fragility of authoritarian leaders was the greatest threat to free society as he received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

“Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s the bellwether,” the former “Daily Show” host said as he became the 23rd recipient of the Washington performing arts institution’s prestigious honor.

“We’re the banana in the coal mine,” Stewart, 59, said.

“When society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first. It’s just a reminder to people that democracy is under threat. Authoritarians are the threat to comedy, to music, to thought, to poetry,” Stewart said to applause.

Referencing Will Smith’s infamous slap of comedian Chris Rock following a joke about the “King Richard” star’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, during last month’s Oscars ceremony, Stewart said, “It’s not the fragility of audiences. It’s not the world police that are going to be an existential threat to comedy. It’s not the ‘Fresh Prince.’ It’s the Crown Prince. It’s not the fragility of audiences. It’s the fragility of leaders.”

“It ain’t the pronoun police — it’s the secret police. It always has and it always will be,” he said.

“What we have is fragile and precious,” said the host of “Problem with Jon Stewart” on Apple TV+. “And the way to guard against it isn’t to change how audiences think, it’s to change how leaders lead.”

Stewart’s remarks came following a star-studded ceremony—which included appearances by late-night hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, along with Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle, Steve Carell, Pete Davidson, Olivia Munn and a performance by Bruce Springsteen — that will air on PBS stations nationwide on June 21.

Several of the night’s lineup pitched Stewart — who has been a fixture on Capitol Hill advocating for veterans — as a would-be stellar commander-in-chief.

“Saturday Night Live’s” Davidson told the crowd: “He really could be president tomorrow, but he’s smart enough to not want the job.”

“Late Show” host Colbert — who appeared in a taped tribute after announcing days ago that he had tested positive for COVID-19 — quipped that Stewart’s true passion is “recreational anxiety.”

“That is why he’s the perfect person to publicly worry about the future of our democracy, and why so many people think he should run for president.”

Chappelle lauded Stewart as a “cure to what ails our culture.”

“You are a voice that people consistently trust,” Chappelle said. “I wish that you run for president.”

Stewart knocked down talk of any potential political run, telling reporters on the red carpet, “Show business is a good training ground ego and arrogance-wise for politics, but I don’t know that the art of compromise and the different transactional nature of what they do, is generally antithetical to misanthropes who sit in rooms and write jokes.”

Tags Dave Chappelle John Stewart Jon Stewart Mark Twain Prize Pete Davidson stephen colbert Stephen Colbert

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