We should have seen this coming. Once the most prestigious award of all, the Nobel Peace Prize, was bestowed on President Obama because, to paraphrase Sally Field, “They liked him! They really liked him!,” it was clear that the whole concept of maintaining the integrity of awards was being abandoned. More dispiriting proof arrived yesterday in the fields of comedy and baseball, when the Mark Twain Prize, given to artists who have made major and significant contributions to American comedy, was awarded to Tina Fey, and the Gold Glove Award for the American League’s best fielding shortstop went to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
Fey’s honor was especially Obama-esque. If she vanished tomorrow, Tina Fey would at best be a footnote in the history of American comedy. Her qualifications for the Mark Twain Prize in 2010 appear to be 1) she is a woman, and there aren’t many women in comedy 2) she is a comedian, though not an especially funny one, 3) she is a writer, though neither of the screenplays she has authored would be called deathless classics, unless you think “Mean Girls” is on par with “Adam’s Rib,” and 4) she looks like Sarah Palin, which allowed her to do a popular impression mocking Palin during the 2008 campaign, and the people who give out the award really, really dislike Sarah Palin.
This qualifies someone to be paired with Mark Twain? These achievements, such as they are, don’t even come close to matching the bona fides of past honorees like Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, or George Carlin. As in the sad case of the Nobel Peace Prize, giving a mid-career journeyman like Fey the award permanently debases it, and makes progressively less deserving recipients acceptable and likely. If Tina Fey, why not Julia Louis Dreyfus? How about Alec Baldwin? Commentators are already twisting logic into knots trying to explain the award. Fey, they note, was the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live. Oh. How does that make a lasting contribution to American comedy, especially since the show was and is only intermittently entertaining? Another writer notes that “some say” her imitation of Palin influenced the election. Suuuure it did. But even accepting that this is conceivable (which it isn’t), if Saturday Night Live impressions that influenced elections is now the criteria for the Mark Twain Award (just try to explain that to old Sam Clemens, by the way), then the award should have been given first to, in no particular order…
- Darrell Hammond, whose SNL imitations of Al Gore’s awful debate performances in 2000 probably did lose Gore the election (oh, wait—the people who give out the Mark Twain Awards think that was a bad thing…)
- Dan Ackroyd, whose eye-batting, annoying Jimmy Carter riff did Jimmy no good at all in the 1980 campaign
- Jon Lovitz, whose SNL impression of Michael Dukakis nailed his dead-fish, shrugging response to Bernard Shaw’s debate question about whether his wife’s rape and murder would change his opposition to the death penalty, and
- Dana Carvey, whose brilliant ridicule of President Bush the Elder (“Wouldn’t be prudent!) helped grease the skids to his defeat.
Derek Jeter’s Gold Glove award is both easier to understand and more disgraceful. It is more disgraceful because, as sportswriter/blogger Rob Neyer noted, there is literally nobody who follows baseball seriously, including Yankee fans and Jeter’s own team mates, who believes Jeter is the best fielding shortstop or even a good fielding shortstop at this stage in his career. There are statistics tracking defensive performance, available to those who voted Jeter the honor, indicating that Jeter isn’t one of the twenty best fielding shortstops in baseball. Unlike the Twain Prize, which is entirely subjective, defensive performance at shortstop is quantifiable to a great extent. Another player (one of three or four) deserved the honor, and Jeter unquestionably did not.
Jeter’s undeserved honor was more understandable than Fey’s because he is indisputably an all-time great, and certainly the most famous and celebrated player at his position. Cognitive dissonance works powerfully in his favor: because Jeter is a great player, people tend to perceive everything he does as great, even the things, like fielding, that he doesn’t do well any more. Still, giving him the award diminishes the honor for all current honorees (there is a Gold Glove Award for each position) as well as future ones. A player can’t feel much pride at being named the best fielder at his position when he knows a fellow Gold Glove winner isn’t a good fielder at all.
Whether any of this matters depends on whether there is any value to awards. I think there is. I think it is important to have institutionalized ways for society to alert the public and posterity to great achievements and remarkable talent. Since human beings make the award decisions and humans are governed by imperfect reasoning, emotion and biases, awards will never be perfect, but we can live with that, if only they have integrity. It isn’t necessary for the best performance to always win the Academy Award, as long as one of the best performances does. Honoring Obama, Fey and Jeter, however, doesn’t even meet this relaxed standard.
Giving awards to the undeserving harms the awards themselves and cripples their ability to create what they were designed to create–recognition and honor for future generations to admire, emulate, and aspire to. The committees and voters that take their duties so lightly display a lack of diligence and responsibility when they do this, and they earn every bit of criticism they receive.