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UT Mark Twain expert joins entertainers, scholars to honor Richard Pryor at Kennedy Center

When the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts needed a Mark Twain expert to help launch its inaugural Celebration of American Humor, it came to Texas.

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AUSTIN, Texas–When the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts needed a Mark Twain expert to help launch its inaugural Celebration of American Humor, it came to Texas.

Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, has been invited to play a key role at the event, which will culminate in the presentation to comic Richard Pryor of the first Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize.

Fishkin, who is president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, will deliver a lecture on Mark Twain at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 20), immediately preceding the 8 p.m. tribute to Pryor. The tribute will feature several entertainers, including Chevy Chase, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Damon Wayans and Robin Williams.

Author of the award-winning book, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (1993) and, most recently, Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (1997), Fishkin will discuss Twain’s use of satire to attack racism, and will explore some of the resonances between Twain’s satire and Pryor’s. The three-day celebration of American humor, which begins Sunday (Oct. l8), also will include a panel discussion on comedy as social commentary and several comedy showcases. “Comedy Central” is taping the 8 p.m. Pryor tribute for broadcast in January 1999.

“Both Twain and Pryor generated satire that was wide-ranging, training their rapier wit on a diverse array of targets,” said Fishkin. “But a key target for both was racism in its myriad forms, and the absurdity of America’s racial arrangements. “For example, police harassment of people who weren’t white angered both Twain and Pryor early on in their careers–Twain in stories he wrote in San Francisco and Buffalo, Pryor in his early album Craps (After Hours).”

Both Twain and Pryor, said Fishkin, were trailblazers in being crossover performance artists sought after by audiences of all races. “Both performers pioneered in creating liminal zones of racial harmony. For Twain, it was a raft floating down the Mississippi; for Pryor it was the theater in which he was performing. Both men knew that the racial harmony that transpired in those spaces would become fraught with problems when the raft touched the shore, when the crowd left the theater. But both also may have hoped that the memory of what went on on the raft and in the theater could play some part in transforming the world outside.”

The UT scholar also is the editor of the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain (1996). Fishkin’s research on Twain has been featured twice on the front page of The New York Times and has made headlines around the world.

According to the Kennedy Center, Pryor was selected as the first recipient of the new Mark Twain Prize, “because as a stand-up comic, writer and actor, he struck a chord and a nerve with America, forcing it to look at large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition. Twain and Pryor were both trenchant social critics who spoke the truth, however outrageous.”