At the John F. Kennedy Center Concert Hall last Sunday night, it was all about Jay Leno.
This year's winner of the nation's big comedy award, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the comedian and former Tonight Show host was celebrated, mocked and generally roasted by an A-list of his peers, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Handler and Wanda Sykes.
But behind the scenes, there was a little-known player, one of the originators of the award who has helped make the prize happen for 17 years.
Cappy McGarr, 63, is a low-key, big-time investor and Democratic fundraiser from Dallas who is an executive producer of the program and a creator of the award.
A member of the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees, McGarr has had a long-time association with the performing arts center. And he thought it was high time that Leno, who stepped down earlier this year from NBC’s “Tonight Show” after 22 years, got some recognition.
“Jay Leno has been so funny for so long, and his love of comedy really comes through,” said McGarr, one of four executive producers of the Mark Twain Prize. “His observations about people and life often feel like our own, which is extraordinary.”
The program will be broadcast by PBS on Nov. 23.
In a bit of showmanship, Leno’s return to network television was revealed just before the Mark Twain award evening, with CNBC announcing that "Jay Leno's Garage,” would start next year. It’s a show about cars and car collecting, which has been Leno’s long-time passion.
Before the Kennedy Center show began, Leno and his wife Mavis walked to their box seats on the balcony and he struck a Nixonian pose, with both hands raised in V for victory signs. He laughed at the put-downs, such as when Handler asked the gray-haired comic why he insisted on wearing a wig. And Seinfeld did a whole riff wondering why he had not yet been chosen for the prize.
“No one deserves to get this award more _ except maybe me?” Seinfeld said.
Previous winners of the award include Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett. The prize is named for Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, a writer and humorist best known as the author of the classic, ”Tom Sawyer.” Leno held the bronze bust of Twain that is the prize and said it was the “most wonderful night of my life.”
He added: “This is going on the front of my ’55 Buick.”
“The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize has always been important to me,” said McGarr. “It is a rare time for people to abandon their differences _ especially in Washington _ and get together for a good laugh. I’ve been proud to see the event grow so much over the years. With so many problems and difficulties in the world, it’s nice to stop once a year and say thank you to the people who have made us laugh. That’s what the Kennedy Center Mark Twain prize is all about.”
The event started small, but has grown so much that it’s become something of a must-see for Washington audiences.
“Cappy’s really proud of this and he’s done a great job,” said former Texas Democratic Congressman Martin Frost, now a lobbyist and a regular attendee. “He’s really been the driving force behind it.”
Another Texan, oilman Don Montgomery of Dallas, who knows McGarr from Democratic political circles, has made the trip to D.C. for the last six years to see the show.
“I think it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” he said of the Oct. 19 program. “I like to support the Kennedy Center. When you look at your charity money, it’s a good place to put it.”
The sold-out evening raised a record $2 million, said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.
McGarr is experienced at raising money. The president of MCM Interests, a private investment company, he has been involved in the Democratic Party going back to his days as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received three degrees: a bachelor of arts, a journalism degree and an MBA.
Pete Geren, a former Democratic congressman from Fort Worth, knows McGarr from their college days.
“He is funny enough to win the Mark Twain award himself,” said Geren. “He can do impressions that are spot-on of LBJ and Lady Bird. Cappy could really be a stand-up TV comedian.”
President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, were from Texas.
Geren remembers that McGarr had a popular radio program in Austin during college.
“He’s had this showman side of him as long as I’ve known him,” said Geren.
McGarr was well-connected, too. His mother-in-law was the late Annette Strauss, the first woman mayor of Dallas, from 1987 to 1991. Her brother, Robert Strauss, was a legendary lobbyist and Democratic political operative. He also served as Republican President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then after its break-up, to Russia.
Annette Strauss was a Kennedy Center trustee in the 1980s. McGarr was first named to the board by President Bill Clinton and served from 1996 to 2002. President Barack Obama appointed him again in 2011. McGarr and his wife have been generous donors to Democrats and Democratic causes, having given more than $1 million since 1990.
McGarr also helped get another prize started, the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named for George and Ira Gershwin, music writing brothers who made a mark on American music, theater and cinema.
The Gershwin prize was first awarded in 2007 to singer-songwriter Paul Simon and this year’s award will be given to Billy Joel on Nov. 19 at Washington’s Constitution Hall.
McGarr is also an executive producer of that award and broadcast that will be on PBS at a later date. It’s not as high-profile as the Twain, but McGarr gets his due. And his unusual first name – it is not a nickname – makes him memorable.
When Leno thanked everyone associated with the Twain award show at the end of the Oct. 19 event, he said McGarr’s name and then asked “am I saying it right?” and said it again.
So McGarr got his moment _ twice.