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‘The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous’: Cappy McGarr’s new book remembers the seriousness of humor

Cappy McGarr has written his first book, a memoir on the importance of humor.
(Courtesy of Cappy McGarr)

Cappy McGarr leads with laughter wherever he goes, including the Oval Office.

McGarr, who calls Dallas home but spends a few months every year at a second house in La Jolla, wrote his first book, “The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous,” by weaving together his memoirs of his involvement in national politics with stories from the past two decades-plus of winners of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton appointed McGarr to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts board of trustees for a six-year term. McGarr co-founded the Twain award in 1998, and he was reappointed to the board in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama.

McGarr said his book, published in September, contains tales from the Kennedy Center, the White House “and other comedy venues.”

“It’s about humor,” he said, “and the importance of humor in relationships or in politics or in business.”

That importance, McGarr said, can be seen when a company chief executive uses self-effacing comments to break the ice at a presentation or when married couples use humor during arguments.

“Humor can dissipate some of the issues with every single situation that is difficult,” he said.

McGarr has employed humor throughout his life, doing impressions and voices through college and beyond, and said humor is crucial to survival.

“We live in a world that is fraught with chaos, trauma, shootings in schools, COVID,” he said. “We’ve got such serious problems in our lives that it’s so critically important to bring joy in the world, and the only way you can do that is humor.”

"The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous" details Cappy McGarr's involvement in national politics, among other stories.
“The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous” details Cappy McGarr’s involvement in national politics and his co-founding of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Comedians don’t receive enough recognition for their importance, McGarr said, noting that the Academy Awards, Grammys and Emmys typically do not extol comedic work.

“There’s really no other honor [for] these comedians,” he said. “That’s why the Mark Twain Prize is so incredibly important.”

The prize is named for legendary writer and humorist Twain because he “was our first stand-up comedian,” McGarr said.

Twain “was very charming, very witty, very funny,” McGarr said. “He also wrote some of the funniest books ever.”

Every year, Kennedy Center leadership selects the winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. “We honor comedians and writers,” McGarr said, those who “are true icons and made us laugh.”

McGarr said he has many memories of past winners such as Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. He said he had an “incredible moment” with Bill Murray, the 2016 winner, during a golf putting contest between Murray and Obama.

Murray is “one of the nicest guys in the world … a real treat,” McGarr said.

Another of McGarr’s most incredible moments is when Clinton presented comedian Carl Reiner with his Mark Twain Prize in 2000.

Reiner invited his brother, Charlie, to attend the gathering, which included Jerry Seinfeld and Mary Tyler Moore, McGarr said.

McGarr began to introduce Charlie Reiner — a World War II veteran dying of cancer and in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube in his nose — to Clinton. Clinton knelt before Charlie, commending him for being in the first wave of troops to invade Normandy and for his other military accomplishments.

“I’ve had a lot of important people in this office before, but none as important as you,” Clinton told Charlie.

“Carl was crying, I was crying,” McGarr said. “It was a poignant moment in the Oval Office.”

Humor, McGarr said, “is a gift. … Friendship is so incredibly important, and humor brings that level of bonding and relationship to another level.”

McGarr will discuss “The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous” at a book signing at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7, at D.G. Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave., La Jolla. To buy the book, visit dgwillsbooks.com or call (858) 456-1800. ◆