Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Award humour

I have never been a fan of Oscar award shows (or others like them) in which each award winner mouths some ritualized and humourless thank-yous to everyone he/she ever knew. These people are supposed to be entertainers, and they keep dishing out this kind of crappy stuff! Year after year!

On the other hand, accomplished academics often surprise us with speeches with a light touch and a good sprinkling of humour. There aren't many examples, but the ones that stand out end up shining brightly -- simply because no one expects any humour from this group known for its members' gravitas and sense of self-importance. But, I'm digressing here.

Interestingly, the humour in their speeches often revolves around self-deprecation or mocking the award culture. I still remember Leon Lederman's speech after receiving an honorary doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1989 (or was it 1990?); he first 'proved', using a quick -- 'back of the envelope' -- calculation, that the number of honorary degrees far exceeded the number of those eligible for them. Clearly, he said, too many awards were chasing too few people. The situation was so grim, and the 'need' to award these degrees so great, that a university in Kentucky even contemplated giving an honorary doctorate to the horse that won the Kentucky Derby! While we were busy laughing, he sneaked in an even deadlier punchline: "that would have made it the only time a whole horse was awarded an honorary degree!"

It's a pity this speech is not available online. But, some others are. I found a few among the acceptance speeches by the winners of the Timoshenko Medals, hosted at the portal iMechanica. For example, Anatol Roshko (1999) starts with this:

David Belden’s letter announcing the award was really a surprise, almost a shock. At first I wondered whether it was another example of a story which you may have heard and which, I believe, originated in the FSU. Two friends are at a grand reception sipping cocktails when one notices a man with his chest almost completely covered with medals. Says one to the other, “Do you have any idea what those medals are for?” and the other replies, “Well, you see that one at the top left? That one was a mistake; and the others followed automatically.”

John Hutchinson (2002) offers similar lines at the beginning:

This is a great honor for me; I know that I am undeserving. Nevertheless, I will gladly accept the medal. Several weeks ago, the NPR journalist, Daniel Schor, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in his acceptance speech he remarked that he had learned how to be gracious about undeserved honors from Henry Kissinger. Shortly after Kissinger received his Nobel Peace Prize, a reception in his honor was held at the State Department. An elderly woman approached Kissinger, grasped his hand, and thanked him from the bottom of her heart for saving the world. Following one of his heavy pauses, Kissinger replied, “you’re welcome”.

Kenneth L. Johnson (2006), too, starts with "Awshucks, there must have been a mistake":

When I received Virgil Carter's letter informing me that I had been selected, I could not believe it. There must have been a mistake; after all Johnson is a very common name. I am reminded of my first meeting with Bernie Budiansk from Harvard, also a Timoshenko medallist. He asked, "Did you write that book on vibration with Bishop?" "No. That was Dan Johnson"; " Did you edit that British Journal of mechanical sciences?": "No. That was Bill Johnson"; "Who the hell are you!"

Somewhere in the middle of his talk, Morton Gurtin (2004) sneaks in the following:

... [W]hile we’re in a nonserious mood, let me add a quote from the writer Frederick Raphael about awards: Awards are like hemorrhoids; in the end every asshole gets one.

* * *

Do you know of other acceptance speeches laced with humor? Would you like to share them?


  1. nevermind said...

    'What is the right way to go about returning an MBE? A motor bike courier with a package addressed to The Queen, Buckingham Palace, or climb up the the palace gates and hang up a banner before dropping the MBE over the other side. Or perhaps I should send it to 10 Downing Street via the Royal Mail with a savage letter to Blair, now that he says he is so interested in the views of his public?'- Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, on returning an award. Not quite an academic, but funny none the less.

  2. Anonymous said...

    nice post. Very funny indeed, and definitely better than the "I thank my Mommy, Daddy, the dog, the cow.." speech at Oscars.

  3. Anonymous said...

    How about non-preachy graduation speeches...some of them are real gems.

  4. Abi said...

    Thanks, Nevermind, for that link.

    Surya: Absolutely.

    Patrix: Among the commencement speeches, Steve Jobs at Stanford has already become a classic. Do check it out.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I am against awards and honorary doctorates but this was enjoyable.