PEN Center USA Answers the Question: Is There Such a Thing as an Interesting Awards Show?

Yes! Try having Aisha Tyler host, beaming in WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and having Norman Lear close the show


This year the PEN Center USA 24th annual Literary Awards Festival limited winners’ speeches to four minutes. That may sound long, but the remarks were so good, from first winner Jose Antonio Vargas (who won the Freedom to Write Award) to the evening’s last honoree, Lifetime Achievement Award winner Norman Lear.

I had to agree with Amy Poehler (her new memoir Yes, Please is out now) who said, “Boy, writers give better speeches than actors. Really brief, well-written…grateful.” As awards show season is gearing up, other orgs ought to take a page out of PEN’s book. Here are some tips for having a really interesting awards show:

Have Aisha Tyler Host
Tyler emceed the evening and is one of the funniest, smartest, bawdiest women on the planet. In a chatty, tough room she kept the evening moving along and everyone laughing. She was also perfect for the show as she is a voracious reader (she started crying after the first speech). Poehler and Tina Fey are on their last year of hosting the Golden Globes; I vote for Tyler in 2016. If not the Globes, are ya reading me, Independent Spirit Awards?

Beam in a Message From Someone Not in Their Bel Air Offices
The program read “Special Remarks presented by Julian Assange” after the First Amendment Award was given to journalists Glenn Greenwald & Laura Poitras (who were not at the awards). John Cusack cued up a satellite hook up, and there was the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief sitting somewhere in front of a dramatic backdrop of highlighted words. One of PEN’s many functions is to protect the rights of writers around the world. “Every right is a living or dying object,” Assange said. “We breath life into rights like the First Amendment by exercising them.”

Get Life Advice from Norman Lear
At 92-years-old, Norman Lear has the best outlook on life (did you know he once had nine shows on TV—at the same time?). He read excerpts from his new book Even This I Get To Experience (terrific, pick it up) and expounded upon the benefits of going to sleep and coming up with the answer to second act dilemmas (along with looking forward to the coffee he was going to drink in the morning).

The stellar crowd at the Bev Wilshire also included Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow, Steve Erickson, John Cusack, Lindsay Hill, Mimi Pond, and Amber Tamblyn.

Photographs by Casey Curry for PEN Center USA