James McBride — an award-winning author, musician and screenwriter — has won the 2022 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
McBride, whose 2020 novel “Deacon King Kong” was named one of the top 10 books of the year by the New York Times, was honored Friday evening at the Lincoln Theatre. He was one of the top three finalists, who also included authors Mike Birbiglia and Alexandra Petri, with all three in attendance at the event.
The Thurber Prize, this year honoring the best humor writing published in 2020, has been awarded since 1997 and annually, since 2004.
“James McBride is known for his wit but not for what one typically thinks of as hardcore comedy,” said Laurie Lathan, executive director of Thurber House. “So many folks thought that ‘Deacon King Kong’ was a marvelous book in general — then throw in the humor factor on top of that.”
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“Deacon King Kong,” set in the 1960s in a Brooklyn housing project, stars a scruffy African American church deacon who’s fond of drinking. His actions of him and a drug-related shooting set off a string of events in the retro, realistic setting that’s filled with quirky, memorable characters.
McBride is also the author of the memoir “The Color of Water” and the novel “The Good Lord Bird,” for which he won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction and which was made into a Showtime series starring Ethan Hawke. He is also a musician and a composer and toured as a saxophonist sideman with jazz artist Jimmy Scott. He lives in New York City.
McBride, 64, attended Oberlin College in Ohio and Columbia University in New York. He most recently appeared in Columbus at an event presented by the King Arts Complex in March 2020.
Then the pandemic struck, which significantly impacted the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
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“We were in the middle of receiving submissions and had to shut everything down,” Lathan said. “It’s been a lot of pausing and accelerating.”
Thus, the 2022 prize reflects the writing of works published in 2020. The 2023 prize will be for works published in 2020 and 2021, Lathan said.
A judging panel of more than 50 writers, humorists, past Thurber Prize finalists and local experts—the largest group of judges yet—selected this year’s semifinalists and finalists. Using a numeric system, a final judging panel of 10 chose the top three finalists and the winner, Lathan said.
The six semi-finalists for the 2022 Thurber Prize also included Laura Pedersen, Shannon Reed and MO Walsh. Previous winners of the Thurber Prize include “The Daily Show” hosts Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah, The New Yorker staff writers Calvin Trillin and Ian Frazier and humorists Julie Schumacher and Alan Zweibel.
Winners of the Thurber Prize are obliged to make a public appearance in Columbus.
“We’ve gotten a little behind because of the pandemic,” Lathan said, but she added that McBride will be engaged for a Columbus event, date to be announced.