Peabody Awards: Diversity Takes Center Stage as Jon Stewart, David Letterman Return to Spotlight

Steve Martin, David Letterman and Anthony Anderson at the Peabody Awards - H Getty 2016
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The 75th anniversary ceremony honoring stories that matter in electronic media also recognized buzzed-about titles like Alex Gibney's Scientology exposé 'Going Clear' and the Robert Durst documentary series 'The Jinx.'

Nearly three months after this year's Oscars, the issue of diversity onscreen was a recurring theme at the 2016 Peabody Awards on Saturday night. During his opening remarks, Peabody director Dr. Jeffrey P. Jones said, "If this is the year of demonstrating #OscarsSoWhite, Peabody continues to highlight stories that represent voices with a focus on racial and ethnic diversity. That includes a third of this year's winners."

That wasn't the only reference to #OscarsSoWhite. As host Keegan-Michael Key was pointing out diverse guests in the audience like Aasif Mandvi, Jessica Williams, Aziz Ansari, Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, he also claimed Jada Pinkett Smith was there before realizing that the actress, who publicly boycotted the Oscars over its second straight year of all-white acting nominees, wasn't at the Peabody Awards. "Wait, what? Jada's not here? She's not at this one? This would've been the one for Jada to come to," said Key. "Oh my God, I wish Jada was here. This was the one."

Indeed, this year's Peabody winners, recognizing stories that matter across all forms of electronic media, included a number of diverse titles that were either overlooked or nominated but failed to win other major awards this year, including Netflix's first original feature film Beasts of No Nation, Aziz Ansari's Master of None and ABC's Black-ish.

Accepting the Peabody for Beasts later in the evening than expected, after the order of a couple of awards changed from what was written in the program, the pic's helmer Cary Fukunaga joked of the switch, "I thought, 'I guess we got overlooked again, even though we were invited.' But we are here now finally onstage, and it feels good. Phew."

Accepting Master of None's award with showrunner Alan Yang, Ansari thanked the Peabodys for recognizing titles that other awards groups didn't. "Let's be honest: So many awards shows f— up," he said. "They don't give people awards that probably should get awards, and the Peabody is great because it seems like you guys actually watched all of our shit and decided it was good." He also thanked Netflix and Universal Television, which produces Master of None, for "believing in us and letting us tell our stories."

He continued: "I think they really seem to get what diversity really is. It's not like, 'Hey, let's give this white protagonist some brown friends.' It's 'Let's have a show where there's a token white guy.'"

Black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris said he was amazed by how the personal stories that he and his team tell on the show seem to be resonating with a wide group of people.

"For us, everyday we get to go to work and tell stories that are so personal to us. And when people come up to us at airports and say, 'You remind us of our family' and they are not people who are black, it's amazing to me on so many different levels and so rewarding," said Barris, who noted that he'd talked about this issue with friend Yang. "The specificity speaks to the universal, and when you tell a good story and it's an honest story, I think that's what people relate to. We're at a place in our country where we're seeing a lot of different things happen in the political landscape or just the social landscape, and to be able to do a show that's supposed to be a comedy but that speaks to people in a way that gets them to think, to me that's everything I've ever asked for as a comedian and a writer. Someone once said to me the point of art is to make conversation, and every week that's all we're trying to do. We want you to leave the show and start a conversation, and I'm amazed at the conversations that are getting started. And I'm amazed that I'm here tonight. For us, it's not work; we'd do this for free. Although I do still want my check, ABC."

The 30 award winners also included such buzzed-about series as Mr. Robot, Unreal, Jessica Jones, Alex Gibney's Scientology documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and HBO's Robert Durst documentary series The Jinx.

Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg took a moment amid the night's larger diversity conversation to highlight the ongoing struggle faced by women, who are 51 percent of the population but still a minority behind and in front of the camera, she said.

"But I believe that stories can create change and if we tell them honestly, bravely and loudly, we can do that," Rosenberg added. "Everyone who's been on this stage has done that. You're all my heroes."

As for Gibney, he dedicated his award for Going Clear to "all the brave men and women who came forward to testify about the human rights abuses in the Church of Scientology." He also took a minute to remark on the anachronistic and "impressive" ways the church responded to his exposé about the controversial religion.

"In this age of Instagram and Twitter, so much electronic communication, if you really want to get a lot of hard-copy letters, make a film about Scientology," said Gibney. "The amount of legal missiles directed at us was impressive, and it was to the credit of HBO both on an editorial level and a legal level to support and protect people who are trying to tell an important story."

Durst's stunning confession at the end of The Jinx was still chilling as it and other shocking moments from the documentary series played at the Peabody Awards more than a year after the show aired on HBO. And director Andrew Jarecki, who's seen Durst continue to be in the news and charged with the murder of his friend Susan Berman, marveled at the real-life consequences of his work.

He related that when the FBI apprehended Durst (incidentally the morning the Jinx finale aired on HBO), the officers stumbled upon him in a hotel lobby as they were on their way out. They said, "Mr. Durst …" and he didn't answer, because he thought he might not have to admit that he was who they thought he was, Jarecki said, but a woman in the lobby then went up to him and told him she was a fan of his from the show, revealing his identity. "I think that's such a testament to the power of storytelling," said Jarecki. "It's also a testament to this incredible, inexplicable, unpredictable nature of documentary filmmaking."

Durst's on-air confession and ongoing legal situation have also brought closure to at least one of the family members of his alleged victims. Jarecki said that the mother of Durst's wife, Kathie McCormack, whom he allegedly killed, had said in her 90s that she didn't think she would be able to die until she found out what happened to her daughter. She recently died but before she did, she saw Durst's confession and it gave her "a huge sense of relief."

In addition, this year's 75th anniversary Peabody Awards honored documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and David Letterman, giving Stewart and Letterman the chance to make rare public appearances after leaving their respective shows last year.

Stewart, who was joined onstage by his former Daily Show staffers after a highlight reel of his time as host of the Comedy Central late-night show, including at least two clips from his final episode, joked that the video was a bit much. "I think we all miss Jon Stewart and I think we see from that eulogy what a wonderful man he was," he joked. "I hope someday I get to meet him because he seems like a hell of a guy." Stewart also was impressed by the news programs being honored, featuring stories about rape, the European migrant crisis, illegal immigration and ISIS in Afghanistan and poked fun at his show's significance, or lack thereof, despite its many accolades.

"To be here in a room with you guys, the amazing work that you're doing, I'm shocked at the breadth and somewhat disappointed at the just terrible conditions in the world that you all are addressing through your good work, because I thought that we, over our 16 years, had healed a lot of this through witty repartee — but apparently shit's still going down," said Stewart. "You are really our heroes. We tell jokes on 11th Avenue in front of a green screen. You actually go to these places and tell these stories through courage and clarity and brevity and power and so in many ways you are what we all aspire to be and desperately cry out for. So thank you for being that."

Stewart, who indicated he's happily enjoying some downtime on the farm he shares with his family, also joked that his Peabody honor would serve as a perfect gift for his wife, since the two were celebrating their 16th anniversary that night. "Every year on our anniversary, I try to get her a prestigious award and every year I fail," Stewart said. "This is the first year it's worked out. Usually I just write on a piece of paper, 'Nobel Prize for having married out of your religion.'"

He also joked that the award should both impress his kids and make up for all of the time he spent away from home working on the nightly show: "To my children who are not here tonight, 'Boom. In your face! Yeah, daddy was gone for 10 years. But guess what? Totally worth it.'"

Letterman was introduced by surprise guest Steve Martin, who recapped Letterman's career but kept getting facts wrong, with Letterman shouting out the correct info from backstage. Ultimately the former Late Show host walked onstage still sporting the Santa Claus-esque beard he's grown since leaving his CBS show last May.

"It's interesting to note that since Dave left TV, he has not shaved. He's waxed. But he has not shaved," said Martin. "I think Dave looks like a guy who's had to at least once drink his own urine. With that, ladies and gentleman, I'm proud to introduce this year's winner of an award, David Letterman."

Letterman seemed humbled by the honor but indicated that retirement had also done that, recalling a recent experience at the White House, where he was invited to attend the dinner for the heads of Nordic states. He said he was chatting throughout dinner with the assistant chief of staff to the prime minister of Norway. Around the end of the meal, the official asked Letterman, "Why are you here?"

"And I say, 'I think I picked up somebody else's mail.' He said, 'So you're here by mistake?' I said, 'Yeah. He said, 'Oh.' So there you go: You get invited to a state dinner, nobody knows why. That's the sum total of being retired," joked Letterman.

Bestowed by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Peabody Awards recognize excellence and meritorious work by radio and TV stations, networks, webcasters, podcasters, producing organizations and individuals. The ceremony, which took place at New York's Cipriani Wall Street, will air in an edited form on June 6 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot. A complete list of this year's Peabody Award winners is available here.

Jon Stewart (left) and Keegan-Michael Key share a moment together at Saturday night's show.

Watch the edited version of the ceremony that aired on Pivot below.