The Humanitas Prize trophy
|Awarded for||Film and television writing promoting human dignity, meaning and freedom.|
|Country||United States of America|
The Humanitas Prize is an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom. It began in 1974 with Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser—also the founder of Paulist Productions—but is generally not seen as specifically directed toward religious cinema or TV. The prize is distinguished from similar honors for screenwriters in that a large cash award, between $10,000 and $25,000, accompanies each prize. Journalist Barbara Walters once said, "What the Nobel Prize is to literature and the Pulitzer Prize is to journalism, the Humanitas Prize has become for American television."
Beginning as primarily a television award, the first Humanitas Prize winners were announced on the Today Show. Kieser, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Abernathy announced the first winners in 1975. At that time, the awards were divided into three categories, based on program length (30, 60, or 90 minutes and longer); these lengths tend to correspond to comedies, dramas, and telefilms or miniseries, to the extent that some articles refer to the categories by those names.
The present-day award system is broken up into Prime Time TV 90 minute, Prime Time TV 60 minute, Prime Time TV 30 minute, Children's Live Action, Children's Animation, Feature Film, and Sundance Feature Film categories, with additional awards that include the Angell Comedy Fellowship for film-school students. The fellowship was started after David Angell and his wife, Lynn Angell, were killed in the crash of Flight 11 in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Kieser Award, a kind of lifetime achievement award, was established after Keiser's death in late 2000. The Special Award category is irregularly given, usually to writers of a news or documentary program, which otherwise are excluded from the prize; to date the longest period without the special award was the 11-year period between 1995 and 2006.
When the award was established, the committee determined that the writer was the source of the most humanizing values in any program and should therefore be the focus of the awards. Although lists of Humanitas Prize winners for television categories often tell only the name of the program, the award actually is made to the writers of specific episodes, and more than one episode of a given show may be among the finalists in any given year; similarly, reports on the film categories often give more prominence to the film's title, but the award goes to the writing staff. In 2005 Humanitas winners included Hotel Rwanda (feature film) and The West Wing (television).
In 2006, the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth about global warming starring Al Gore was given a "Special Award" for "mak[ing] a significant contribution to the human family by communicating values, forming consciences and motivating human behavior."
The most wins—four—by any single program was for writers of the TV series M*A*S*H: Larry Gelbart, 1976; Alan Alda (with James Jay Rubinfier), 1980; and the team of David Pollock and Elias Davis in 1982 and 1983. Several shows won three times including The West Wing, The Wonder Years, Family, Scrubs, thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues, and I'll Fly Away, which once won in the 60- and 90-minute categories in the same year. Life with Louie was the only show to win three times in the children's animation category.
Writers who have won three times include Aaron Sorkin (for The West Wing and Sports Night), David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, The Practice), and Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething, Once and Again, and the telefilm Special Bulletin). While at least four writers have had back-to-back wins, it is not unusual for several years to pass between one writer's winning the prize again. To date the longest gap was the case of China Beach writer-producer John Sacret Young, who won in 1978 for the telefilm Special Olympics, then won his second Humanitas Prize 21 years later for the TV movie Thanks of a Grateful Nation. (Young eventually went on to become a member of the Humanitas Board of Directors, where he serves with at least four other repeat prizewinners.)
In 2010, Humanitas introduced a new program called "New Voices," designed to help emerging television writers. The program pairs inexperienced writers with Humanitas board members to sell their work to the television networks.
In season 4, episode 19 of Boston Legal, Carl Sack, played by John Larroquette, stated, "Well, there goes my Humanitas Award," after a long rant against organized religion. By itself, it was a meta-reference to both Larroquette's short-lived eponymous sitcom winning the award in 1995, along with Boston Legal creator David Kelley winning it in 1996 and 2003.
The short lived Clerks: The Animated Series parodied the award in its first episode; main character Dante Hicks mentioned that it was "an award for shows that don't use words like retarded", to which friend Randal Graves replied, "That's retarded. And queer."
In the 2007 Sopranos episode "Stage 5," Tony Soprano's nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, asks J.T. Dolan about his "Human-itis" award. J.T. corrects him, correctly pronouncing "Hu-ma-ni-tas", after which Christopher whacks him on the head with the award. J.T. was played by actor and producer Tim Daly, a previous Humanitas award recipient. The Sopranos creator David Chase is also a previous recipient of the Humanitas award.