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David Letterman Earns Mark Twain Prize for Late-Night High Jinks

During his 33 years as a late-night host, Mr. Letterman was known for being at once breezy and detached, a contrast that made him a towering figure to the comedians who delivered tributes on Sunday.

“No one from his generation influenced American comedy more,” said Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and one of Mr. Letterman’s most famous adherents.

Other speakers were just as gushing.

“Mr. Letterman reinvented the late-night talk show,” Norm Macdonald said. “Mr. Letterman deconstructed television itself, then created his own construct.”


Mr. Letterman; his wife, Regina Lasko, left; and his son, Harry, right, greeted the audience in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center

John Mulaney described Mr. Letterman as the comic equivalent of the painter who broke from a tradition of religious art to paint fruit.

“‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson, I think it said to people: Hey, take a break from your weird life and watch these fancy people make show business,” Mr. Mulaney said. “But David Letterman’s shows said to people: Your weird life is just as funny as show business.”

Soon after, as if to prove Mr. Mulaney’s point, Bill Murray, last year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, appeared at the side of the auditorium dressed in a Tudor-like costume, describing the kingly life that followed his acceptance of the award.

“What a reign it has been,” Mr. Murray said. “You’re not exactly a god, but you’re way up there.”

The show seemed particularly suited to the sweep and variety of late-night television, and to Mr. Letterman’s brand of irony-soaked humor. The onstage tributes were separated by video segments from Mr. Letterman’s shows, many featuring him away from his desk chair: working as a drive-through operator at Taco Bell, or playing with pet animals that performed tricks, or dropping objects onto a trampoline from a building.

Mr. Letterman’s longtime sidekick as a late-night host, the musician Paul Shaffer, joked in his tribute about Mr. Letterman’s signature mix of warmth and reserve.

“I believe that Dave would run into a burning house to save my children,” Mr. Shaffer said. “And I hope and know, Dave, that I would do the same for you, should you some day feel comfortable enough to tell me where your house is.”

After maintaining some distance from public life the past two years, Mr. Letterman announced in August that he would host a show on Netflix next year featuring long-form interviews in six hourlong episodes.


Mr. Letterman with the musician Paul Shaffer, his longtime sidekick, before Sunday’s ceremony.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

He has lately used his celebrity in more political ways, at times to satisfy his patchwork of extracurricular interests. Last year, he traveled to India to host a climate change-themed episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a documentary series on National Geographic.

And he has not been shy about his contempt for President Trump, calling him “a person to be shunned.”

At the ceremony on Sunday, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota and a longtime friend of Mr. Letterman’s, said that Mr. Letterman’s interests had important range, from the “monkey cam” sketch he was famous for on late-night television to the climate change policy the two have discussed. Michelle Obama appeared by video to toast Mr. Letterman’s intellect, saying, “The thing about the best comedians is that they aren’t just funny. They’re also witty, smart and curious.”

His hobbies in television retirement have veered into less cerebral pursuits, too.

Mr. Letterman told The New York Times last October that he has appreciated the ordinary parts of life, such as shopping at Target, CVS and Walgreens. He has spent time grooming his 2,700-acre ranch in Montana, using it as a retreat from life in New York.

Something else Mr. Letterman has groomed in his post-television life: a beard that has become a token of his new life. It was a constant presence — almost a second guest of honor — on Sunday, a hairy punching bag for his admirers.

“Dave has always had spot-on comedic instincts,” said Steve Martin, who won the Mark Twain Prize in 2005. “What better time than right now to insist on looking like a Confederate war general?”

“Dave is incredibly accomplished,” Amy Schumer said. “Over the course of his life, he has successfully transitioned from a stand-up comic to a late-night talk show host to a Civil War re-enactor.”

The Mark Twain Prize has been awarded since 1998, when Richard Pryor was its first recipient. A broadcast of Sunday’s ceremony will air on PBS on Nov. 20.

“Because of this award,” Mr. Letterman said at the end of the show, “I am now the most humorous person in the world.”

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