David Letterman Receives Mark Twain Prize for American Humor In Star-Studded Ceremony

David Letterman, 2017
Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

David Letterman is honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 22, 2017, in Washington. 

There are all kinds of funny. David Letterman has a brand of humor of his own, and because of this, the comedic former late-night host was this year's recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His honor drew a stellar swath of comedy to the Kennedy Center Sunday night (Oct. 22) to pay tribute to Letterman's unique humor, perhaps best described by presenter John Mulaney.

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

It was a night of spot-on stand up and sincere sentiment for the man who, with more than 33 years and 6,000 episodes, is the longest-running host of late-night television in U.S. history. His well-wishers included Sen. Al Franken, Jimmy Kimmel, Norm Macdonald, Mulaney, Bill Murray, Amy Schumer -- notably the only woman -- Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, Jimmy Walker? and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. The show will be broadcast on PBS on November 20.

Steve Martin was among those who drew attention to the wild beast in the room: Letterman’s beard. "Dave has always had excellent instincts,” he quipped. “What better time than now to choose to look like a Confederate war general.” Last year’s Twain honoree Murray took the stage robed as Tudor royalty to demonstrate the good life of being a Twain-ee. “You’re not exactly a god, but you’re way up there,” he called up to Letterman, seated in the balcony with his family. Schumer joked about Letterman’s aloof nature, noting by the end of her third appearance on his show, “Dave was no longer totally indifferent to me.”

The live acts were interspersed with video footage showcasing the comedic genius of Letterman. There were clips of "Stupid Pet Tricks," monkey cam, Dave’s mom reporting from the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Larry Bud Melman meeting first-timers to NYC at the Port Authority, Letterman dropping holiday ornaments off the roof of a building. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, posing as Letterman school mates from back home in Indiana, paid tribute via video as did Michelle Obama. And, yes, there was a real-time Top 10.

Longtime Letterman pal Vedder performed the late Warren Zevon's "Keep Me In Your Heart,” a song from Zevon’s final album, accompanied by a small choir and Shaffer on piano. Letterman was particularly fond of Zevon, who was a frequent guest on the show and the sole visitor to the set in October 2002 not long before he succumbed to inoperable lung cancer.

Letterman’s a known music lover, and he spoke about his passion for the live music experience when he inducted Vedder’s band Pearl Jam into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. He elaborated with Billboard before last night’s show.

“I miss it. I had it every night for 33 years, most of those years with Paul, and when you don’t have it, you miss it. You can get it off any device you have, but there’s something about live music and watching the organism that makes the live music. Half the fun of going to a symphony is watching the machine that produces that sound; it’s truly something people really need to immerse themselves in.”

Letterman also shared ahead of the show which of his former guests he’d most like to interview again on his new Netflix run: Donald Trump. Then his lip curled ever so slightly and he asked, “Now what do you think the chances of that are? It’s hard for me to recognize him as the President, because I remember him as Don, and he would come on the show and I would make fun of his hair. So that would be my base of strategy. I would say, ‘Donnn, what the hell’s going on here?’ ”

As Walker said on the carpet before the curtain came up, “We’re in Washington, D.C., and this is a very liberal audience…. And you will not find a pro-Trump joke in America. Keep looking, you’ll never find one.”

Certainly not last night. Although Letterman’s humor has never been overly political, a few of his presenters took the opportunity to smack down Trump. Kimmel blamed Letterman’s retirement for paving the way for a Trump victory. “David Letterman signed off the air at 1:35 a.m. on May 21, 2015, and since that night the world has gone to complete and utter... are we allowed to say (shit) on PBS?" Kimmel said. “It’s like you went out for cigarettes one day and left us in the hands of our abusive, orange stepfather.”

Kimmel spoke before the show of Letterman’s influence on him. “Once in a while when there is a big event I do think about how Dave would handle it, and it helps me,” he said. “I try to think about what he would do, and then I do it in a less effective way.”

Unlike some previous Twain Prize celebrations, this 20th anniversary show had a music heavyweight baked right in. Shaffer, who famously led the World’s Most Dangerous Band nightly for the majority of Letterman’s Late Show” run, assumed the same post, stage left, for the entirety of the proceedings. He was among the last to step up to the mic, with a comical and touching tribute.

“I believe Dave would run into a burning house to save my children,” 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.”

When it was Letterman’s turn to take the stage, he kept it simple and gracious during his 10-minute speech, noting he was there in the spotlight “because of the hundreds and hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who have helped me… We have to help each other, or nothing will happen.”

Then he, too, got political. “There are millions of quotes from Mark Twain… I’m going to wrap this up with a quote, and it has to do with patriotism. Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your country when it deserves it.”