After listening to his friends and fellow comics sing his praises for two hours, Jay Leno did what he does best.
He grabbed the microphone and told a few jokes.
Accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, the legendary host of “The Tonight Show” performed some stand-up — grousing about getting old, reminiscing about his parents and dishing about the office interns. He ended by individually thanking each of the evening’s presenting performers, proving that all the “nice guy” comments were actually true.
“I will treasure this. Thanks for the most wonderful night of my life,” Leno, 64, said as he picked up the bust of Samuel Clemens. “This is going on the front of my ’55 Buick.”
Leno’s sharp routine followed a festive salute to the King of Late Night, who stepped down in February after 22 years as host of “The Tonight Show.” Comics Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Meyers and Chelsea Handler were among the stars on hand to celebrate the man and his career.
“I never really said it to you, because you’re never really listening, but every single time I was on his show, he’d come back and ask me how I was doing, how was life,” said Handler, addressing both Leno and the audience from the stage. “You made a difference in my life. I totally love you. And if you ever need anything from anyone, call Jimmy Fallon.”
Fallon, who inherited the NBC show from Leno, adapted his own show’s signature thank-you notes routine for the occasion, pulling out a couple of cards to write to his predecessor.
“Thank you, Jay Leno, for being really dedicated at collecting cars or really bad at remembering where you left your keys,” he said. “And thank you, Mark Twain, who wrote ‘Tom Sawyer,’ the greatest song every recorded by Rush.”
Keeping with Twain Prize convention, Leno took the stage after all the presentations, clips and sketches from friends and colleagues. Leno — sitting with his wife, Mavis — watched from a box in the Concert Hall.
Garth Brooks, a fan and frequent “Tonight” guest, used his segment to roast Leno. “I hope PBS runs this at 11 [p.m.], because it’s been proven no one will watch Jay at 10,” he said, referring to Leno’s short-lived, earlier-slotted show in 2009, when he gave up the host seat to Conan O’Brien. Leno returned to “The Tonight Show” a few months later.
Wanda Sykes turned in a terrific set. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she began. “On the plane, I sneezed twice, and everybody gave me the stink-eye. This Ebola is so scary. I’m going back to being just black. I’m not African anything.”
Leno is the 17th recipient of the annual award, which honors a lifetime contribution to American humor. Richard Pryor received the first award in 1998; other recipients include Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, Bill Cosby,Neil Simon, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell. Carol Burnett was honored last year.
The audience was treated to many clips of early Leno stand-up routines, as well as a host of bits he did over two decades as host on “The Tonight Show.” Here were snippets of the “Dancing Itos” from the era of the O.J. Simpson trial ,and highlights from “Jay Walking.” And there were clips of Leno making his “Tonight Show” debut in 1977, and hosting “Saturday Night Live” a decade later.
Jamie Foxx and Betty White contributed taped segments, and Fallon and Leno teamed on a musical parody set to a tune from “West Side Story,” singing: “Tonight, tonight, who’s gonna host tonight?”
In between, the comedians cited Leno’s generosity, his work ethic and his love of craft. In a gag about how he deserves the award, Seinfeld performed a few signature routines that showed Leno’s influence.
“Jay has really guided me, taught me what it was to be a professional,” said Seinfeld, a longtime friend. “No one deserves to get this award more — except maybe me?”
Meyers highlighted Leno’s political chops by way of introducing a montage of Leno’s political humor.
“No one has told more jokes about Washington, D.C. than Jay Leno,” Meyers said. “Republican or Democrat, Jay knows if you’re a politician, you can also be a joke.”
The show will air nationally Nov. 23 on PBS.