David Letterman, who reinvented late-night television with his irreverent and distinctly original comic sensibility, will receive the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Letterman, 70, will be honored with the 20th-annual prize at a gala performance Oct. 22. The event will be televised later nationally. The Twain, considered the most prestigious honor in the world of comedy, will be awarded to Letterman five years after he was made a Kennedy Center Honoree. Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Neil Simon also have received both honors.
It’s not surprising. Letterman’s late-night reign stretched over 33 years and 6,028 shows, debuting with NBC’s “Late Night” in 1982 before moving to the “Late Show” on CBS in 1993. He arrived at a time when late night was ruled by Johnny Carson, the legendary host of “The Tonight Show.” With Letterman and Jay Leno competing for an audience, the landscape shifted, spawning a host of new programs, everything from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” to a slew of younger hosts, including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien.
Letterman retired from CBS in 2015, replaced by Stephen Colbert, but unlike Carson, one of Letterman’s heroes, he has not retreated from the public eye. His retirement beard — “my son thinks it’s creepy,” he said in an interview last year — has made appearances in Super Bowl commercials, at award dinners and, last year, in an episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a National Geographic series focused on renewable energy for which Letterman traveled to India. Letterman was at the Kennedy Center in 2016 as one of the presenters for that year’s Twain honoree, Bill Murray.
Letterman also has not shied away from politics in the past year. In the wake of Fallon’s hair-tousling episode with then-candidate Donald Trump, Letterman went on the attack. He went so far as to call Trump “crazy” in an interview with New York magazine earlier this year.
Letterman said in a statement that receiving the Twain was “an exciting honor.”
“For 33 years, there was no greater guest, no greater friend of the show, than Mark Twain,” he added. “The guy could really tell a story.”
“For decades, David Letterman delivered comedy to America that was smart, authentic, and frankly, what many of us came to rely upon to elevate our spirits after a long day,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “Raise your hand if, like me, you shifted your bedtime because you didn’t want to miss a moment of Dave on television lest you not be part of the conversation with friends and co-workers the next day. His 30-year late-night presence — filled with pranks, antics, and his quintessential deadpan humor — remains a fixture of the American experience. I’m probably not the first to say that Dave is ‘comedy royalty’ and we are thrilled to present the Mark Twain Prize in his special anniversary year to such a deserving individual.”
Named for 19th-century author and satirist Samuel L. Clemens — whose pen name was Mark Twain — the prize was created in 1998 to celebrate America’s best humorists. Winners include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Burnett, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Murray and Leno, who was Letterman’s late-night rival for decades. The Kennedy Center said it wasn’t ready to announce who will speak about Letterman onstage; in addition to Letterman, last year’s celebrity toasters included late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, actress Emma Stone and comedian Aziz Ansari.
Letterman lives in New York with his wife, Regina, and his son, Harry. Born in Indiana, Letterman started his career as a TV weatherman in Indianapolis before deciding, in 1975, to move to Los Angeles to try his hand at comedy. He began guest-hosting “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” in 1978 and launched a critically acclaimed but short-lived morning comedy show in 1980. “Late Night With David Letterman” debuted in 1982.