Most Generation Xers and Millennials identify with what Jimmy Fallon, the host of the Tonight Show, said on the day after the David Letterman show had its final night in 2015. “I, like every kid who grew up watching him, will miss him.”
That sentiment was echoed at the October 22 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ceremony in Washington, where Letterman was celebrated by fellow entertainers and received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is named after the 19th century novelist, essayist and humorist. It started being awarded in 1998 to those who, like Twain, made a great contribution to American humour. Richard Pryor was the first recipient; Letterman is the most recent. He received his Twain for a record run on late-night TV—33 years on NBC and then CBS—innovative comedy routines, and a sardonic, ironic comedic style that influenced a generation.
While Letterman’s humour was razer-sharp and thought-provoking in monologues and interviews, he was sometimes right down silly, verging on surrealistic and nihilistic.
His show’s more offbeat antics included Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks, attaching a camera to a monkey’s back, tossing watermelons off a five-story building, wearing a Velcro suit to jump on a Velcro-covered wall, and wearing a suit made of Alka-Seltzer to jump into a tank of water.
These segments were a hit with Letterman’s mostly college-age fans—perhaps because they reflected their growing awareness of the bizarre side of life.
“No one from his generation influenced American comedy more,” said Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” at the Kennedy ceremony. Kimmel credited Letterman with helping the U.S. to start laughing again after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fellow comedians paid tribute to Letterman at the ceremony, but they also roasted him for his recent look (a white, long beard), and his well-known mixture of warmth and aloofness.
“Dave has always had excellent instincts. What better time that now to choose to look like a Confederate war general,” said comedian Steve Martin.
“I believe that Dave would run into a burning house to save my children,” said Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s long-time band leader and side-kick on the show. “And I hope and know, Dave, that I would do the same for you, should you someday feel comfortable enough to tell me where your house is.”
“Dave is incredibly accomplished,” joked comedian Amy Schumer. “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.”
After thanking all those who helped him in his career, Letterman closed the Kennedy ceremony with a Twain quote that resonates well with the current U.S. political climate: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and supporting your government when it deserves it.”
Letterman’s fans will be glad to hear that he is returning to television with an interview show on Netflix, slated for some time in 2018. In the meantime, a broadcast of the Kennedy ceremony will air on PBS on November 20th.