WASHINGTON — David Letterman’s job was to make America laugh five nights a week, but he also didn’t mind making his audience uncomfortable. The late-night host’s irascible, independent streak inspired fierce loyalty from fans and critics and led to his being honored with the nation’s top prize for humor.
Letterman, 70, is this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center announced Tuesday. He is the 20th humorist to receive the prize, which began in 1998. Last fall, he delivered a warm tribute on stage at the Kennedy Center as Bill Murray, a frequent guest on his show, accepted the award.
Letterman hosted more than 6,000 episodes of late-night television, starting in 1982 with NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman.” Long considered the heir apparent to Johnny Carson, he ended up losing the “Tonight Show” job to rival Jay Leno. Instead, he signed with CBS, where he hosted “The Late Show” from 1993 until his retirement in 2015.
The Twain prize is given annually to a humorist whose impact on American society is reminiscent of Samuel Clemens, the 19th-Century novelist, satirist and social commentator better known as Mark Twain. Letterman also is a past recipient of Kennedy Center Honors for his influence on American culture.
“This is an exciting honor,” Letterman, who declined interviews, said in a statement. “For 33 years, there was no better guest, no greater friend of the show, than Mark Twain. The guy could really tell a story.”
An Indiana native, Letterman graduated from Ball State University and got his start in local television as a weathercaster. He dropped hints that he might follow a different career path when he congratulated a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane and warned of hailstones “the size of canned hams.”
He moved to Los Angeles to pursue stand-up comedy and made numerous appearances on Carson’s “Tonight Show” in the 1970s. He hosted a zany, short-lived morning show — the beginning of his partnership with bandleader Paul Shaffer — before NBC launched “Late Night” in 1982. The 12:35 a.m. timeslot allowed Letterman to experiment with the talk-show format, and he developed a youthful following.
Letterman could be prickly on-air — ask Paris Hilton, whom he grilled about her experience in jail, or Bill O’Reilly, to whom he said, “I think of you as a goon” — but he also developed a warm rapport with A-list stars, such as Murray and Julia Roberts, who understood his sensibilities.
He also made stars out of regular people, like struggling actor Calvert DeForest, who played weirdo Larry “Bud” Melman; Rupert Jee, the owner of a deli near the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Letterman taped his show; and his behind-the-scenes staff like stage manager Biff Henderson and gruff stagehands Pat and Kenny, who did wooden readings of transcripts from Oprah Winfrey’s show.
He was famous for silly gags like “Stupid Pet Tricks” or simply dropping things off the roofs of buildings. Yet the serious moments on his show were among the most memorable. In his first broadcast after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he spoke to a wounded nation with raw emotion.
“We’re told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor,” Letterman said of the 9/11 hijackers, “and if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?”
Letterman also survived a sex scandal that could have ruined his career. When a man was arrested for trying to extort the married talk-show host over his affairs with women who worked for him, Letterman took control of the story, going on-air and admitting his misdeeds in a vulnerable, riveting — and still funny — monologue.
Letterman will accept the prize in an Oct. 22 gala at the Kennedy Center. Past recipients of the Twain prize include Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy — and Leno, who was honored in 2014.
“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,” Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter said. “We are thrilled to present the Mark Twain Prize in this special anniversary year to such a deserving individual.”