David Letterman wins Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

The late-night comedian David Letterman has been awarded the highest honor in American humor: the Mark Twain Prize.

The Mark Twain Prize is awarded each year at the Kennedy Center to a comedian who has influenced the nation's culture in much the same way as Mark Twain once did—with satire and social commentary.

In the past, Mark Twain Prize recipients have included, among a list of 20 in total:

  • Tina Fey;
  • Bill Murray;
  • Will Ferrell;
  • Steve Martin;
  • Richard Pryor;
  • Eddie Murphy; and
  • Ellen DeGeneres.

David Letterman's contributions to American comedy began before he took on the role of host for NBC's Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, followed by CBS' The Late Show in 1993. In total, Letterman hosted well over 6,000 episodes of late night television.

Letterman attended Ball State University, and after a short stint as a weathercaster in which he frequently cracked jokes about hailstorms and hurricanes, he ended up moving on to comedy.

Letterman retired from hosting the Late Show in 2015, and since then has been making various appearances, while growing what USA Today calls his "Santa Claus beard." Most recently, Letterman inducted the band Pearl Jam to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, describes Letterman's comedy as "smart, authentic, and, frankly, what many of us came to rely upon to elevate our spirits after a long day."

For years, Rutter says, Americans pushed back their bedtimes so that they wouldn't miss out on the chance to discuss Letterman's show with co-workers the following day.

Letterman was most influential, however, when his comedy turned to more serious social commentary. He addressed viewers after the September 11 terrorist attacks with raw emotion, and navigated national tragedy with a sense of candor and loyalty.

Letterman will receive the Mark Twain Prize on October 22, during an annual gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (Blistein, Rolling Stone, 5/16; Nuckles, USA Today, 5/16).

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