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No joke: TV host David Letterman honored with Mark Twain Prize

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 07: Comedian and former talk show host David Letterman speaks onstage during The New Yorker Festival 2016 - David Letterman Talks With Susan Morrison at MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre on October 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

WASHINGTON — No joke: David Letterman yukked it up on late-night TV longer than anyone else. Now his career of comedy has earned him a prestigious award and a celebrity roasting.

Letterman was to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor during a star-studded celebration Sunday night at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

Expected to attend were previous recipients Steve Martin and Bill Murray, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, musician Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Al Franken, the comedian-turned-senator.

The 70-year-old Letterman spent 33 years on late-night TV, hosting long-running shows on NBC and then on CBS. His final broadcast on May 20, 2015, was episode No. 6028 that Letterman hosted. It shattered the record of his mentor, Johnny Carson.

Letterman’s run on NBC in particular was hugely influential, introducing a sardonic, irony-drenched comedic style that influenced a generation.

His time slot immediately following Carson’s “The Tonight Show” allowed Letterman to draw a huge following of young, largely college-age viewers seeking an alternative to the somewhat staid Carson model.

Letterman introduced the country to fringe musical acts that might never have received an opportunity on “The Tonight Show.”

His humor was undeniably intelligent, but also at times surrealistic and silly. He pioneered segments called Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks. He tossed watermelons and other objects off a five-story building; at one point, he wore a suit made of Velcro and jumped onto a Velcro-covered wall, sticking in place. He turned bizarre characters like Larry “Bud” Melman into cult celebrities.

Letterman started his career as a radio talk show host and TV weatherman in Indiana. In the mid-1970s he moved to Los Angeles, performing stand-up comedy and writing jokes for (at the time more famous) stand-up comic Jimmy Walker of “Good Times” fame. Eventually he caught the eye of “The Tonight Show” and Carson, performing several times on the show and becoming a regular guest host starting in 1978.

NBC gave Letterman his own show following Carson; “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted on Feb. 1, 1982. Letterman’s first guest that night? Murray, the Twain award recipient in 2016.