WASHINGTON • It was all because of a 1978 appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the story goes, that David Letterman found his audience.
Letterman, an unknown stand-up comedian then, appeared relaxed and confident telling jokes in a short set, then bantering next to Carson's desk. Landing on the show meant he had made it.
"I have a feeling with your shot on this show tonight," Carson said at the end of Letterman's segment, "that you're going to be working a lot outside of the Comedy Store," referring to the West Hollywood club that was a haven for young comics.
One place Letterman would go - 39 years later - was the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where on Sunday, he accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour, one of comedy's top honours.
While collecting the award, Letterman, 70, referred to his timely visit on Carson's show.
After hosting late-night television on NBC and CBS for 33 years, Letterman left CBS' Late Show in 2015 and eased into a private life mostly away from cameras.
On Sunday, he sat perched in a box overlooking the stage, between his wife, Regina, and teenage son, Harry.
A stunning array of performers talked of how Letterman reinvented late-night television with oddball bits, as well as of his ability to deliver comforting words during the worst of times. They saluted, cheered and mocked him for his restless, unsatisfied energy and relentless beard.
"No one from his generation influenced American comedy more," said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
Comedian John Mulaney described Letterman as the comic equivalent of the painter who broke with a tradition of religious art to paint fruit.
"The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I think it said to people: Hey, take a break from your weird life and watch these fancy people make show business," Mulaney said. "But David Letterman's shows said to people: Your weird life is just as funny as show business."
Soon after, as if to prove Mulaney's point, actor Bill Murray, last year's recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, appeared in full Elizabethan garb, describing the kingly life that followed his acceptance of the award.
"You will be able, as the Twain, to walk up to any man or woman and take a burning cigar from their mouth and finish it. You will be able to board any riverboat."
Letterman clapped in delight at that line. Then, Murray had a cheeseburger delivered to the stage, took a bite and demanded that trays of burgers be delivered to Letterman's box.
"Harry, I want you to be a generous prince," Murray instructed Letterman's son. "Throw a pickle to your people."
Letterman's long-time, late-night sidekick, musician Paul Shaffer, joked in his tribute about Letterman's signature mix of warmth and reserve.
"I believe that Dave would run into a burning house to save my children," he said. "And I hope and know, Dave, that I would do the same for you, should you some day feel comfortable enough to tell me where your house is."
Former United States first lady Michelle Obama appeared by video to toast Letterman's intellect, saying: "The thing about the best comedians is that they aren't just funny. They're also witty, smart and curious."
Letterman offered a quote from Twain at the end of the show.
"Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it."
NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES