The Kennedy Center

David Letterman

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    Kennedy Center Honors Highlights 2012


(Comedian and television host, born April 12, 1947, in Indianapolis, Indiana)

David Letterman has been synonymous with late-night television for more than a quarter century, and after more than 5,000 broadcasts he is one of the most influential personalities and producers in the history of the medium. His artistry was fittingly heralded when in 1992 he received the Peabody Award for taking "one of TV's most conventional and least inventive forms…and infusing it with freshness and imagination." In 1981, he won two Daytime Emmy Awards as writer and host for his first show, a quickly canceled morning variety ratings disaster on NBC called The David Letterman Show. In 1982, his second try for TV stardom, Late Night with David Letterman, premiered on NBC, injecting into the late-night landscape an unconventional, bold and eccentric brand of craziness. Television—and American comedy—has never been the same since. A decade later, Letterman's third network show, Late Show with David Letterman, made its debut on CBS, quickly becoming one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed programs of the year. For more than 30 years, there has hardly been a TV season in which Letterman has not been either nominated for or won an Emmy Award, amassing an unbelievable 51 nominations and 5 wins. Letterman recently surpassed his friend and mentor Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years, to become the host with the longest late-night career in the United States. And no one other than Carson comes even close to receiving the outpouring of critical praise and award recognition that has come Letterman's way.

From the beginning, Letterman has been recognized for re-defining the late-night talk show and for inspiring countless comedians and talk show hosts who have followed him. In 2009, Forbes listed Letterman as No. 14 on its list of the 100 most powerful celebrities, citing his production company, Worldwide Pants, which produces his show and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson as well as the now classic Everybody Loves Raymond. Letterman has also won two American Comedy Awards as Funniest Male Performer in a Television Series. Television critic Ken Tucker wrote in "David Letterman is certainly the most important talk-show host of his era and arguably second only to Johnny Carson as the best of all time….Years from now, when Dave has retired, you'll be moaning about what a loss he is to television." Before heading to Los Angeles and stardom, Letterman worked in radio and TV in his hometown of Indianapolis, bouncing from hosting radio talk shows, to children's TV programs, late-night movies, sports announcer and as an unconventional weatherman, famously congratulating a tropical storm on being upgraded to a hurricane and predicting hailstones the size of canned hams.

Then in 1975 he drove west to California, and began performing stand-up at The Comedy Store. There were a few more years of bouncing around from job to job—writing for the comedy Good Times, performing on Mary Tyler Moore's variety show Mary, guesting on what seemed like every game show from Pyramid to Password. It all led to the big night in November 1978 when he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show. After his few minutes of stand-up, he was invited to join Johnny Carson (1993 Kennedy Center Honoree) on the couch—at the time, that was a sure sign you had made it in show business. He was invited back 21 times and even became a regular guest host. Soon his own Late Night with David Letterman followed Carson's show at 12:30 a.m. It was self-consciously brash, quirkily deconstructive and uniquely unpredictable. It was an instant hit with a young hip audience and subsequently laid the groundwork, as Peter Kaplan wrote in New York magazine, for "a pervasive culture of irony. Letterman's program created a sensibility that permeated TV, movies, literature, music, art, and magazines." It also introduced many of Letterman's signature features, including the Top 10 list, Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Viewer Mail, the NBC Bookmobile, and "Film[s] by My Dog Bob," plus such surrealist creations as Chris Elliott's "Guy Under the Seats," "Dwight the Troubled Teen," and most memorably Larry "Bud" Melman.

When Carson retired—a watershed moment for American pop culture—many, including Letterman, were surprised NBC picked Jay Leno, not him, as the successor, but NBC's loss became CBS's gain as Letterman took his Top 10 list and bandleader Paul Shaffer to CBS and launched the Late Show with David Letterman, adding Will It Float, Know Your Current Events, the stagehand Biff Henderson, hapless announcer Alan Kalter and his mom Dorothy—baker of holiday pies and correspondent to the Olympic Games—to his roster of unforgettable late-night characters and hijinks. "David Letterman put CBS late night on the map and in the process became one of the defining icons of our network," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation. "His presence on our air is an ongoing source of pride, and the creativity and imagination that ‘The Late Show' puts forth every night is an ongoing display of the highest quality entertainment."

Two Late Show nights, in particular, stand out above all others. In 2000, Letterman had quintuple heart bypass surgery. His first show back on the air was a sincerely heart-felt tribute to the doctors and nurses who had saved his life. As he brought them all out to take a bow, he looked frighteningly thin, but his mood was unexpectedly exuberant.  Then in 2001 he won unanimous raves and unprecedented respect when he returned to the air just six days after 9/11—the first entertainer to do so—and united a grieving city and a stunned nation with an emotionally wrenching and wondrously cathartic hour of unscripted television.

"When you look back on the creative landscape of television…there's no one like him and there's no one who's ever gonna be like him," wrote Bill Zehme in Esquire. He is the "brightest and quickest and funniest TV boy ever to crack wise in the history of late-night talk television."
David Letterman