Since 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has celebrated deserving recipients with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. This year, David Letterman received the 2017 award. The prize is designed to honor significant contributions to American humor, and it is presented before an audience comprised of the honoree’s peers.
Among the non-literary of us, Letterman and Twain share a similar appearance, with both sporting a white and gray mustache and silver locks of hair. Letterman, however, has the beard he’s grown since he retired from the Late Show in 2015 so he would have time for “pursuing his other passions”. Letterman also shares the innate talent for telling a great story, just as Mark Twain did before him. Even more than that, the two humorists are noted for their intelligent humor, acerbic wit, awareness of their own human flaws, and an undeniable penchant for experimentation. They both could just as easily pick away at politics, too.
Twain was born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri and moved with his family to Hannibal when he was four. Letterman was born David Michael Letterman in Indianapolis, Indiana. Both men are what Mid-Westerners would call good Mid-Western stock. The sturdy attitudes of self-reliance, thrift, and a hard work ethic, touched with the dry sense of humor characteristic of America’s heartland are obvious in both. Letterman said he was honored to be receiving the Mark Twain Prize, and for all these reasons, and more, he’s a great choice.
The prize and show were created by the Kennedy Center with:
- Extraordinary live event producers, brothers Bob and Peter Kaminsky
- Mark Kranz- President of Mark Krantz Productions based in New York
- Cappy McGarr- Special Advisor to the Chairman and an Emeritus Trustee of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees.
The Kaminsky brother’s credits are extensive. They have produced hundreds of hours of live and live television events over the years. Bob Kaminsky was interviewed for a radio broadcast, and he shared some of his background and behind the scenes information about how the Mark Twain Prize show is produced.
Bob started producing live television events because his father was a writer for the Jackie Gleason Show, and Bob went with his father on the train from New York to Florida to see the variety acts. His role with the Mark Twain Prize began when he and his brother Peter were approached at a Clinton White House event to create a prize and show honoring American humor. His father was devoted to the humor of Mark Twain for many reasons, and everyone involved with the creation of the event agreed that Mark Twain should be the inspiration for the prize.
The Kaminsky’s created the show, secured the broadcast deal with PBS, and negotiated the program with the Kennedy Center. His team includes 4 executive producers, and an entire team works together in overlapping capacities to ensure the show works. After an honoree is named and confirmed, the pre-production for the show begins in the summer for the annual October event. The team does extensive research to find photos, footage and everything possible to show the comedic talents and experiences of the honoree. Once the show begins, it is never stopped, so the audience sees exactly what happens as the moments unfold.
Plenty of great moments filled the October 22 event. Steve Martin and Bill Murray, previous Mark Twain honorees were there. Jimmy Kimmel noted how Letterman had showed the world how to laugh again with a post 9/11 monologue that helped people move forward. Jimmy Walker from “Good Times” was there to remember Letterman’s first joke writing job ever on the show. Martin Short teased him about his new white beard, while Steve Martin told him he looked much like a war general, on the Confederate side. Michelle Obama made a video tribute and sent it to the event. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sang Warren Zevon’s “Keep me in your heart” because it is one of Letterman’s favorites, and thanked him for supporting musicians. Bill Murray had a burger delivered to him on stage, and then topped that by having platters of burgers delivered to the balcony where Letterman sat with his son.
The evening ended with Letterman thanking the many people who helped him along his way to 33 years of successful late-night television shows. Letterman closed with quoting Mark Twain on patriotism. Well done, Letterman!