Speakers at the ceremony included Jimmy Kimmel, Michelle Obama (via video), Sen. Al Franken, bandleader of Letterman’s former show Paul Schaffer and last year’s Twain Prize honoree, Bill Murray.
Letterman ended his late-night television career in May 2015, after spending more than three decades on late-night television on NBC and CBS.
“When Dave left 17 long months ago, we had no idea how much trouble we were in,” Kimmel joked. “I look at what’s going on now and I think this is your [Letterman’s] fault. All of it. Everything was fine until you went off the air. You abandoned us. You went out for a pack of cigarettes and left us to live with an abusive orange stepfather.”
Kimmel, host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” also spoke about receiving a box of neckties from Letterman.
“I think he sent me every tie he ever wore on the show. Hundreds of them… I’m wearing one tonight, when you turn them over, there’s a label. I guess a special label he had sewn in the back of every tie, that says the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection. So, you’re all class Dave.”
Letterman returned the favor by calling Kimmel “the man that got more done in Congress this year than anybody else.”
Since signing off air, Letterman has grown a heavy beard, sporadically reappeared in the media and announced earlier this year that he would make a new Netflix series that features one in-depth interview per episode.
During the ceremony for one of the most prestigious honors in comedy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Letterman was also praised by former first lady Michelle Obama, who had made taped comments.
“For over 30 years, on late night TV, no matter what was going on in our lives, we all knew that Dave would be there for us when we needed a laugh,” she said.
Letterman thanked his friends and struck a humorous tone during his remarks. The ceremony will be broadcast by PBS in November.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was first awarded in 1998 to Richard Pryor, highlights social criticism and insightful observation using humor.
The prize “recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain,” The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts said in it’s description of the honor.
Previous recipients include Eddie Murphy, Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Ellen DeGeneres.
Letterman concluded his remarks at the ceremony on a political note: “I’m going to wrap this up now with a quote and I hope I get it correct and it has to do with patriotism. And Mark Twain’s definition of patriotism is this: ‘Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.'”