Bill Murray Stole the Show as David Letterman Accepted the Mark Twain Prize (Vanity Fair)

Bill Murray Stole the Show as David Letterman Accepted the Mark Twain Prize

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For a few hours, Sunday night felt like old times. Paul Shaffer cackled from behind a keyboard in shades; baritoned redhead Alan Kalter introduced guests; there were videos of stupid pet tricks and a befuddled, lisping Larry Bud Melman. Biff Henderson ambled out wearing a headset, as if he were running the show, while an aloof Chris Elliott showed up briefly. Even Warren Zevon made an appearance in absentia when Eddie Vedder played the late musician’s song “Keep Me in Your Heart.“

And then there was Bill Murray, dressed as an Elizabethan king, who came to relinquish his crown as the Kennedy Center’s last Mark Twain Prize for American Humor winner to the newest awardee: David Letterman, who hosted 6,028 shows over 33 years on NBC’s Late Night and CBS’s Late Show combined, from 1982 to 2015.

“What a reign it has been. When you are anointed, you rise above all your fellow men and women—hello down there. You’re going to love it, Dave. So much comes with it. It’s so fantastic,” Murray said, pausing for a moment to beckon a servant to feed Letterman and his family in their balcony seats. He advised Letterman’s son, Harry, to be a generous prince: “Throw a pickle to your people, Harry.”

Then Murray went on. “You will be able to do so many things as a Twain—we just call ourselves the Twain. You will be able to take a burning cigar from a man’s mouth and finish it. You’ll be able to board any river boat. You will be the highest of the high. This suit is going to be waiting for you backstage. You’re not exactly a god, but you’re way up there.“ The Ghostbusters star then read Letterman a 19th century poem called “What A Queer Bird.“

Other guests included Sen. Al Franken, Jimmy Kimmel, Norm Macdonald, Steve Martin, John Mulaney, Amy Schumer, Martin Short, and Jimmie Walker.

Martin pretended to play a grand piano as he traded quips about Letterman with Short. “Steve is the one who plays the banjo, but Dave is the one who looks like that,” Short said. Schumer questioned why she was invited in the first place: “Tina Fey must be slammed.” Continuing on the banjo theme, she also quoted Mark Twain while lightly roasting Martin: “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo, but doesn’t.”

Schumer then thanked Letterman and said how much she’d always wanted his approval. “And here’s how we reward you, Dave,” Schumer said, pointing at the award—a bust of Twain himself. “With a little head.”

Mulaney went the sincere route, thanking Letterman for bringing something new to television. “David Letterman is ingrained in my comedy subconscious,” he said. “He showcased weirdos and and he showcased outsiders on TV the way that nobody ever had before.

Letterman’s psychiatrist, Dr. Clarice Kestenbaum, took a different tactic, shuffling out on stage to provide insight into the mind of the retired talk show host. “He just goes on,” she jokingly complained, before facetiously imitating Letterman: “‘I’m dumb. People hate me. I have E.D.‘ Between the yakking and the sobbing—oh Jesus , what a fucking pity party. Don’t get me wrong; he’s crazy. Not Trump crazy , but who knows?”

Even former First Lady Michelle Obama chimed in, congratulating Letterman by video in another heartfelt tribute. “The thing about the best comedians is that they aren’t just funny,” she said. “They are whip-smart and curious about all aspects in life. And that’s what I love most about Dave. And we always knew that whatever was going on with our lives, Dave would be there for us when we needed a laugh. He put things in perspective and gave us a break from the difficult news of the day.”

Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Fred Armisen pretended to be Letterman’s childhood friends from Indiana, accusing him of stealing their jokes—but Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s longtime sidekick and bandleader, spoke about their actual friendship. “There are many kinds of friendships, but none are more meaningful than the show business friendship,” he said. “Stepping on the little people all day long creates a bond stronger than most second marriages.”

Earlier in the evening, Letterman was all smiles. “So far I’m having a very nice time,” Letterman , 70, told reporters on the red carpet. “But I’m afraid that will all start to diminish when people are on stage telling lies about me. And then I’ll start to wither and feel uncomfortable and sweat through my shirt.”

Though the event took place at the Kennedy Center in D.C., there was little talk of politics. “I would just say: Hey Don, what’s going on?” Letterman told reporters.

That changed to some extent when Letterman finally took the stage to accept the award, standing with his hand upon his new bronze bust. “Mark Twain’s definition of patriotism is this: Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it,” Letterman said.

He paused and looked over a list of guests. “It was because of hundreds of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who helped me. And you saw some of my friends here tonight, all of them more talented, more gifted, funnier than I am. But they all helped me,” he continued, wrapping up the night. “We have to help each other, or nothing will happen.”

The PBS-taped special airs November 20.

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October 23, 2017 at 10:47AM