No joke: David Letterman is named a Kennedy Center honoree

David Letterman, the longtime late-night talk show host, joked that the honor was a mix-up.
(John P. Filo / AP / CBS)
Share via

David Letterman lost out on “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno 20 years ago, but as of Wednesday he can boast of at least one accomplishment his rival doesn’t have: He has been named a Kennedy Center honoree.

The “Late Show” host, who recently celebrated his 30th year in late-night television, will receive the award, which recognizes lifetime achievement in the performing arts and culture, during a gala in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 2. This year’s list of recipients draws from popular and high culture. Other honorees are actor Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, blues musician Buddy Guy and the iconic rock group Led Zeppelin. The 35th annual Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26.

Letterman joins a small but esteemed group of comedians who’ve received the honor, including Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope and, yes, Johnny Carson. Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein praised the comedian as “one of the most influential personalities in the history of television, entertaining an entire generation of late-night viewers with his unconventional wit and charm.”


In response to the news, Letterman was typically self-deprecating. “I believe recognition at this prestigious level confirms my belief that there has been a mix-up,” he wrote in a statement. “I am still grateful to be included.”

Rubenstein described Hoffman, who first rose to fame in “The Graduate” in 1967, as “one of the most versatile and iconoclastic actors” of any generation. The Kennedy Center distinction caps off a busy year for the 75-year-old Hollywood veteran: He has spent the last few days promoting his directorial debut, “Quartet,” at the Toronto Film Festival, and he also starred in the well-received but ill-fated HBO drama “Luck.”

Led Zeppelin, the British mega group behind hits like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir,” will be honored for “transform[ing] the sound of rock and roll,” said Rubenstein.

The group’s surviving members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones issued a joint statement, saying, “We owe a large debt to the vitality and variety of the music of the American people.”

Blues legend Guy, 76, influenced a generation of rock guitarists with his groundbreaking distorted sound. Guy and the other honorees will be received at the White House by President Obama and the first lady before the black-tie gala at the Kennedy Center.

It will be Guy’s second trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. this year: In February, he and Mick Jagger coaxed the president into singing a few lines of the blues standard, “Sweet Home Chicago,” during a White House performance.


Singer Barbara Cook, singer and songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins and actress Meryl Streep were last year’s honorees.