WASHINGTON — David Letterman was celebrated at the Kennedy Center on Sunday for his contributions to American culture.

Letterman, a pioneering entertainer who was the longest-running host of late-night TV in U.S. history,  received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. Letterman, 70, was praised for his imagination, comic daring and heart. Reuters

Fellow entertainers gathered to honor Letterman. Among those in attendance were previous Mark Twain recipients Steve Martin and Bill Murray, and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who recalled a monologue Letterman gave on his show shortly after 9/11 where he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. AP

"You let us know it was OK to move on and OK to laugh again," Kimmel said. "Dave, you led the way for all of us."

Kimmel jokingly blamed the election of President Donald Trump on Letterman's retirement in 2015.

"It's like you went out for cigarettes one day and left us in the hands of our abusive, orange stepfather," Kimmel said.

Speakers included comedians John Mulaney, Amy Schumer and Jimmie Walker of the 1970s television series "Good Times." Walker gave Letterman one of his first jobs as a joke writer in Hollywood.

The 70-year-old Letterman spent 33 years on late-night TV, hosting "Late Night with David Letterman" on NBC and its successor on CBS, "Late Show with David Letterman," which ended its run in May 2015.

He won multiple Emmy Awards, U.S. television's highest honor, for his work as a writer, performer and producer. Reuters

On Sunday, comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short honored him by needling him about his bushy, white beard.

"Dave has always had excellent instincts. What better time than now to choose to look like a Confederate war general," Steve Martin said.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama sent in a video tribute and Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder thanked Letterman for being a longtime "friend to music" and performed the song "Keep me in your heart" by the late Warren Zevon, a Letterman favorite.

His time slot immediately following Carson's "The Tonight Show" allowed Letterman to draw a huge following of young, largely college-age viewers seeking an alternative to the somewhat staid Carson model.

Letterman introduced the country to fringe musical acts that might never have received an opportunity on "The Tonight Show."

David Letterman 2

Reuters-  On Sunday, comic friends teased Letterman about his late-night wars with Leno and retirement but the honoree struck a poignant note in his acceptance speech.

"Mark Twain's definition of patriotism is this: Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it."

The Letterman tribute will be aired on public television stations on Nov. 20.

(Photo Credit: NBC & Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

(Reporting by: Lacy Dash; Editing by: Amy Wesley)

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