David Letterman's "stupid human tricks" and Top 10 lists are being vaulted into the ranks of cultural achievements as the late-night TV comedian receives this year's Kennedy Center Honors with rock band Led Zeppelin and three other artists.
Stars from New York, Hollywood and the music world gathered Sunday in Washington to salute the comedian and the band, along with actor Dustin Hoffman, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
The honours are the nation's highest award for those who have influenced American culture through the arts. President Barack Obama will host the honorees at the White House before they are saluted by fellow performers in a show to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.
Meryl Streep introduced the honorees Saturday during a dinner at the U.S. State Department and noted that Letterman had surpassed his mentor, Johnny Carson, in sustaining the longest late-night television career for more than 30 years.
Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel joined in celebrating his influence on many other comedians.
"I knew Johnny, and I loved Johnny. Johnny was beyond reproach," Colbert said in a toast to Letterman. "Dave was stupid. Dave was ours. Dave was like us.
"We wanted to throw things off of buildings. ... We would love to stick our heads out the window of 30 Rock and yell at passers-by, 'I'm not wearing any pants!'"
Colbert marveled at Letterman receiving such an award after he "corrupted the minds of a generation."
Paul Shaffer, Letterman's longtime band leader, said he knew his boss was uncomfortable hearing such accolades, but that he was also enjoying every second of it.
Big names from the rock world dressed in black tie for the occasion to honour their heroes in Led Zeppelin as a string ensemble played "Kashmir" and other tunes at the State Department.
Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl said he never took any music lessons when he was starting out because "my teachers were Led Zeppelin. ... They were the most powerful thing in my life."
Lenny Kravitz said their music was special and became a lasting part of the culture of rock and roll.
"It's very difficult," he said. "You get four guys that come together and make something so much more powerful than they all are."
Zeppelin front man Robert Plant said he was flattered and overwhelmed in receiving the American culture prize. He said he was glad to see his former band mates, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, using good table manners.
The trio is scheduled to appear Monday on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman." They are often asked if they'll reunite.
Plant told The Associated Press he plans to continue travelling the world and wants to make new music along the way.
Hoffman was honoured for charting his own path after taking a junior college class in acting that "nobody ever flunks." Streep said it became a pilgrimage with Hoffman waiting tables and typing for the yellow pages.
"He'd do anything if it meant at night he could find himself on the stage," said Streep. Hoffman and Streep both received Oscars for the 1979 film "Kramer vs. Kramer."
President Bill Clinton saluted Guy, the Chicago bluesman who was born into a family of sharecroppers with no electricity or running water in Louisiana. Guy went on to pioneer the use of distortion and feedback with his electric guitar.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the ballerina Makarova "risked everything to have the freedom to dance the way she wanted to dance" when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1970.
Makarova quickly made her debut with the American Ballet Theatre and later was the first exiled artist to return to the Soviet Union before its fall to dance with the Kirov Ballet.