KWAME HOLMAN: Last night at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, comedy stars from several generations gathered to honor an icon of their crafts, Jonathan Winters. Winters was the second recipient of the center's annual Mark Twain Prize. The first was Richard Pryor last year. Even before the night's festivities began, Winters was working for laughs.
MAN: Who do you like in the World Series?
JONATHAN WINTERS: I'd like to see the Yankees do it. I'm a Cincinnati fan, but we quit in July.
KWAME HOLMAN: The act continued on stage.
JONATHAN WINTERS: I've played some pretty good- sized pads before. I don't think I've ever played anything this size and this high... the chandeliers. My wife said, "Could we get one?" We live in a trailer.
ANNOUNCER: What can I say? The one and only Jonathan Winters, ladies and gentlemen.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jonathan Winters has performed standup comedy for nearly five decades.
JONATHAN WINTERS: I've been married 32 years, and people have said, "isn't that... oh, that's so... even in or out of that business, that's so wonderful." You try it.
KWAME HOLMAN: He broke in with the dawn of television in the 1950's. Often appearing on the "Steve Allen Show," and later frequented the "Tonight Show." Winters' signature was his ability to improvise instantly into a multitude of characters, here a prison guard.
JONATHAN WINTERS: Come on, Tiger, I know you're down there. (Gunshots) Well, we know one thing: He's armed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Some of the legion of comedians Winters inspired gave testimony prior to last night's award ceremony.
COMEDIAN: For me, he was the guy that I saw make my father laugh, and I went, God, that must be amazing, because my father was a tad stern.
COMEDIAN: He's definitely a pioneer. He's probably older than the pioneers, so he probably was doing comedy on the "Mayflower."
COMEDIAN: Nobody else is like him, nor I think will anyone ever be, and he was always sort of fiery and undependable and spontaneous.
KWAME HOLMAN: On the big screen, Winters appeared in the 1963 madcap comedy, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World," and "Viva Max." Receiving the bust of Mark Twain at last night's ceremony, Winters was Winters.
JONATHAN WINTERS: A lot of things I'd like to say. I thought the head would be bigger. (laughter in audience)