Newhart - an ordinary-looking everyman who has always regarded the lunacy around him with unflappable calm - was regaled by fellow comedians Tim Conway, Richard Belzer, Steven Wright and The Smothers Brothers, among others. The Kennedy Center gala will be broadcast Nov. 13 on PBS.
David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles Crane on the sitcom "Frasier," referred to Newhart's deadpan style when he said, "No one has done less for comedy."
Newhart, 73, who worked as an accountant in Chicago in between a hitch in the Army and his comedy career, had no regrets about choosing show business. "It's not easy being an accountant today," he said. "It's taken a lot of heat off the lawyers."
Newhart is perhaps best known in his role as Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist whose friends and colleagues were as neurotic as his patients, in "The Bob Newhart Show." The comedy, costarring Suzanne Pleshette as Bob's wife, Emily, aired on CBS from 1972-78 and has been in perpetual syndication since.
In 1982 he returned to CBS with "Newhart," in which he played a Vermont innkeeper bedeviled by wacky locals. "Newhart" ran through 1990.
Newhart began his career in comedy while working as an advertising copywriter.
He and a friend at the ad agency, Ed Gallagher, made long, antic phone calls to each other, which they recorded as audition tapes for a syndicated radio show. When Gallagher dropped out, Newhart continued, developing his trademark one-man, two-way telephone conversations.
In 1959, he signed with Warner Bros. Records. "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" became the first comedy album to go to No. 1 on the charts, and Newhart sold out nightclubs all over America. Seven more albums followed.
In his routines, Newhart typically portrays a normal guy coping with extraordinary circumstances; his most famous bit features an inexperienced security guard at the Empire State Building trying to figure out what to do about a visit from a climbing, clinging King Kong.
Newhart made his film debut in the 1962 World War II drama "Hell Is for Heroes." His other movies include "Catch-22" (1970), "Cold Turkey" (1971), "First Family" (1980) and "In & Out" (1997).
Newhart lives in Bel Air, Calif., with his wife, Virginia. They have four children.
The Mark Twain Prize has been awarded annually since 1998. Other recipients include Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner and Whoopi Goldberg.
By Siobhan McDonough