Jon Stewart

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

George Carlin may not have been around to accept the award in bodily form, but some of the big names who were inspired by his sharp brand of funny made sure he was there in spirit.

Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Denis Leary, Garry Shandling, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin and Margaret Cho were among the laughmakers who showed up Monday to honor the pioneering comic at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was awarded posthumously for the first time.

Carlin died of heart failure June 22, barely a week after learning he was the recipient of this year's prize, which in the past has gone to such luminaries as Steve Martin and Billy Crystal.

Next-generation funnyman Stewart, who was 9 years old when Class Clown, the album featuring the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," came out, called Carlin a "working man" who "respected what he did."

"That was when I realized you could make money for saying things my dad used to say when he was fixing the car," Leary said of Carlin's history-making "Seven Words" routine, which later led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the government's right to punish broadcasters that allowed offensive language on the air during times when children might be listening.

But for the people who were allowed to listen—and for those children who eventually grew up (or sneaked their parents' records)—there was more to mine from Carln's words than a stream of profanity.

"His comedy wasn't just joke, joke, joke," Tomlin said. "His performances were often like essays."

Carlin's final HBO special, It's Bad for Ya, which—among other things—mocks death and the way society deals with it, comes out on DVD Nov. 25.

Tonight's ceremony was taped and will be televised at a to-be-determined date by PBS.

(Originally published Nov. 10, 2008, at 7:45 p.m. PT)

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