Always one of the TV year’s classiest evenings, the latest edition of the “Kennedy Center Honors” features two notoriously prickly stars, David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman, before closing with a rollicking tribute to Led Zeppelin, offering the chance to see, among other things, cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the audience, rocking out to “Stairway From Heaven.” Still, if there’s one reason to tune in (and this admittedly might reflect some bias, coming from a TV critic), it’s the Letterman segment, which beautifully captures his enduring place in the latenight firmament.
As usual, the Kennedy Center features an eclectic mix of honorees, rounding out the night with prima ballerina Natalia Makarova and blues guitarist Buddy Guy. And while those segments are warm — and it’s fun to hear Robert De Niro talk about what a notorious pain in the ass Dustin Hoffman can be — it’s the sight of Letterman in this unguarded context that makes the strongest impression.
Perhaps that’s because the talent brought on to salute him — especially Jimmy Kimmel and Ray Romano — so niftily capture the role Letterman has played, if not fully embraced, for the generation of comics that followed.
“What Johnny Carson was for you, you are for the rest of all of us,” Romano says, while exhibiting the cojones to poke fun at President Obama for his lousy performance in the first presidential debate.
For his part, Kimmel talks about discovering Letterman as a teenager, and the pivotal role he played in his comedy ambitions. Finally, the taped piece includes Letterman’s first “Tonight Show” appearance — receiving the ultimate “You’re OK, kid” reinforcement from Johnny — underscoring how that baton has been passed.
It is, quite simply, the evening’s emotional high point, though the Kennedy Center is fun to watch for all sorts of reasons, including the sheer giddiness of the luminaries in the crowd, who invariably appear to be caught (kudos on that, director Louis J. Horvitz) having the time of their lives.
At one point, CBS looked to be conspicuously dumping the show by slotting it in the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, but there’s method in the network’s madness. The show can deliver a respectable older audience during that window (screw the demos, in this case), spared from any real ratings pressure, while allowing Eye web brass to play host to and rub elbows with the showbiz and political elite the event attracts.
Thanks to Letterman and his heartfelt admirers, though, even someone who couldn’t care less about the blues or ballet needn’t cobble together a Top 10 list of reasons to watch this year’s honors. Two or three will suffice.