Broadcast TV’s classiest event carries some additional benefits for CBS this year, with future “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert emceeing the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors, and even engaging in an amusing bit of mid-show business with David Letterman, on hand to honor Tom Hanks. Beyond that, the presentation was marked by the usual mix of glowing tributes, occasionally odd performances and fantastic reaction shots, like watching the assembled luminaries (including the first couple) participate in an impromptu sing-along of honoree Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” For CBS, this pre-New Year’s telecast remains a golden oldie that’s worth keeping around.
As usual, the Kennedy Center lineup offered a hodgepodge of disciplines, with Sting, Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride rounding out the inductees. And as is also customary, while the musical artists don’t require a lot of thought – in Sting’s case, fascinating covers of his work by Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars (his take on “Message in a Bottle” is a particular highlight) – the others require a bit of creativity, which can easily turn into a hit-miss affair.
In Tomlin’s case, for example, the presentation included heartfelt spoken tributes from Jane Fonda, Reba McEntire, Jane Lynch and “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon. For Hanks, it started well enough with a cover of the jaunty song from his movie “That Thing You Do,” then degenerated into Martin Short singing a rewritten version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with seemingly as many people on stage dancing and singing as there were in the audience.
As crowd-pleasing as that might have been within the hall, it felt strangely overblown, especially after Steven Spielberg’s eloquent praise of Hanks for engendering a “never-ending supply of trust” with his audience, which conveyed the essence of the actor-producer’s Everyman qualities without all the pyrotechnics.
For his part, Colbert opened with a few well-chosen, reasonably safe jokes (“No matter what party you belong to, everybody wants a selfie with Tom Hanks”), and came back to wrap up the festivities; still, his presence was more symbolic than anything else – not just showing him off to the assembled elites, but signaling his willingness to be a team player in helping promote his new program, and how smoothly CBS intends to orchestrate this baton pass. (The telecast, incidentally, didn’t acknowledge the exit of longtime producer George Stevens Jr., who announced his departure at the event.)
Ultimately, any criticisms of the Kennedy Center Honors are trumped by the genuine feelings of warmth and appreciation the evening conveys, as well as the happy faces of the honorees and sheer amusement of watching many of the celebrities in attendance behave like fans at a One Direction concert. Besides, how many programs dare to aim squarely at a baby-boomer-and-older demo?
“Why do we need to thank our artists?” Meryl Streep asked, by way of introducing the Sting segment.
Although she offered a sort-of answer, the simple one is that when you do it right, it can be a lot of fun to watch.