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TV Flashback Tuesdays: Kennedy Center Honors

January 4, 2011

I thought I’d resuscitate my not-quite-regular TV flashbacks feature by not spotlighting promo spots as usual. I’m a sucker for award shows, tributes, honors—anything that recognizes other people’s achievements with witty banter, clip montages and heartfelt speeches.

After watching the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, I liked how unique and personal the tributes are for the performing artists, and how the honorees aren’t always celebrity-famous, but noteworthy in their own right.

Plus, seeing Glee’s Matthew Morrison headlining a tribute to Broadway impresario Jerry Herman reminded me that award shows are a time capsule, reminding us who were the big stars at that time. The way the fame cycle goes, who knows if Morrison will even be let in the door ten years from now?

With this thought in mind, I combed through the YouTube archives to see past Kennedy Center tributes, and was mostly wowed by what I found.

Lucille Ball

Have tissues handy before you watch this. When Lucy was honored by the KCH in 1986, Desi Arnaz had passed away only five days before. Robert Stack (he’s done many other things, but he’ll always be Unsolved Mysteries guy to me) read a speech Desi wrote for the event right before he died, and what he says about his ex-wife and business partner is truly touching.

Before Lucy (and viewers) can dissolve into a pile of tears, a most awesomely 80s tribute takes place. Bea Arthur, Valerie Harper and Pam Dawber (aka Mindy from Mork and Mindy) perform a tribute for the first lady of comedy. It’s as random as it sounds, yet also a lot of fun, and Lucy is very moved.

By the way, Pam Dawber’s inclusion in the TV comedienne medley is a perfect example of the “time capsule” thing. I imagine if Betty White was saluted by the KCH this year (and based on her continued accolades, it’s a definite possibility), Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara and Jane Krakowski would be the ones belting out a tune in salute.

Carol Burnett

The amount of random celebrities that appear in this tribute is staggering, and surely a reflection of where pop culture was in 2003. John Schneider! Scott Bakula! Kim Cattrall! Reba McEntire! These stars and more pay tribute to Burnett and her most famous characters, and while mostly entertaining, it seems to go on and on. Then Bernadette Peters appears as Burnett’s most famous character of all, and well, it’s time to break out those Kleenex again.

Mike Nichols

Sometimes, the Kennedy Center Honors makes a bad call. Tapping Beyonce to belt out “The Way We Were” in tribute to Barbra Streisand seems like a “time capsule” thing, a way of including the world’s biggest pop star of the moment just for the sake of name value.  It’s a very Academy Awards kind of thing to do.

But the tribute to Mike Nichols was note-perfect, starting with the speech given by his writing partner Elaine May, who delivers a very dry and hilarious speech. Even if most people who watched the telecast didn’t know who she was, she was rightly included in the tribute. It’s the kind of heartfelt, personalized tribute that I enjoy about this program.

Then Meryl Streep, Candace Bergen, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (!) and some others sing a variation of “That’s Entertainment”, backed up by a choir. (KCH seem to favor choirs in general, I think every 2010 honoree had one except for choreographer Bill T. Jones.)

Robert De Niro

Honoring anyone who has a performance-related talent like singing and dancing is easy. Gather up the hottest stars from pop music or Broadway, and have them belt out a medley of greatest hits.   Actors are harder. You can’t just have, say, Jane Lynch perform recite one of Betty White’s St. Olaf stories from Golden Girls.

Besides from the expected film montage, what else is there to do? In Robert De Niro’s case, you assemble his A-list co-stars to chat about him in front of the world’s fakest New York City backdrop. Harvey Keitel, Sharon Stone, and Edward Norton talk glowingly about De Niro, pausing to occasionally banter with each other. It’s sort of awkward and fascinating at the same time.  Then Ben Stiller shows up and makes it all about him. Still, worth watching just because this kind of tribute is just so different from the usual ones we see, plus Norton does a really great impression of…well, see for yourself.

Here is a year-by-year breakdown of all the Kennedy Center honorees. If you could, which ceremony would you attend? My vote is for 2001 (Julie Andrews, Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti and Quincy Jones!) or 1990 (Katherine Hepburn, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Wilder!)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 9:37 am

    Fabulous post! One of the best uses for youtube is as a repository for public-domain videos like these, which I used to be able to find (with difficulty) on the Kennedy Center website. But it looks like they aren’t even there anymore.

    How about this career-relaunching performance by Bettye LaVette for the 2008 Honor of The Who?

  2. January 5, 2011 10:46 am

    That was incredible! Thanks for sharing. Its awesome that she was chosen to honor The Who. If it was the Grammys, it would have been like Nickelback or something.

  3. January 5, 2011 4:47 pm

    I would like to see the rest of 2003’s show live: James Brown, Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols, and Itzhak Perlman!

  4. January 5, 2011 5:00 pm

    Have tissues handy before you watch this. When Lucy was honored by the KCH in 1986, Desi Arnaz had passed away only five days before. Robert Stack (he’s done many other things, but he’ll always be Unsolved Mysteries guy to me) read a speech Desi wrote for the event right before he died, and what he says about his ex-wife and business partner is truly touching.

    Sob! That was an incredible clip. Wow. Especially considering three years later she would be gone too. Glad they managed to honor her before her death. This post was really great. I tend to not pay much attention to the Kennedy Center Honors except to note the pride-riffic sashes each honoree wears.

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