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CBS "Kennedy Center Honors" Special Is So Good, You MUST Watch -- And Take Notes, Because Afterward, There's a Quiz
December 29, 2009  | By David Bianculli
[I'm keeping this blog up for another day, so those of you who saw the Kennedy Center Honors special can post your own reviews. So far, they've been a delight to read. I swear, the writing and the comments are so good, TV WORTH WATCHING may be a site written AND read by TV critics...]


kennedy-center-top.jpgSlipped into the dead TV week between Christmas and New Year's is one reliable annual treat: The CBS Kennedy Center Honors, which salutes, each year, a quintet of powerful performers from various arenas in the arts. It's always one one of my favorite TV shows of the year -- and tonight, with its amazing list of honorees and artists, it's the best Kennedy Center Honors presentation in years.

From rock 'n' roll, you've got Bruce Springsteen. From jazz, Dave Brubeck. From comedy, Mel Brooks. From the movies, Robert De Niro. And from opera, Grace Bumbry.

What a lineup. And what people have gathered to honor them, in the two-hour special televised tonight at 9 ET on CBS.


De Niro, for example, gets Meryl Streep, Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorsese, among others. Springsteen gets John Mellencamp, Eddie Vedder, Melissa Etheridge and Sting. Caroline Kennedy hosts, the Obamas sit with the honorees, and every reaction shot of the crowd catches another familiar celebrity in the black-tie audience.


But what I love about this special, each year, is how inspirational it is. Grace Bumbry's biography is a story of triumphing over racism -- particularly moving, with Barack Obama presiding over the festivities for the first time (and becoming, in the process, the sixth President to do so). And Brubeck is so surprised by the unexpected appearance of a familial jazz quartet, with his four sons at the instruments, that it's easy to read his lips uttering a stunned, delighted "Son of a bitch!"


And when Jon Stewart introduces the tribute to Bruce Springsteen, he does so with writing so precise, it's delightful, whether it's comic ("I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby") or analytical (every time Springsteen performs, or commits to anything Stewart says, "he empties the tank").

I also love the sheer variety of acts presented -- a variety missing from TV since the demise of The Ed Sullivan Show. Every year, watching these specials, I learn something new, see and hear something breathtaking, and am reminded of how beautiful TV can be, when it allows itself to reach for the skies, and salute the best.

So please, please watch... and if you do, here's your assignment: Come back and post your very favorite moment, and why.

The range, and the descriptions, I suspect will prove my point... and second my enthusiasm.




Sarah said:

I am looking forward to the Honors this year mainly because Jon Stewart is the second biggest BRUCE! fan I know, My mom being the first. Of course the rest of the line-up isn't too shabby either. Mel Brooks is a god among directors and comedy and De Niro is you know DE NIRO. I will watch and report back as soon as I can.

Comment posted on December 29, 2009 2:30 PM

Len Feiner said:

I thought that the show was wonderful. I have a few favorites. First, I loved the Dave Brubeck segment. I remember when 'Take Five' came out, and whenever it came on the radio, I counted how many times he repeated the same six notes (it was 88, the number of keys on the piano.) Too bad Paul Desmond wasn't there!

Mel Brooks is a genius! Hearing Richard Kind sing "The Inquisition", and Gary Beach doing Hitler, brought a big smile to my face. Now I would like to see Peter, Paul & Mary and Barbara Cook get inducted into the Kennedy Center Wall of Fame! What do you think?

[Both good choices -- too bad we lost Mary this year -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 29, 2009 11:19 PM

Sally W. said:

I really enjoyed watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I liked seeing how everyone seemed to enjoy themselves (even seeing the Obamas having fun, getting really into the performances). Robert De Niro getting a little roasted by such ex-castmates as Sharon Stone and Ben Stiller; Mel Brooks mouthing along with the words of the songs to his movies/musicals. I thought seeing Matthew Morrison from "Glee" singing "Springtime for Hitler" was strangely funny and crazy (in a Brooksian fashion) - he had such a great singing voice (of course, considering his Broadway roots and his Glee work).

I also thought it was great that Mel Brooks seemed to really enjoy the Bruce Springsteen music, and how Springsteen seemed so touched by the performing artists covering his songs (Sting and the choir were terrific - and how everyone sang along -- even me at home, and I'm not exactly a Springsteen fan!). Seeing the stories and hearing the work of Dave Brubeck and Grace Bumbry were also fantastic, since how often do jazz and opera get showcased on network tv? That Brubeck's sons played "Happy Birthday" and played his music with joy - that was sweet.

This was a fun and quality viewing for everyone - it even reminded me of how the performing community would have a good time at the Golden Globes (probably because of the food and alcohol at the Golden Globes) - but I liked how the Kennedy Center presented an opportunity to see great talent be honored and to see a celebrity audience enjoying and being a part of the fun, like the rest of us at home. Kudos to CBS for airing it (even if a few weeks after the fact, oh well) and to let us take pleasure of stuff that don't get more exposure (outside of, say, PBS...).

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 12:28 AM

jeff rubin said:

Loved the show!!

Favorite moment among many: Ben Stiller seemingly uncontrollably blurting out,'Saw you, when I was 16, at Nassau Coliseum, when you played for 9 hours,' to Bruce when he was honoring Deniro!

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 6:43 AM

Eileen said:

Kudos to CBS for continuing this fine tradition. It was a wonderful show, but my favorite moments...

Seeing the lovely Meryl Streep pay homage to Robert De Niro was touching, and his reaction was heartwarming.

Here are two of the finest actors alive today, who have given us decades of amazing performances. Just watching the two of them, and thinking back on all the films they have made is staggering.

The "actors" of today should take note that it's all about the performance and not the celebrity.

I find it very gratifying that these two have remained close since their days of The Deer Hunter. If I recall correctly, Robert De Niro honored Meryl Streep at last year's AFI tribute. Nice... This is what class is all about. The two of them are truly national treasures who continue to amaze with their talents.

Also, it's always a treat to see Harvey Keitel with his clothes on, right film fans??

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 9:09 AM

EricG said:


Kudo's on your tip for the Kennedy Center honors.

Did you find it just a touch awkward/outrageous to see the Obama's tittering to Nazi dancers in full SS gear? Even after 40 years, the material hasn't lost it's edge.

A stunning moment among many. The Springsteen tribute was amazing.

In addition to the many authentic performances, it was a compelling study in tastefully appropriate head-nodding/grooving by a head of state.


Comment posted on December 30, 2009 11:08 AM

EricG said:


BTW, the line of the night was Jon Stewart's tribute to Bruce Springsteen: (paraphrasing, and maybe you have the right quote) "You don't make us feel like losers; you make us participants in epic poems...about losers".

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 11:11 AM

Gregg B said:

Jon Stewart said:

"I am not a music critic. Nor historian, nor archivist, I cannot tell you where Bruce Springsteen falls in the pantheon of the American songbook. I can not illuminate the context of his work or his roots in the folk and oral history traditions of our great nation. But I am from New Jersey, and so I can tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. And they abandoned this child on the side of the road, between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. That child is Bruce Springsteen.
When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem -- about losers. He empties the tank, every time. He empties that tank for his family, he empties that tank for his art, he empties that tank for his audience and he empties that tank for his country."

Funny, touching and heartfelt. This was my favorite moment.

[Thanks for the transcription. I loved that too. Jon Stewart is my hero. -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 3:25 PM

Sarah said:

Let me just start by saying this is the assignment I have always wanted, to watch TV and then report on it.
The one thing that has always stood out for me about the honorees is that there are one or two that I have never heard of but each year I enjoy learning about them. Last night those two were Opera Singer Grace Bumbry and musician Dave Brubeck. I am not a fan of soprano singers but after learning her story she seemed pretty cool. And I was moving my head along with the President during the music for Mr. Brubeck and throwing in a little Happy Birthday was very cute.
Now to the three that I have been a fan of. Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton and Sharon Stone are not three people I would like to meet on a dark street in NYC but together performing on-stage they made me laugh. I loved the songs of Mel Brooks tribute. I didn't know all of them but I sang along with Martin Short -- "He rode a blazing saddle" -- being that Blazing Saddles is the first Mel Brooks movie I remember watching as a little girl. And Glee's Matthew Morrison singing "Springtime for Hitler" was perfect. Then ending with Matthew Broderick to cut outs of the roles Mr. Brooks played in each film was brilliant. Finally Bruuuce! BRUUUCE! Was just as I hoped. Great singers singing Great songs. All in all I learned a lot and got to enjoy a wonderful show.

[I enjoyed your assignment, Sarah. Great job! And now do me a favor: Run out and get a CD of Brubeck's "Time Out," one of the best jazz albums ever made. You'll love it, or I'll buy your copy from you. -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 4:03 PM

Dan Langhoff said:

Came for Mel Brooks, stayed for the whole thing (some moments twice, on DVR). These things are usually way too precious; too many self-conscious applause breaks, honorees who seem to be thinking "Hey--I'm not dead yet", etc. This show, however, was quite good: funny, touching, clever--even fast-paced.

The tribute to De Niro signalled this wasn't your ordinary awards show. When Keitel, Stone, and Norton appeared on a set (with script folios), I expected the usual melodrama. But Keitel's anecdotes, and the entrance--and subsequent distraction--of Ben Stiller (De Niro's "favorite Fokker") was brilliant.

The Brubeck segment was surprisingly touching; here, you couldn't help but think, is a really nice man, as proud of his sons as his remarkable career.

Cut-aways throughout to a seemingly relaxed and mutually admiring honoree box (including the Obamas) was nice to see. The filmed pieces on each honoree were quite well done, dramatic without tipping over into schmaltz.

Mel Brooks could have inspired two hours of material just by himself. Though there was a funny introduction by the old pro Carl Reiner, the bulk of his tribute was a musical pastiche. I had not known Broadway was his first love, so the fact his material finally made it into musical vehicles must be the culmination of his life's work.

Jon Stewart's piece for Springsteen was a gem, polished lovingly into quite a performance. Other people doing his music--well, not bad (best was probably Melissa Etheridge).

All in all, very glad I happened upon this broadcast (hadn't had a chance to read your blog in advance).

[But thanks for completing the assigment anyway. Very well done. -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 7:24 PM

Linda said:

Thanks Dave - without your blog I wouldn't have watched the show. I thought Jon Stewart was wonderful as always, and Sting's rendition of The Rising was at least as good as Bruce's own, but for me the highlight of the evening was Angela Gheorghiu. She brought tears to my eyes.

[Glad to hear it -- and glad you watched it. -- David B.]

Comment posted on December 30, 2009 8:16 PM

Colleen said:

What a brilliant evening! I can't pick a favorite moment, but I will admit to welling up a bit as Eddie Vedder sang "My City Of Ruins".

Comment posted on January 2, 2010 3:37 PM

Bear said:

what a show. I watched that night because I am a big fan of 3 out of the 5 honored.
The stage skits were outstanding, if I had known I would have been watching this event years ago. Anyone knows what the budget of an evening like that is?
Anyhow, I think Jon Stewart's tribute to the Boss was fantastic.
The singing of Bruce's songs gave me goosebumps, which hasn't happen in a long time in front of a TV set. (Austin City Limits "Arcade Fire" concert)

By the way David, relax next time you are invited by Craig Ferguson, the guy likes you very much. Best of luck with your book tour. Come see us on the West coast.

Comment posted on January 5, 2010 12:17 AM
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