All Eyes on Letterman in Annual ‘Kennedy Center Honors’ Show

David Letterman at the Kennedy Center in Washington earlier this month (Photo: CBS)

Always prestigious, but watched by a relatively small audience each year, this year’s “Kennedy Center Honors” on CBS might get a boost in viewership thanks to David Letterman.

As far as I can recall, this hasn’t happened before: A TV personality who is arguably CBS’ biggest star being honored on CBS’ own annual telecast of the nation’s most prestigious awards show honoring the achievements of people in the arts.

And unlike many Kennedy Center honorees who earn the honor in the twilight of their lives long after they’ve racked up the accomplishments they’re being cited for, Letterman, 65, is still a top TV star and, in the opinion of many observers, still at the top of his game.

That’s why I expect that this year’s “35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors” on CBS — taped Dec. 1 in Washington and airing Wednesday (Dec. 26), the day after Christmas, at 9/8c — may draw better than its usual ratings when the overnights come out Thursday morning.

And speaking of honors, I had the honor of viewing the “Kennedy Center” show in advance the other day (thanks to CBS). Here’s what you can expect to see if you tune in:

1) When does Dave come on the show? It’s a two-hour telecast and the segment honoring Letterman is fourth out of five. The order goes like this: First up, Dustin Hoffman (including a speech by Robert De Niro), then prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, followed by a tribute to blues master Buddy Guy, then the Letterman segment, then the Led Zeppelin portion. Thus, Dave’s segment is in the second hour of the two-hour show, but it’s hard to tell exactly when the Letterman portion will start.

Watch an end-of-the-year “Top Ten” list from Letterman’s “Late Show”:
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2) Who’s honoring Dave? Four celebrities from the world of comedy take a turn saluting Letterman, in this order: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmel and Ray Romano. “This is what kids were watching after their parents went to bed,” Fey says of Letterman’s old “Late Night” show on NBC, as footage of Dave’s old “monkey-cam” bit is shown (this is the one where a chimp wore a video camera on his back and rampaged through Dave’s studio). Romano noted how Dave “changed his life” when Dave agreed to back Ray’s sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” and it became a huge hit. And Kimmel, as he’s done a lot lately, came on to describe how he idolized Letterman when he was a teen-aged boy growing up in Las Vegas. (My take on that: While Kimmel is on-stage declaring his undying love for Dave, a camera shot of Dave’s reaction seems to show him grimacing. Yes, Dave, I agree — we’re all getting a little tired of Jimmy’s declarations of love for you especially since you’re about to become direct competitors Jan. 8).

3) Should you watch the rest of the show, even if you’re more interested in Dave than the other honorees? When it comes to the “Kennedy Center Honors,” my answer to this question is usually yes, since I happen to find this annual show a pleasure to watch. If you’re unfamiliar with these “Kennedy Center Honors” telecasts, they work like this: The honorees sit together in a box with the President and First Lady on the side of the Kennedy Center Opera House. They then watch as other luminaries from the worlds of arts and entertainment make speeches, introduce elaborate video tributes and perform in their honor. One notable aspect of this annual awards show: The honorees themselves never take the stage or make a speech. At the conclusion of their segments, they take their bows from their box. So don’t expect to see Dave or any of the other honorees say anything.

Here’s one of our favorite recent segments from the “Letterman” show:
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4) How does Dave’s segment stack up against the rest? The truth is, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the Letterman segment. The four celebs who salute him manage to get off a couple of funny lines, and the video portion is a very entertaining retrospective of Dave’s career from his earliest days as a wacky weatherman in Indianapolis. But then, the Led Zeppelin segment came on, and I was enthralled in a way that I wasn’t during the Letterman portion. As Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones looked on from the presidential box, rock-music fan Jack Black gave such a rousing speech about the band’s music that he had me believing that their impact on world culture was on par with Beethoven’s. Then, a succession of top musicians came on to perform some of Zeppelin’s most iconic songs, in this order: Foo Fighters (“Rock and Roll”), Kid Rock (“Ramble On”), Lenny Kravitz (“Whole Lotta Love”), and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, who are known for playing “The Battle of Evermore” in concert, but instead performed a rendition of “Stairway to Heaven,” backed by a choir and orchestra, that brought Robert Plant to tears.

And it may do the same to you. Don’t miss it: “The 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors” airs Wednesday, Dec. 26, at 9/8c on CBS.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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