The Kennedy Center Honors is invariably the classiest two hours on broadcast television every year, so it's no wonder CBS buries it between Christmas and New Year's. The Obama administration's first time at the 32nd annual event finds both the President and First Lady appearing to enjoy themselves, but the real fun is in speculating on what honorees Mel Brooks and Bruce Springsteen chatted about as they sat side by side, looking as if they're having the time of their lives.
The other honorees on the pre-taped ceremony were jazz great Dave Brubeck -- who, recognized on his 89th birthday, produces perhaps the evening's emotional highlight -- opera singer Grace Bumbry and Robert De Niro. The organizers struggled a bit to come up with a way to pay tribute to the actor on stage, but the testimonials from colleagues have their moments -- including Ben Stiller's tendency to keep deviating to laud Springsteen, Mel Brooks and the "Nobel Peace guy" sharing the box with his "Meet the Parents" co-star.
Brooks is treated to a medley of songs from his films and Broadway shows, a number that works only fitfully. For most, the best is surely saved for last, as a parade of musical figures demonstrate just how difficult it is to do a Springsteen song justice, with Melissa Etheridge (bravely belting out "Born to Run") and Sting easily faring the best.
Still, Jon Stewart's introduction to his fellow New Jersey native perhaps best highlights what the Kennedy Center is all about -- affectionately and humorously capturing what the rocker has meant to him, and by extension (without sounding too high-fallutin' about it) what he's meant to America.
There's also something quite delightful about seeing assorted luminaries in various disciplines assembled in the same hall, and director Louis J. Horvitz's cameras artfully capture them marveling at performers in disciplines not their own, which only adds to the sense of wonder. (Hosted by Caroline Kennedy, the broadcast carries a dedication to her late uncle, Ted.)
It's easy to see why CBS remains both attached to this special and equally afraid of its popular appeal. To paraphrase Springsteen, there's a garden here, all right; the only shame is that for most of America, it remains a well-kept secret.