Kennedy Center Honors David Letterman
Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

Year after year, The Kennedy Center Honors remains the most entertaining awards show on the air — a reverent ceremony with unmatched warmth and appreciation radiating between the stage, the audience, and the box of eclectic honorees, which this year includes David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, blues great Buddy Guy, prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, and Led Zeppelin. We spoke to producers George Stevens, Jr., who co-created the Honors 35 years ago, and Michael Stevens, who’s won four consecutive Emmys with his father for the variety special, to find out how they do it. The 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, taped earlier this month, airs Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you choose who will speak and perform on behalf of the honorees? Let’s start there.

MICHAEL STEVENS: There are two phases to our process. One is interviews, talks, and research with the honoree and/or the honoree’s team, just to get a deeper insight on who are close friends, fans, and admirers. From that, we get a list of names. And then the other approach is just to do research on our own to find unlikely connections. For example, Stephen Colbert last year and Yo-Yo Ma: Through some research, we had found that Stephen Colbert’s mother, through an arts festival in South Carolina, had become friends with Yo-Yo. So it really is a task of trying to find a meaningful connection to an honoree, and sometimes we try to go outside that honoree’s discipline to show the width and appeal of that honoree. For example, Morgan Freeman this year for Buddy Guy: That’s something where we knew of Morgan’s long-time appreciation and love for the blues, and of course he’s familiar with and loves Buddy Guy’s music, but they were not pals, per se. They just had respect for each other.

I think back to Jon Stewart speaking for Bruce Springsteen in 2009. I still remember the story he told about listening to Springsteen’s music each night on the way home from the bar he worked at. Was it just the Jersey connection that made you think of him?

MS: Yes, and then we did some prowling around, and then we talked to Bruce’s [manager] Jon Landau. It’s discreet discussions with managers and representatives to see if our instincts are right, or the manager or representative would come to us and say, “So-and-so’s a really big fan of so-and-so’s, you should put that on your list.” What’s become interesting is that over the course of the last five to 10 years, people have become attuned to what kind of questions we’re going to ask, so they say, “This person might be a good person to do your opening talk. And this might be a good person to do a spoken tribute after the film.” I think we have to attribute a lot of it to YouTube. There’s, in a way, research for the representatives or the honorees themselves to do about the honors. And as you mentioned, Jon Stewart is one spoken tribute that is cited many times — either out of great admiration or great fear that there’s no way what Jon Stewart did could be topped.

Watch Jon Stewart’s Bruce Springsteen tribute below

GEORGE STEVENS, JR.: I think back when we honored Jimmy Cagney long, long, long ago [in 1980]. Somehow we picked up Mikhail Baryshnikov had become friends with Cagney in Connecticut. That was early on one of those surprise tributes where this young, very famous dancer comes out and says, “When I was a boy in Riga, I used to watch you, Mr. Tough Guy.” It’s a process, as Michael describes it, of trying to find the good idea.

What are other examples that come to mind?

MS: Sonny Rollins is an example last year. Just doing the Honors long enough, we know that Bill Cosby is a huge fan of jazz, so it’s just a question of calling him and talking to him. And then all the sudden he starts telling a story about being in Italy and part of his tooth filling has fallen out, and he goes into the dentist, and they’re playing Sonny Rollins in the dentist’s office. A lot of it is instincts and knowing connections that people have to honorees. Jack Black was here this year for Led Zeppelin. It’s kind of well-known that he’s a huge Zeppelin fan. Tina Fey, of course, is another example where we do our research, have some instincts, talk to representatives [for honoree David Letterman], ask them to keep it to themselves, and then Tina’s reaffirmed as a good choice…. The people who work with Letterman were the most knowledgeable and respectful about the process. They had total trust that what we’re going to do was correct, that Drew Barrymore was not gonna come out on stage and take her top off, that it was gonna come from a place of substance. We know we’re gonna have a speaker, we know we’re gonna have the [biographical] film, and then what happens afterwards. Once we figured out the basic structure of what was gonna happen afterward, we put the casting together of Jimmy Kimmel, and Ray Romano, and Alec Baldwin, knowing that Tina could join in as well. We sent them a rough outline of what we had in mind, and then we sat down on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, all of us together, and wrote the segment — how it would work, what the beats are. That’s an example of one you can leave until later into the creative process, meaning the day of the show, because you’re dealing with people who are on stage all the time, Kimmel and Romano in particular. Whereas with other pieces, they really do need to be rehearsed over 24 or 48 hours to get them right.

It’s amazing that it comes together like that at the end.

GS: That’s the challenge of the Kennedy Center Honors. It’d be one thing if you did it in New York or Los Angeles. But virtually everybody who appears on the stage comes from somewhere else to Washington. And we have this absolutely ace crew who work with us every year and are ready for whatever we throw at them, which enables us to do very ambitious work on Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday, basically.

GS: The first time he came was for Martin Scorsese [in 2007]. It was fun to discover how much Bob enjoys it. As you say, you don’t think of him in that light, but he’s taken to it and he’s very good at it. And some of the choices are more obvious: You know you’re gonna ask Robert Redford for Paul Newman, and Paul Newman for Robert Redford.

Why is it an awards show that the attendees love so much?

GS: It’s always been true, particularly the honorees, if they don’t know much of the Kennedy Center Honors — for example, the three fellows from Led Zeppelin this year — they’re absolutely captivated by the weekend. The dinner hosted by the Secretary of State on Saturday night where the Honors are actually presented, the brunch with the cast and honorees on Sunday, the White House reception — it’s an experience unlike any other. So people who are honorees, like De Niro, like to come back. That’s, of course, a big help. This year, there were a number of the performers and artists on the show for whom it was a discovery and they would say, “Please invite me back.”

Do you have any rules you follow when putting together the show?

MS: We greatly appreciate that there’s a level of passion for this show, in this day and age of everything having to be 18-25 to mean anything. Our conclusion is that we have to work that much harder not to do exactly what people expect. Our rule of thumb is we want to give people what they expect, but not how they expect it. So we have to be careful, for example, that we don’t repurpose, reuse tricks that we’ve used in the past. You only can have beach balls falling from the ceiling one time in a career. In that case, it was for Brian Wilson [in 2007]. You can’t every time you have a rock ‘n roll person have the audience light up with those blue little lights that were in people’s hands for Paul McCartney [in 2010].

GS: We enjoyed last year not delivering the audience what it expected by having Yo-Yo Ma be the final tribute in the show. It’s not expected that the classical musician will be the climactic tribute.

MS: We hear around, during the course of the weekend, that there’s some unregulated betting that goes on amongst the attendees about what the order of the show is going to be.

GS: The honorees don’t even know.

MS: Part of the fun is not to live up to the expectation of what it’s gonna be. Yo-Yo Ma is an example last year: We just knew that the emotion was gonna be so earnest and real, and that his response was gonna be as stirring, that we liked the idea of finishing with a classical piece. We give CBS credit. The don’t sit there and say, “My god, if you finish with the classical, you’re gonna lose your audience.” They know that this is a show that holds its audience because people know where it’s going but don’t quite know how it’s gonna get there, so they stick with it.

What’s something we should watch for in this year’s telecast?

MS: There are highlights in each of the tributes. There’s a singer named Beth Hart, who performs for Buddy Guy on the show. It’s like the Bettye LaVette moment that we had four years ago [when she performed “Love Reign O’er Me” for the Who tribute] — someone relatively unknown coming out of nowhere and just the house falling apart and giving her a standing ovation. And the Led Zeppelin tribute got four straight standing ovations, one for each performance [by the Rob Mathes Band, Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock, and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s son Jason Bonham with Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart].

I think what’s also interesting about this show is the variety of people you’re honoring. You’ve got ballerina Natalia Makarova this year, who doesn’t necessarily have the same audience as a Letterman and Hoffman — and yet, I look forward to learning about her. I think back to the 1991 Kennedy Centers Honors, which was the first time I’d ever heard of the Nicholas Brothers.

GS: The Nicholas Brothers, I think that was a wonderful discovery for the American public, and it greatly enhanced the remaining years of their lives. They always came back to the Kennedy Center Honors, usually wearing their medallions all weekend. Honoring Natalia Makarova, I think our first objective was excellence. We wanted to honor ballet, and we worked with Damian Woetzel, who was a great principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and we created this tribute to Makarova in which we have eight of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. We feel responsible to have a very high standard when we honor classical artists. … When we started [the Kennedy Center Honors], I came to it as a film person. I believe that these film biographies would be a very strong element, and we make them as films. There’s a term in the television industry, they call them ‘packages.’ But we don’t. We really like to think of them as small films. I think it’s one of the strengths of the show that viewers come to it with all different levels of knowledge about different things. And once they see the biographical film, and for example, hear Makarova’s story or the story of Led Zeppelin, they are ready for the rest of the experience.

The last thing I wanted to talk about is the difference between the show that’s taped and the show that airs on TV. How long is the ceremony that night?

MS: Two hours and 40 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission. We have to make that two hours and 20 minutes work into 90 minutes of TV show content.

GS: They’re really two different shows: The show we do in the auditorium, it’s a real performance for the people in the seats. And then we have the opportunity to come shape it here in editing for the television audience — and they have the opportunity to see the reactions of the audience and the honorees in a way that the people who attend don’t.

MS: Yes it is, in the grand scheme of things, called an awards show, but if you really look at it, it’s five different little movies, in terms of the stories that are told, how they relate to the person in the box, and how we shoot these performances. You watch enough television to see that on [most] awards shows, the camera really points one way — it’s really what’s happening on stage. We are really conscious of giving people at home a feeling of well, what’s happening in the honoree box? What’s happening in the audience? Why are people reacting the way they are to what they’re seeing?

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