David Letterman
Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, broadcast on CBS on Wednesday night, is the annual event in which celebrities in various fields get all gussied up, travel to Washington, D.C., rub shoulders with the President, and hear exalting speeches about themselves. This year, the testimonials were laced with traces that don’t often make it into a taped TV awards-show final cut: frankness, near-brutal honesty, and almost tearful love.

The recipients this year (taped at a Dec. 3 ceremony) were David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin, and Natalia Makarova. The Kennedy Center Honors, with their formal rigor and mix of artists, can yield some surprising reactions. The three members of Zeppelin present — Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones — sat in the audience looking like delighted, if aging, schoolboys let into a grown-ups’ party; they were all smiles, as much during salutes to Hoffman and Letterman as when an array of musicians, including Lenny Kravtiz and Kid Rock, performed Zeppelin music.

Easily the high point of the evening was the Letterman segment. Tina Fey made the introductory remarks, honing in on Letterman’s essential paradox — the goofball Midwestern kid who became the master crank-ironist of his era.

Fey was followed by Jimmy Kimmel, whose idolatry of Letterman is well-known, but was saved from staleness by Kimmel’s calmly cutting remarks, as when he noted that “you are the hero of all of us, with the possible exception of the people who came to see the ballerina.” He also alluded to Letterman’s self-deprecation, which can verge on the self-loathing: “The only person [Kimmel knew growing up] who didn’t want to be David Letterman was David Letterman.”

Ray Romano told a tale of how Letterman had inspired him, early in his career, when he’d been fired from what he thought would be his big break in a sitcom (Romano didn’t name the show, but it was NewsRadio). Letterman, impressed with Romano’s stand-up act, used his production company to build a show around Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond. The lesson Romano said he learned from Letterman? “Don’t quit!” Glancing up at President Obama in the balcony, Romano said slyly, “Do you quit when you’re down one-nothing in debates? No! You keep going!”

Sensing a moment he might not have again to make this gesture in public, Romano offered some surprising emotion: “My father passed away, I never told him I loved him … I love you, David Letterman!”

One great thing about the Kennedy Center Honors is that the recipients don’t do any speaking themselves, and thus they and we are spared minutes a humble, and mock-humble, acceptances speeches. The honorees just sit there, grinning, with their medals hanging from ribbons around their necks. (Kimmel said there was “a 40% chance [Dave] will hang himself with it.”)

Robert De Niro paid tribute to Dustin Hoffman by praising not merely the latter’s talent and array of different roles, but also his quality of being “difficult and demanding … a colossal pain in the ass.”

It’s always nice when it is acknowledged that some artists aren’t just beneficent bestowers of their talent, but prickly types who feel the need to fight for the quality they want to achieve.

Twitter: @kentucker