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 READ FULL STORY