Part of the fun of the annual Kennedy Center Honors telecast is the strange bedfellows nature of the high and pop culture recipients, all of whom are recognized for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
That is certainly the case with this year’s disparate class — feted on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS — which celebrates veteran comic and talk show host David Letterman, blues legend Buddy Guy, prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, and rock ’n’ roll gods Led Zeppelin.
The all-star assemblage of performers is kept a secret until the show — recorded earlier this month — and it’s a kick to see the surprise and delight on the honorees’ faces as the various homages are paid.
Robert Plant in particular appeared quite moved during the tribute to Led Zeppelin, kicked off comically by Jack Black but brought home musically with heart, brawn, and a fitting touch of bombast by Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters, Ann and Nancy Wilson, a grand choir, and an emotional Jason Bonham.
Actors Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Billy Connolly, Laura Osnes, and Robert De Niro gathered to pay tribute to an also clearly touched Hoffman, who, in De Niro’s words, “made it OK to be a character actor and a movie star.”
Judith Jamison and a phalanx of impossibly precise and soulful ballet dancers evoke Makarova’s radiance and the spirit that, Jamison says, rewrote the history of ballet in the West when the ballerina moved from her native Russia and the Kirov Ballet to the American Ballet Theatre.
The smoke rises pretty quickly during the fiery tribute to Guy, which includes performances from Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr., Jeff Beck, Beth Hart, and Tracy Chapman, who does a great version of “Hound Dog.”
The funniest moments of the evening come during the tribute to Letterman from super fans Jimmy Kimmel, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Ray Romano, who gets off the night’s best line, not in praise of Letterman but in a sly poke at President Obama that elicits a pretty big laugh from the man himself.
Also noteworthy are the frequent reaction shots of the star-studded crowd. It’s endearing to watch as Debbie Allen cheers Hart or Yo-Yo Ma blisses out during the Zep jam.
The Kennedy Center Honors is also great holiday family viewing since it covers so many bases offering something for just about everyone and something to learn for everyone else.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.