What Happened When Bill Murray Was Honored at the Kennedy Center

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Bill Murray arrives at The Kennedy Center, where the actor received the 19th Annual Mark Twain Prize. Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

When the Kennedy Center honored Bill Murray with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday night, it made sense to expect the unexpected. This is Bill Murray we’re talking about here, the notoriously elusive, unpredictable comic genius, and America’s most beloved disrupter of the status quo. Anything could potentially happen. Maybe the honoree would start a kickball game in the middle of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Maybe Murray would lead everyone outside and into the streets of Washington, D.C., in search of the nearest wedding to crash. Maybe he wouldn’t even show up.

That idea had clearly crossed the mind of Jimmy Kimmel, the first of several comedians, actors, colleagues, and friends of Murray to speak during the two-and-a-half-hour-plus tribute. “If the Cubs hadn’t won last night,” Kimmel said, referring to the Caddyshack star’s beloved baseball team, who clinched their spot in the World Series on Saturday, “let’s be realistic. We’d be paying tribute to Bill Hader right now.”

But Murray did show up and, from his seat in a balcony just to the right of the stage where he sat with his six sons, seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself throughout the proceedings, which will be broadcast, in edited form, on PBS stations this Friday night. Still, this being an evening to revel in all that Bill Groundhog DayGhostbustin’–ass Murray represents, there were some deviations from the norm.

Miley Cyrus, a last-minute addition to the talent roster, screwed up some lyrics during her otherwise blistering Murray-fied rendition of “My Way” and had to sing it again so a sharper version could be captured for the PBS broadcast. “Shaffer told me not to smoke too much before I was here,” she explained, referring to Paul Shaffer, who accompanied her during the song. “But then I smoked too much and forgot.”

While the crew reset for take two, Murray stood up from his seat to address the audience, something he did frequently throughout the evening during breaks between presentations. “How about those pipes?” he shouted, referring to Cyrus. Then: “Here we are in D.C., the 51st state in the Union. If you had statehood, that” — referring to Cyrus’s need for a re-do — “would not have happened.” Cyrus then ran through the song again and completely crushed it. “More!” Murray yelled from on high.

Every homage-payer attempted to capture Murray’s joie de vivre using a variety of adjectives. Kimmel called him someone who spreads “foolishness and joy” to everyone he meets. Jane Curtin, a fellow Saturday Night Live alum, called him “a scamp” and “a comedy nymph.” Bill Hader said the Academy Award nominee was “famous for photobombing life.” But no one got to his essence, and essentially stole the whole show, quite like David Letterman, who strolled onstage with his snowstorm of a beard on full display (“On the way over here,” he quipped, “a guy asked me if I was selling moonshine”) and spoke both from the heart and off the top of his head.

As Letterman told a detailed story about the night when he and Murray went to a bar in Montana, the only words the teleprompter displayed were “(Bar Fight Story).” Those words were then followed by “(Christening Story),” in which Letterman recalled how Murray sent Letterman a handmade Irish christening gown for his son, Harry, on the same day that Letterman had casually mentioned to Murray that Harry was going to be christened that weekend. The gown, the former Late Show host explained, was what Harry wore on the day he was baptized.

“We have this gift, we have this gesture, for the rest of our lives,” Letterman said, sounding a little choked-up.

 After all the tributes — from Aziz Ansari, Emma Stone, Steve Martin, Ivan Reitman, Sigourney Weaver, Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray, Jimmy Kimmel impersonating Jason Schwartzman — and all the clips of Murray’s greatest hits, the man himself couldn’t hold back from giving another gift. As soon as he received his trophy, he handed it off to the audience so people could pass it around. “I want to see how far back it can get,” Murray said, joking that as soon as the statuette got out of his eye sight, he needed to have it back. From where I sat, it wasn’t clear that it ever actually made its way back to him. There’s a real possibility that Murray’s Mark Twain Prize left the building and is now sitting on the nightstand of a Senate staffer.

During his acceptance speech, Murray rambled a little, also speaking from the heart and off the top of his head, as well as attempting, with mixed results, to use a trampoline metaphor to explain how everyone has the power to take the love they receive and bounce it back into the world. After going on for a while, he finally said, “What a break that we’re here in this place together. Alive. It’s pretty good, right?”

That’s really why we love Bill Murray. Not just because he’s hilarious, or a gifted actor, or because he can’t stop himself from busting in on other people’s engagement photos and kickball games. We love and admire him — want to be him, really — because he seems to have so damn much fun being alive.