WASHINGTON — It never seemed a sure thing that Bill Murray would show up Sunday to accept the most prestigious award in comedy.
Just reaching the elusive comedian in the first place is a challenge. “He’s the Irish El Chapo,” quipped Jimmy Kimmel during the ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Then there was Murray’s reluctance to be the center of attention. As he told reporters in the pre-show red carpet, instead of a lavish gala loaded with stars paying tribute to him, he would have preferred just hearing about the award in a letter.
The ceremony, he said on the red carpet, would be “a squirm-a-thon for me.”
Further complicating matters were the pennant hopes of his beloved Cubs. Earlier in the week he had told the Washington Post he’d much rather be at Wrigley Field than in a perch watching the Mark Twain ceremony if the National League Championship Series had run all the way to Sunday.
Presenter Bill Hader said he feared that if Game 7 became reality, “we’d be playing to an empty box.”
But the Cubs clinched in time to free up Murray’s Sunday, and he was there to listen to the tributes and the zingers from a star-studded roster including Aziz Ansari, Jane Curtin, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Shaffer and David Letterman.
In an event that began with the orchestra playing the “Ghostbusters” theme and ended with the man of the hour handing his Mark Twain bust to an audience member to pass around (and she did), the pride of Wilmette threw himself into laughing and applauding his procession of admirers.
“As much as I’ve dreaded this,” he said in his acceptance speech, “I really have to come back to this idea that: There is love.”
The love ran the gamut, in the way comedians love; part schmaltz, part irreverence. Steve Martin, in a taped bit, revived Murray’s old movie critic bit from “Saturday Night Live,” finding ways to savage (deservedly) “Garfield” and (less deservedly) “Lost in Translation” and “Groundhog Day.” Noting Murray’s propensity for impromptu fan encounters, Kimmel labeled Murray “a man who travels around the world spreading foolishness and joy wherever he goes.”
The disturbingly whiskered Letterman reserved the barbs for himself, claiming that on the way over a guy “asked me if I was selling moonshine.” But then he turned poignant, telling several stories of good works by Murray, the last of which was his purchase of a beautiful christening gift for Letterman’s son.
Murray’s formative years in Chicago and suburbs were a recurring theme throughout the night, as an old Second City clip depicted him playing a sheepish VD patient being treated by a nurse who’s a nun, and Hader, in a highlight of the show, played a Chicago-accented priest announcing a Bill Murray scholarship: No Sox fans need apply.
“I come from Illinois,” Murray said. “We are the Land of Lincoln. We put that on license plates before Kentucky could think of it.”
Older brother Brian Doyle Murray recalled the Little League games where lackadaisical Bill was nicknamed “Sleepy.” Later, the honoree gave special praise to Brian, whose entry into Second City inspired Bill to do the same and launched his career.
“The only reason I’m here is because of the guts of my brother Brian,” Murray said to loud applause.
“He’s been waiting a long time to hear that.”
As befits Murray’s sometimes raggedy nature, the generally crisp and refined Kennedy Center affair took some loopy turns. When Jason Schwartzman was introduced, the man who came out was Kimmel in a wig, to Murray’s very visible glee. The ersatz actor introduced a montage of clips from “Rushmore,” “Moonlight Kingdom” and other Wes Anderson movies starring Murray (and Schwartzman).
Backed by Shaffer, Miley Cyrus launched into a Murray-specific version of “My Way” that escalated from lounge music into a raucous strobe-lit rave-up. Botching the lyrics, Cyrus pressed on, blurting out profane apologies between stanzas.
A standing ovation followed. By Murray. And no one else.
As Murray shouted his approval from his box seat, Cyrus then was allowed a redo, with perfectly delivered lyrics — but still f-words aplenty.)
The event was taped for broadcast Friday on WTTW-Channel 11 and other PBS stations.
The awardwas the culmination of weekend of celebration in the nation’s capital in which Murray met with the president to discuss putting, crashed a White House press briefing, dined with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and peppered a Saturday rehearsal dinner with Cubs play-by-play.
Said ceremony joke writer Bruce Vilanch, “He might just pop up in Michelle Obama’s garden.”
Always, the Cubs were on the mind of Murray, who entered the theater by hurling a baseball down the red carpet where reporters were amassed.
If the Cubs hadn’t won last night,” he joked onstage, “I would have had to be there. Because honestly, I do not trust the media to report the story.”