The Kennedy Centers Honors returned to an in-person ceremony Sunday night, celebrating the artistic excellence of Motown Records founder Barry Gordy, Saturday Night Live impresario Lorne Michaels, and performers Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell and opera singer Justino Diaz. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended the ceremony, filling the Kennedy Center's presidential box for the first time since 2016.
The Bidens also hosted a reception for the honorees beforehand in the White House, another tradition that had gone on hiatus under former President Donald Trump. "We welcome everyone back," Biden told the 150 people gathered in the East Room. "Our nation is stronger, more dynamic and more vibrant because of you," he told the honorees. Biden praised Diaz's "soul of sound," Gordy's "iconic" record label, and Midler's emotive "gift." "Joni," he told Mitchell, "your words and melodies touch the deepest parts of our soul."
Biden kept things a little lighter with Michaels, noting SNL's frequent mockery of him and other presidents. "Finally, it's my turn to say something about him," he joked. "You make me laugh at myself a lot," Biden told Michaels, adding that SNL is auditioning actors to play Biden and then pointing to frequent SNL guest Steve Martin as the type of talent Michaels has fostered over the decades. "You want me to play you?" Martin asked, tying those two thoughts together and making the room laugh.
Biden also recounted a story about taking his kids to see Bette Midler on Broadway.
Biden: We went to see Bette on Broadway when our two boys were young. In the middle of her show, she stopped and looked down(we had great seats like 7-8 rows back)she says "Who would bring kids to a show like this?" pic.twitter.com/pDtD8iz964
— Acyn (@Acyn) December 5, 2021
The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, which will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 22, kicked off with cellist Yo Yo Ma playing the national anthem, then included musical tributes to Gordy, Diaz, Midler, and Mitchell.
"For Michaels, organizers put together three 'Weekend Update' segments onstage with multiple generations of mock news anchors — Kevin Nealon, Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, and the current duo of Michel Che and Colin Jost," The Associated Press reports. "Che joked that Biden would be asleep before the end of the show."