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Kennedy Center Honors preview: 5 reasons to watch

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
This year’s Kennedy Center honorees, from left: dancer Carmen de Lavallade, rapper and actor LL Cool J, television writer and producer Norman Lear, musician Lionel Richie, and singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan. (Photo: John P. Filo/CBS)

The 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS, pays tribute to the life’s work of dancer Carmen de Lavallade, musicians Gloria Estefan, Lionel Richie, and LL Cool J, and television writer and producer Norman Lear. It’s an evening filled with many of the things you’ve come to expect from the program (a few tears, some laughter, and many incredible performances), but it’s also missing one — the presence of the president.

Donald Trump chose not to attend the ceremony so that the honorees could “celebrate without any political distraction.” He is not mentioned in the telecast, but viewers will likely think of him when Caroline Kennedy delivers her opening remarks highlighting her late father’s legacy and when a reel of Lear’s groundbreaking comedies ends with Archie Bunker and Meathead in a heated argument over the right to protest in America. As Dave Chappelle, who introduces those clips, says of Lear: “You taught me that the person on the other side of an argument from me is not my enemy, it’s a person that I love that I’m willing to convince. You make me know that everything’s gonna be all right if we can laugh together.”

Rita Moreno pays tribute to Norman Lear. (Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS)

Here are four more things you can expect from the two-hour broadcast:

1. At least two GIF-able moments. Look for the celebratory dance Rita Moreno does after a joke lands bigtime during her tribute to Lear’s One Day at a Time (“And with insight and humor, it dealt with topics like teen sex and sexual harassment — and look how far we have come.”), and Anthony Anderson, who’s there to honor Lear’s The Jeffersons, dancing in the aisle and mouthing the words to LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” as it’s performed by Busta Rhymes. LL is the first hip-hop artist to ever be a Kennedy Center honoree, and it’s not as awkward as you’d expect to see, say, Rob Reiner throwing up an “L” when asked to by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, who performs “It Gets No Rougher.” (And props again to Moreno, who appears to thoroughly enjoy Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels’s rendition of “Rock the Bells.”)

Emily Estefan performs “Reach.” (Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS)

2. Some sweet family moments. No parents have looked prouder than Gloria and Emilio Estefan watching their daughter, Emily, perform Gloria’s inspirational hit “Reach.” That we see Lionel Richie and LL Cool J look genuinely thrilled for them is just one example of why this awards show is always the warmest of the year. Nicole Richie is also on hand to speak about her father, who she insists is this happy all the time. When he answers his phone, he doesn’t say, “Hello,” according to Nicole, he screams, “Showtime!”

3. The most effective dance tribute in recent memory. The multiple numbers, including “Soul Bossa Nova” (with dancers Stella Abrera and Brandon Victor Dixon), “Wade in the Water” (with dancers Alicia Graf Mack, Linda Celeste Sims, and Matthew Rushing), and “Bill” (with Misty Copeland and Robert Fairchild) are all gorgeous, but it’s the simple choreography to “She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands” that may convey a captivating dancer’s storytelling gift most clearly to viewers who’ve never heard of de Lavallade until now.

Leona Lewis performs during the Lionel Richie tribute. (Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS)

4. Possible Obama withdrawal. If, like me, you enjoyed watching Barack and Michelle Obama sing along in the honorees’ box during his presidency, you will definitely wish they’d been there this year, from the first tribute, when Becky G performs Estefan’s “Mi Tierra” with the Miami Sound Machine and the cast of the musical “On Your Feet!” stages a medley of her hits, to the last, when Leona Lewis caps off the Lionel Richie segment with “All Night Long.” The latter is the reason to watch through the credits: The rest of Lionel’s tribute acts — including Luke Bryan (who sings “Penny Lover” and “Sail On”) and the incomparable Stevie Wonder (“Easy”) — join her, and just like the audience at the Kennedy Center, you will be standing.

The 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors airs Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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