WASHINGTON — His comedic contributions to our culture are endless, from “Saturday Night Live” to “Caddyshack,” “Stripes” to “Tootsie,” “Ghostbusters” to “Groundhog Day,” “Rushmore” to “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Lost in Translation” to “St. Vincent,” and “Scrooged” to “A Very Murray Christmas.”
Sunday night, the incomparable Bill Murray received the Kennedy Center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He’s the 19th person to receive the award, after titans such as Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Carol Burnett, Jay Leno and Eddie Murphy.
“I thought maybe if I didn’t get back to them right away, they’d go to someone else,” Murray said on the red carpet with a chuckle. “That’s really what I thought! And right now I wish I had done that.”
He’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite role.
“I kinda liked that ‘Zombieland’ one, where I was myself and I was killed. You don’t get to die very often and I chose to die in that film, so that was kind of fun,” Murray said. “‘Groundhog Day’ is a really unusually great script, concept and idea for a movie. But I like them all. I really do like them all.”
Which day of his life would he like to repeat over and over like “Groundhog Day?”
“I think my fifth birthday was pretty good,” Murray told WTOP. “I got a Davy Crockett coonskin hat, a bicycle, a Cubs jacket, a Cubs hat and a softball.”
The Cubs gear paid off, as Murray hurled an impromptu baseball across the Kennedy Center, clanking off the step-and-repeat backdrop. He then took that ball and bowled a strike down the red carpet.
“He asked me to throw him a pitch and I managed to throw a ricochet off the wall,” Murray told WTOP with a grin. “I hadn’t warmed up! I hadn’t loosened up.”
As the actual ceremony arrived inside the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, late night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel kicked off a long lineup of celebrity presenters, from Aziz Ansari to Emma Stone to David Letterman, who choked up telling a personal story of Murray gifting his family a christening gown.
“Bill Murray is perhaps our greatest American,” Kimmel said on the red carpet. “He’s like a leprechaun; he’s very elusive, but if you do happen to catch him, he presents you with a pot of gold.”
Kimmel says that comedic gold has captured multiple generations of fans.
“We’ll always have Bill Murray fever,” Kimmel said. “There will always be guys dressed as Peter Venkman for Halloween. It’s just a fact of life. … The first one I saw was ‘Meatballs’ so I have a particular fondness for that. ‘There’s a very large pair of underpants hanging from the flagpole.'”
The presenters included many of Murray’s fellow collaborators, including his “Ghostbusters” co-star Sigourney Weaver, whose character was possessed by Zuul and levitated in front of Murray.
“He’s one of the most wonderful partners to have in a scene because he’s so present,” said Weaver, who admitted fears of another fridge portal. “I’m always a bit afraid when I go to the fridge.”
Her “Ghostbusters” role came between turns as Ellen Ripley in “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986).
“If you do something like Ripley and you’re in a serious film — although I had mostly done comedy before — it’s very hard to be considered for a comedy,” she said. “I had to audition for Ivan Reitman and convince him that I would be able to play this romantic comedy. I had to really work for the part.”
Reitman, who directed “Ghostbusters,” hit the red carpet himself to discuss Murray’s brilliance.
“I was just talking about this with Sigourney yesterday … when he first comes into Sigourney’s apartment in the very first ‘Ghostbusters,’ the scene didn’t seem to be working,” Reitman said. “I remember just yelling out, ‘Bill, we need something here! Can you do something?’ He walks into the apartment, he turns and sees this piano and he goes [playing the keys], ‘They hate that,’ just out of his head. It just changed the whole character of the scene. It became this teasing seduction for the piece.”
What’s Reitman’s favorite Murray film?
“I do love Harold Ramis’ ‘Groundhog Day,'” Reitman said. “I think he’s spectacular in it.”
Fellow “Saturday Night Live” alums also turned out for the event, from 1970s peer Jane Curtin to new-millennium stars such as Bill Hader, who says “Rushmore” is probably his favorite Murray flick.
“The absence of mannerisms is what I thought was so cool; he didn’t push anything as a performer,” Hader said. “As you get older and start performing and studying people … you go, ‘Wow, he made that look really effortless.’ But a lot of work went into that, I’m now realizing. His subtlety is great.”
How did Hader feel being the second-funniest Bill in the room?
“I don’t think I am the second-funniest,” Hader said. “I think Bill Gates is gonna be here and he’s hilarious. I think Bill Clinton is gonna drop in. Bill Cosby probably will show up. Bill Russell, I think all the Bills are right before me. Bill Nye is gonna come out. … They’re all here tonight.”
Comedian Bruce Vilanch even showed up in a Bill Murray t-shirt, which spoke to us.
“This is limited edition,” Vilanch said. “If I have a canvas this big, I may as well wear it.”
His favorite Murray role is Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack.”
“I just love the guy dragging the clubs around,” Vilanch said. “I love that he can be so loose, and then do something really really serious like the Wes Anderson pictures or ‘St. Vincent.'”
Musician Rhiannon Giddens took the stage to perform songs from Mark Twain’s era.
“I’ve got my 1858 replica banjo,” Giddens said.
Her rendition brought Murray to his feet in the balcony.
Other musical numbers included Paul Shaffer and Miley Cyrus singing Sinatra’s “My Way” twice after botching a verse in a case of real “Groundhog Day.” As Cyrus cursed and apologized, Murray stood in his balcony to fire up the crowd, prompting Cyrus to re-record for the PBS broadcast.
When it was time for Murray to take the stage, he himself performed a number, singing “Sweet Home Chicago” in a nod to old pals Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, as well as his hometown Chicago Cubs.
“It’s good they won last night, or I wouldn’t be here,” Murray said of the Cubs’ World Series berth.
As for the award, Murray immediately handed his statue to the audience.
“Don’t hog it, man, pass it around! Let everyone see it,” Murray said with a comedic populism. “Keep it moving back. I want to see how far it can get back before I’m done.”
As the Mark Twain bust made its way toward the back of the room, it was clear that Murray remains “not the God, but a god,” allowing fans to share in his award like comedy’s greatest man of the people.
The Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony airs this Friday, Oct. 28 at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.
WTOP's Jason Fraley recaps Bill Murray at Kennedy Center