Bill Murray accepts comedy’s top honor

Bill Murray sings a song with his brother, Brian Doyle Murray as Emma Stone, Aziz Ansari (blocked), David Letterman and Bill Hader surround him at the Kennedy Center as he is awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Oct. 23 in Washington, D.C. The program is slated to air on PBS October 28 at 9 p.m.  Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

Comic actor, movie star and America’s best friend Bill Murray tried to sum up the emotions of being honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Sunday night at the Kennedy Center.

“My theme tonight is what is it like to be beloved,” a straight-faced Murray told the crowd at the end of the two-hour salute. “It’s hard to listen to all those people be nice to you. You just get so suspicious.”

Murray offered a sentimental send-off to an often hilarious evening, telling the crowd that “as much as I dreaded this, I really have to come back to this idea: There’s love. There’s love.”

His playful acceptance of the nation’s top honor for comedy came after a dozen friends and colleagues paid tribute to his life and career. The sold-out crowd of 2,400 was treated to stand-up sets, personal reminiscences, clips of Murray’s most memorable characters and performances by Miley Cyrus and country-blues singer Rhiannon Giddens. The show will be broadcast Friday at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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Murray’s “Saturday Night Live” castmate Jane Curtin called him “a lovable scamp” and a “brilliant sketch actor,” while “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman recalled Murray’s aversion for formal rehearsals.

“As far as Bill is concerned, rehearsal is for mere mortals,” Reitman said. “Bill creates something new and wonderful on every take and this keeps a director on his toes.”

Friends and colleagues also celebrated Murray’s quirky side, teasing him about his Chicago Cubs obsession and describing his unpredictable approach to life and work.

“Bill Murray isn’t bound by the same rules of living as the rest of us,” said Jimmy Kimmel, who described Murray as “half leprechaun, half Pokémon.”

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He added, “If the Cubs hadn’t won last night, let’s be realistic, we’d be paying tribute to [former SNL cast member] Bill Hader right now,” referring to the team avoiding a Sunday night Game 7 by advancing to the World Series.

Later, Hader said Murray is “famous for photobombing life.”

“To Bill, life is a party, the world is an improv stage, and we are all in his show,” he said.

Murray launched his comedy career in Chicago with the famous Second City improv group. In 1977, he joined “Saturday Night Live,” where for three seasons he created a roster of lovable characters, including Nick the Lounge Singer. His first major movie turn came in 1979 in the hit “Meatballs.”

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After starring in some of the biggest comedy hits in the 1980s, he took on seriocomic roles in movies like “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation.”

In recent years he has appeared in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Monuments Men” and “St. Vincent,” and this year he voiced the role of Baloo in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”

Like previous winners, Murray took the stage at the end of the evening, after having watched from a Concert Hall box with his sons and other members of his large family. But that doesn’t mean he remained silent. He helped actress Emma Stone with the proper Japanese pronunciation of a phrase for her story about Murray’s work on location in Japan in “Lost in Translation.”

After Cyrus messed up the lyrics of “My Way,” cursed a few times and apologized as she finished the number, Murray yelled from his box that he wanted more. The producers decided to repeat the number, much to Murray’s delight.”This is happening right now in Washington, D.C. The 51st state in the union,” he yelled.

David Letterman began his tribute with his signature dry wit. “It’s a tremendous honor, a weighty honor, a wonderful experience … to be out of the house,” the retired host said.

Letterman tapped Murray to be his first guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1982, and the comedian returned more than 40 times during the show’s 22-year run. He told a story of when Murray happened to be a guest on his show the weekend before Letterman’s son Harry was being baptized. Murray congratulated Letterman on the milestone and left; later, he sent his friend an Irish linen christening gown, which Harry wore for the sacrament.

“It’s the kind of thing that should happen in everybody’s life,” Letterman said with obvious affection. “We have this memory, this gift, this gesture for the rest of our lives.”

Murray is the 19th recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, which honors a lifetime contribution to American humor. Richard Pryor received the inaugural prize in 1998, while Eddie Murphy was honored last year. Other winners have included Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Ellen DeGeneres.