An annual post-Christmas treat for 32 years, “The Kennedy Center Honors” (8 p.m., CBS) is the closest thing America has to an official academy, a pantheon of the performing arts.
This year’s roundup includes two stars of the creative ferment of the 1970s, a pair of artists whose work has been acclaimed since the 1950s and an opera singer whose path from St. Louis to Covent Garden has inspired singers and opera fans around the world.
For record collectors of a certain age, Dave Brubeck is most associated with a single work, the iconic jazz album “Time Out,” from 1958, an experiment in time signature that has overshadowed his lifelong efforts as a musical innovator and ambassador.
Mel Brooks has been making Americans laugh since serving as a writer on “Your Show of Shows” and pairing with Carl Reiner on the legendary comedy skits about “The 2000 Year Old Man.” His movie sendups have always included broad belly laughs combined with a sophisticated appreciation of artistic genres from Broadway (“The Producers”), Westerns (“Blazing Saddles”), horror (“Young Frankenstein”) and so many others.
The second actor to win an Oscar for playing Don Vito Corleone (performing mostly in Italian, no less), Robert De Niro deserves a lifetime of awards for a handful of towering performances in “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.”
A Jersey-shore phenomenon, Bruce Springsteen burst onto the national stage in 1975, appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week. A rock critic (who would later become his manager) had dubbed Springsteen the future of rock ’n’ roll, and, for once it seems, the critic was right.
In 1961, at age 24, Grace Bumbry was the first black opera singer to perform in Bayreuth. Some Wagner buffs disapproved of her casting, but her performance in “Tannhauser” resulted in a 30-minute standing ovation and 42 curtain calls.
A who’s who of performers, from Aretha Franklin to Sting, will be on hand to laud the honorees. The president and first lady also attend.
• Having cornered the market on “Little People” and multiple-birth documentary series, TLC turns its talents toward collective obesity and weight loss with “One Big Happy Family” (8 p.m., TLC).
This six-part series visits with the Cole family. Mom and Dad and two kids tip the scales at a combined weight of more than 1,400 pounds. Each installment looks at the habits that contributed to their largeness, as well as new ways to lose weight with the assistance of a trainer, nutritionist and one another.
Tonight’s other highlights
• “Web Soup: 2009 Golden Download Awards” (6 p.m., G4) celebrates the notable viral videos of 2009.
• Nothing says “Auld Lang Syne” like a red nose on “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” (7 p.m., ABC).
• “What Darwin Never Knew” on “Nova” (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) examines the advance of evolutionary science over the past 150 years.
• On four episodes of “Parks & Recreation” (NBC), a penguin wedding that dares not speak its name (7 p.m.), controlled substances (7:30 p.m.), Leslie judges a pageant (8 p.m.), Leslie preps for a date (8:30 p.m.).
• Elliott counsels Lucy on “Scrubs” (8 p.m., ABC).
• Ted pulls an intervention with Veronica on “Better Off Ted” (8:30 p.m., ABC).