WASHINGTON • Wanting an award, Bill Murray once said, is "like a virus. It's an illness."
At the Kennedy Center here on Sunday, Murray was the willing recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, one of comedy's most significant honours. But his attendance had not been guaranteed: His favourite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, needed to seal a World Series berth the night before or else he would have been tempted to skip the ceremony for the final game.
"I'm glad they won last night, so I could be here this evening," he said. "If they hadn't won last night, I would have had to have been there because, honestly, I do not trust the media to report the story."
Perched in a box seat for more than two hours, he watched with a grin as frequent collaborators and prominent admirers offered tributes. He laughed often and acknowledged the audience between sets, shouting "More!"
The testimonials were equal parts earnest and joking. David Letterman began his tribute with his signature dry wit. "It's a tremendous honour, a weighty honour, a wonderful experience... to be out of the house," the retired host said.
He then recounted the time he told Murray of his young son's forthcoming christening. An hour later, a package appeared from Murray: It was a handmade Irish christening gown.
Actress Emma Stone recalled a glum week she had while working on a film with Murray. To cheer her up, he delivered gifts each day, including the umbrella hat the actress wore on stage during her tribute.
ABC late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel called him a genius and fearless extrovert, who can get away with stealing French fries off diners' plates and crashing a White House press conference. "Bill Murray could shove you off the side of the Hoover Dam and you'd be like, 'Hey, Bill Murray', all the way down," he said.
Clips of Murray's Saturday Night Live and film appearances highlighted his eccentric charm and knack for improvisation. As writer Roy Blount Jr said during the programme: "A script is a chance to say something else."
Even clips of Murray as himself revealed just how protean he could be in real life. Actor Bill Hader scored big laughs with photos of Murray joining a recreational kickball game and crashing a wedding portrait.
At the end, Murray, 65, went on stage to accept the award in what he described as a "Chicago Cub blue" bow tie. He thanked his older brother Brian Doyle Murray, who was on hand, for his trust when he was an unknown kid - "Little Murray" - at Second City, the improv troupe in Chicago. It was near where the two grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. "The only reason I'm here is because of the guts of my brother Brian," he said. "He's been waiting a long time to hear that."
The comedian, known for his spontaneity and irreverence, handed the award, a bust of Twain, down into the audience to be passed around. "When I can't see it any longer, that's when I'm coming down the steps," said Murray before closing the show by singing a version of Sweet Home Chicago.
He was awarded the 19th prize for making an impact on United States society similar to Twain's. Previous winners include Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Neil Simon and Eddie Murphy.