Steve Martin brings "The 25th Anniversary Kennedy Center Honors" belatedly but wittily to life during the last half-hour of the show tonight, when he delivers, in homage to Paul Simon, a parody of the kind of windy, overblown tributes all the other honorees get.

He would list the many contributions Simon has made to American culture, Martin says, "but this seems neither the time nor the place." Later he notes, "I don't use the word 'genius' very often" -- and then, instead of saying what everyone thinks will come next, continues, "I just thought I'd mention that." Simon roars with laughter.

The taped version of this year's Honors airs at 9 tonight on Channel 9, as always good public relations for CBS, the home network since the tradition began, and for its various corporate sponsors. Sponsorship amounts to a veritable charitable donation, since the show never gets huge ratings and always airs during the otherwise barren post-Christmas lull.

Each year, too, the honorees seem to get, generally, a bit less colorful and even less worthy, though Elizabeth Taylor certainly glamorizes this year's affair. Since she's the biggest star in the batch, a viewer might assume her tribute would be saved for last, but Simon's is, with Liz in the lead-off slot.

The pattern is always the same: a speech by a colleague of the honoree, a short filmed biography, and then tribute performances by lesser stars -- bracketed by two standing ovations for whoever's being honored.

Tonight's telecast begins movingly with a clip of Leonard Bernstein at the very first Honors gala in 1978, followed by a lovely montage of past winners and their works. Then out from the wings plods Walter Cronkite, walking a bit slower each year, to host the show with his grandfatherly brand of bonhomie.

Taylor's tribute at this year's gala, held Dec. 8, includes John Travolta praising her "amazing grace," someone singing "(I'm Not) Getting Married Again" from Stephen Sondheim's "Company," and Burt Bacharach dueting with Dionne Warwick on "That's What Friends Are For," supplemented by the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington.

Sidney Poitier lauds James Earl Jones, an "icon of the American theater," for his "professional courage." Kelsey Grammer calls Jones "one of God's masterpieces," and Charles S. Dutton calls him "the king of the American theater." Whoa. Even an avid Jones fan might be thinking, "Are we getting a tad carried away here?"

Harold Prince hails Chita Rivera (born Dolores Conchito Figueroa del Rivero here in Washington), who is then saluted with songs and dances from "West Side Story," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Placido Domingo spews encomiums to opera conductor James Levine, a sequence notable for a shot of Secretary of State Colin Powell in the audience, applauding by banging his fist into his program.

Insufferably, the audience claps along in rhythm as the "Toreador Song" from "Carmen" is sung. Clapping along with "Carmen"! It's things like that that keep Washington's reputation as a hick town alive and make New Yorkers smirk with smug superiority.

Finally comes Martin with several breaths of fresh air in honor of Simon, the great singer-songwriter and a last-minute replacement for declinee Paul McCartney, who isn't American in the first place and who was rude enough to say he'd be busy the night the awards were given out. McCartney should definitely not be given another chance, but he will be because of his marquee value.

Alicia Keys renders "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- renders it helpless, that is. She tries shriekingly to ignore the song's melody and changes its refrain from "like a bridge over troubled water" to "just like a bridge over troubled water." The nerve of these singers. John Mellencamp and James Taylor don't do much better on the Simon songs they sing, although Taylor's duet with Alison Krauss on "The Boxer" is haunting.

Producer George Stevens Jr., apparently feeling he isn't given enough credit for the yearly shebang, managed to get a tribute to himself written into this year's, which can't have been that hard, since he's credited as one of the writers as well as co-producer and co-creator, and the show is billed as "A George Stevens Jr. Presentation." At least in his remarks Stevens graciously shares credit with the backstage staff, with co-producer Don Mischer and with the late Nick Vanoff, who was there at the beginning with Stevens.

Sadly, Milton Berle died before he could get the Kennedy Center Honors, but then he was 93; it didn't appear he'd ever be nominated anyway. Jerry Lewis is another highly conspicuous omission. As is the beloved Doris Day, who was very big in radio, records, films and television.

Apparently such popular performers don't meet the cultural correctness test applied by the Star Chamber of old snobs who choose each year's winners.

Whatever -- there is so little class left in network television, so little that makes the networks look like good citizens in addition to being big fat businesses, that "The Kennedy Center Honors" has long since proven its value, its stature and its importance. And every now and then tonight, it proves entertaining.

Actor James Earl Jones with the first lady and President Bush at the Kennedy Center Honors. The Dec. 8 ceremony was taped for broadcast tonight on CBS. This year's lineup of Kennedy Center honorees, from left: James Levine, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Simon, Chita Rivera and James Earl Jones, with first lady Laura Bush and President Bush.Irrepressible Steve Martin brought a fresh breeze into what always threatens become a staid event. Elizabeth Taylor's presence lent a bright glamour.