Complaining about the Emmys being out of touch with actual television viewers has eclipsed the level of cliché. Such complaints have become almost as tiresome as those moments when Simon Cowell appears on stage and is booed by audience members who secretly love him and his attitude, as happened during this year’s Emmys.
The 58th annual Emmy awards did offer a few exceptions to the rule that the awards are out of touch — surprises, those exceptions are called, because people who actually watch TV are just so shocked that a decent television show managed to be given an award by people who still have UHF tuners on their sets.
For example, FOX’s “24” and NBC’s “The Office,” both coming off incredibly rich seasons, won for best drama and comedy respectively. Jeremy Piven also received a statue for his role on HBO’s “Entourage,” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus broke the “Seinfeld” curse with her new CBS sitcom and now her award for best actress.
As the evening unfolded, however, the biggest Emmy surprise was how often the telecast itself acknowledged how frequently the Emmy awards suck.
Funny jokes, safe targets
Most of host Conan O’Brien’s host segments focused on making fun of the Emmys themselves. Because awards shows always run over time, Conan introduced Bob Newhart, who was enclosed in a glass case with three hours of air, in order to keep the show on schedule. “If the Emmys run one second over three hours, Bob Newhart dies. So keep those speeches short,” Conan said.
At other points, Conan made fun of people who record the show on their DVRs and fast-forward through the boring parts, and also pointed out how ridiculously unimportant some segments are, such as the show’s annual introduction of its vote-counting accountants.
Those moments were funny, but ultimately they targeted completely safe subjects. The show gets points for making fun of itself and offends no one on the entire planet, except perhaps the local NBC affiliate crews who have to stay up later to do their 11 o’clock news broadcasts and wish the show would just get to the awards and skip the cuteness.
These moments that jabbed at the more sensitive, swollen parts of the Emmy award process weren’t all improvised; some were even scripted by the show’s producers. Presenting an award, Sean Hayes acknowledged the “controversial process” that led to weak nominees, and his co-presenter — and fellow nominee — Julia Louis Dreyfus said, “Sean and I would like to say that that really hurts our feelings.” That moment was light, but they made an interesting point: criticizing the nomination process is a pretty solid slap in the faces of those who were nominated, even if we think they don’t deserve their nominations.
Self-deprecation over self-congratulation
There was also plenty of self-deprecation, some of which helped advance the thesis that the Emmy awards really are ridiculous.
Presenting an award, John Lithgow pretended to be surprised that the Emmys were awarded even during years when he did not appear on television. “I don’t understand. Then who wins?” he asked. He was mocking his own ridiculous number of wins for “Third Rock from the Sun,” which are representative of the rut Academy of Television Arts and Sciences voters sometimes slip into, refusing to acknowledge anything new or creative and staying instead with what’s comfortable.
This year, there were plenty of comfort nominations (Megan Mullally has been nominated every year for the past seven years) and wins (Tony Shalhoub, who has been nominated for the past four years, won his third trophy). Perhaps most appallingly, “The Amazing Race” won its fourth consecutive Emmy for best reality series, even though the past year included the series' worst season yet, the boring travesty that was the family edition. Its competition, including “Project Runway,” was far more deserving.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the most intense criticism was directed at NBC, which aired the ceremony. Conan O’Brien opened the show with a musical number that acknowledged how much NBC has declined over the past few years, singing, “and now the Peacock’s getting it from both ends ... to prove things are going to hell / we’re relying on Howie Mandel.” He was referring to one of NBC’s few hits, “Deal or No Deal,” which the network will be airing twice a week this fall.
These segments were pretty edgy and substantive, at least compared to the fluff awards shows usually offer. That NBC allowed itself to be made fun of may be a sign of how desperate the network is. But combined with the rest of the telecast’s humor, it seems to prove that while TV people might give awards out to the wrong people all the time, at least they can laugh about it and themselves. That’s more than most of the people associated with the Oscars could ever do.