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Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 4: Ghosts of Emmys Past

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 4: Ghosts of Emmys Past

week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on
Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance. 
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal
investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want
to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

(To read Phillip Maciak’s previous post, click here.)

(To read Anne Helen Petersen’s previous post, click here.)

(To read Jane Hu’s previous post, click here.)

Dear TV,

The Grammys won two Emmys this year. As the viewing public gets more fickle
and viewing platforms expand, TV circles are getting tighter, y’all.

If so far we’ve focused on the social dynamics
in our Anti-Prom—the obsession with
who got snubbed at the dance, the
misfit cluster
all the miniseries get shoved into, and how the Emmys King (Primetime) is more
Likely To Succeed than the womanish Emmys Queen
, cooler than the AV and drama kids (Creative Arts), more
urbane than the jocks (Sports Emmys), and less pedantic than the Model UN (News
and Documentary Emmys)—I want to close our Anti-Prom by talking about the dance
itself. How’s the décor? The Grammys got two Emmys. Do the Emmys deserve an

The answer is, by popular consensus, a giant NO.
The Primetime Emmys are famously boring, so much so that many an Emmy opening
monologue dwells lovingly on its dullness. So much so that Ryan McGee has
pleaded compellingly
for a change in format. The Emmys are so dull
that even an internet obsessed with documenting everything—including old
insurance commercials, including this—lets the glittery Emmys slip, unframed, out of
the archive. I’ve been trying to find old Emmys to rewatch as research for this
here Anti-Prom, you guys, and it cannot be done. Not even on the Emmys site. No
one, it seems, wants to throw an Emmys-Rewatching Party. All that survives is a
small, sometimes desperate cluster of skits that show an entire industry straining
to make the awards show on television, about television, mildly watchable.

I’m exaggerating. There are survivals: some
encyclopedic pellet-wikis of who won what, lots more photosets of who wore
what—but what’s striking is how completely the content itself just disappears.
Like Prom, which everyone tries to repress in their own way, substituting for
The Awkward Thing Itself the Cheesy-But-Tolerable photo structured by pose and
the theme and the big corsage, the Emmys is both forever nostalgic and forever
erasing last year’s failure to live up to its own myth as entertainment. And
the culture, just as it forgives Prom, forgives this. It doesn’t cling to or
punish the Emmys of yore; it has rigorously respected the evanescence of the

So let’s look briefly at the handful of stuff
that didn’t slip through the internet’s fingers. I discovered this Emmys
Amnesia Hole, I repeat, because I was looking for footage—footage of Eddie
Murphy and Joan Rivers hosting in 1983, for instance. There is none. I did find
this opening skit from 2011, when Jane Lynch hosted, though, as well as Jimmy Fallon’s 2010 skit and Jimmy Kimmel’s 2012
. All three of these, remember, are scripted and produced, so
they really do represent the Emmys trying to do good TV, even apart from its
live format and the tedium built into the awards show as a genre:

Jane Lynch is a lanky fantastic charisma
factory. The production values on this thing are good. (Who knows, maybe they
even got a Grammy!) As TV, though, it’s pretty terrible, and the skit knows it:
“I know this seems stupid and schlocky and already feels overly long,” Lynch
sings, “but it’s the Emmys!” “TV is a vast wasteland where good ideas go to die
and mediocre ones make zillions of dollars,” Sue Sylvester says to Emmys Host
Lynch in the next segment, doing that self-deprecating thing the Emmys do.

(AHP just informed me this is a famous quote from FCC chairman Newton Minow’s 1962 speech, “Television and the Public Interest,” which contextualizes that self-deprecation in a longer history of TV criticism and makes the move a lot more interesting.)

Still, one of the only things worth salvaging from that
opening is the sexy look Lynch shares with Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy on the set of Mad
. Its value is that it dares to say something other than “This is good!”
Or “This is great!” Or—because we live in the age of the meta-put-down—“We are
terrible!” It’s a sliver of content, of commentary on content, even, in
what otherwise amounts to an avalanche of cameos in search of a plot. That the
joke is as satisfying as it is, despite being easy and paper-thin, illustrates
what I think we’ve been saying throughout this Anti-Prom, namely, that the
Emmys has a problem. The competing shows are so staggeringly different from one
another in such a sustained way that what we hunger for, as viewers, isn’t an
empty declaration of supremacy but rather an articulation, however small, of
the relationship between them.

That’s true of Prom too: the stakes of the vote
for Prom King and Queen are never reducible to simple popularity. Nobody cares
what a giant undifferentiated mass of high schoolers think. The juicy story,
the interest—the thing that makes for good TV—lives between the
contestants, in the subdivisions, in the differences.

There’s no reason to make the case that the
Emmys skits have gotten worse (I don’t have enough data to make that
determination anyway), but Conan’s 2006 skit—where he survives a plane crash,
fashions a blow-drier out of twigs on the island from Lost, then has a
moment with Pam on the set of The Office—is pretty good TV in

The Lynch skit was written under the assumption
that the fun, for viewers, consists in watching beloved actors interact. What
we really want, and what Conan’s skit provides, isn’t the interaction of actors
but rather characters. (The Lynch Emmys have some of this too; at one
Pinkman comes into The
to sell Creed meth, and those thirty seconds overshadow
most of Lynch’s seven-minute opening.) This is why Jon Stewart and Stephen
Colbert are such good Emmy announcers; few celebrities have blurred character
and persona as adeptly as those two, and their real-life friendship gives the
thing a reality-tv frisson.

So let’s talk now about the live but scripted
stuff. There are a few “canonical” Primetime Emmys moments that survived the
Black Hole, but their goodness, again, tends to be a function of how they
expose the intersections between shows. This one’s a favorite, and it’s
easy to see why.

(If you can’t watch, don’t worry.) “Awards show
banter is not pabulum,” says Jon Stewart indignantly to a ranting Colbert who
opens with “Good evening, godless sodomites.” Ever the obedient straight man,
Stewart restores discipline and reads from the teleprompter. His voice gets
small and ashamed as the script gets more and more emptily approving: “Reality
television celebrates the human condition by illuminating what’s extraordinary
in the ordinary,” he begins, and trails off with “the results are dramatic and
often unexpected.” It’s a statement about the Emmys, obviously, which are
supposed to be dramatic and unexpected but continually fail to be either.
Still, if Emmy-bashing is constitutive of the Emmys, what gives this clip its oomph
is the way it develops Stewart as himself and the ideal Emmys announcer
in a real-life context and Colbert as himself and the Emmys’ disruptive id even
as it does the expected self-deprecating schtick.

This one, in
contrast—in which Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announce the nominees for
best miniseries—falls pretty flat. It’s built around a prune gag, doesn’t
connect with either of their shows or capitalize on their characters, and just
doesn’t quite land. The former rewards our TV knowledge and uses it to mock the
event; the latter leaves that knowledge less than completely used, (sort of
like the recent season of Arrested Development). We leave the clip

The most satisfying Primetime Emmys footage in
Youtube memory doesn’t just go meta on the Emmys or bridge the gap between two
shows, it does both and builds an actual serial storyline. This Colbert-Stewart
exchange from 2007 starts with Colbert and a leafblower and ends with a

“Perhaps we shouldn’t even have an awards show,” Stewart says after admitting to using a “private jet sandwich” to get to the Emmys.
“What?” says Colbert. “If entertainers stop publicly congratulating each other,
then the earth wins!” (Emmys burn: check.) Then they announce the nominees, and
the show takes an amazing turn in which they give Ricky Gervais’ Emmy to Steve
Carell and all three sometime Daily Show dudes hug ecstatically over The
. And then—and this is what made the Emmys seem like maybe it
could do TV after all—a full year later,
Ricky Gervais took the
Emmy back

The Primetime Emmys has yet to top that.

Okay, you might say, but the Emmys are only
tangentially about the scripted stuff. What we’re ostensibly watching for is
the competitive aspect: the suspense on the faces of the nominees and (less
enthusiastically) the winner’s acceptance. I don’t need to go into how
magnificently dull this formula is in practice—the fact that we all go bonkers when anyone does
anything even slightly unexpected
at any of these awards shows
testifies to the rigidity of the format. It might not be possible for the
Primetime Emmys to escape its own lacquered formula. It’s trapped in a weird position
where it has to commit to bombast and cloying sincerity even as it tries to
entertain us by mocking its own commitments.

But here’s an interesting thing: in trawling the
internet for clips, the two most entertaining and moving unscripted moments I
found came not from the Primetime Emmys but from their less prestigious, less
“masculinized”—to Anne’s point—and less popular brethren. The first is Fred
Rogers’ acceptance of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmys
(start at 1:30), where he invites everyone present to take ten seconds to think
of the people who “wanted the best for you in life”:

“Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how
pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made,” he says.
“You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world.”
It’s a moment that makes good television not just for the explicit content, but
because we get to watch Fred Rogers definitively erase the terrible possibility
of difference between himself and his character. (What if he were Bob Saget? Or
Peewee Herman?) It stitches television to reality. The second is more recent: Bob Newhart wept at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards
when he finally won an Emmy for his role on The Big Bang Theory after a
lifetime in showbiz.

Newhart crying and Mr. Rogers gently donating
ten seconds of his acceptance to asking a roomful of giant egos to think of others? That’s good reality TV. Not to mention
other magical moments at the non-Primetime Emmys—take Bob Barker’s “I wish I
had a refrigerator for every one of you” at the 1999 Daytime Emmys, Frontier
big win for
its commercial, “Leather Seats,” at the Heartland Regional Emmys. The odd, the
off-kilter, the weepy and weird happens, at Prom and award shows alike, in the
corners people aren’t watching quite so hard while the Prom royalty brandish
their scepters in the scripted limelight.

The Emmys’ return this year to a less
stringently pre-recorded format with Neil Patrick Harris, a man capable of actually doing pageantry well in the old vaudevillian tradition—holds out hope that we might get a little more air in our Emmys
and spark in our statues.

Speaking of which, I found out today that the
Emmy’s statuette
is supposed to be a muse
holding an atom
: “The wings represent the muse of art; the atom the
electron of science.” I love this. It’s so spectacularly backwards. And it is
spectacle for an atom to represent the electron orbiting it, for Ahab to
represent his leg, for the whole to represent the part. But the Emmys’
commitment to parts is sort of its charm, yes? Here’s hoping the glittery frame
is worth watching before it drops lightly out of its own televisual history.

Yours in the electron of science,


Lili Loofbourow is a seventh-year graduate student who works on early
modern constructions of reading as a form of eating—theologically,
physiologically, etc. In addition to her research and teaching, Lili
writes for a number of publications, including
The Hairpin, The Awl, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Republic, where she contributes TV criticism to the Dear Television series. She also maintains a personal blog called Excremental Virtue. Follow her on Twitter here.

A head’s up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!

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