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

Television
by Lili Loofbourow
September 20, 2013 9:12 AM
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This 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 (Daytime), 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 Emmy?

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 format.

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 skit. 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 Men. 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 comparison:

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 point Pinkman comes into The Office 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 dissatisfied.

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 meta-joke:

“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 Office. 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 Airlines’ 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


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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