By Alan Carter
Special to TelevisionWeek
Whether they come from TV, movies or even the newsroom, Emmy hosts have millions of people judging them right from the start. Some have scored, some haven’t.
It is an elite group, to say the least. Since the first Emmy telecast-Jan. 25, 1949-there have been fewer than 70 hosts.
They have been comedians, talk show names, movie stars and news personalities. In the first year, film star and band leader Rudy Vallee dropped out at the last minute and a radio personality named Walter O’Keefe got the gig. TV was a fairly new medium and a lot of would-be hosts, film stars especially, took the job with trepidation. Some worried that appearing in this new medium (let alone celebrating it) wouldn’t play well with executives at the film studios. Finding a host wasn’t an easy feat.
By the time the beloved Lucille Ball hosted in 1952, the black-tie dinner was an industry hot ticket and fodder for water-cooler discussions the morning after. And it got better when that same year Ms. Ball’s show lost to Red Skelton’s. The audience booed the choice (Ms. Ball was the more heavily favored redhead), and her loss foreshadowed Emmy controversies, boycotts, host snafus and memorable moments in the years to come.
Ed Sullivan hosted in 1954, mere months after saying he was very much anti-Emmys and also anti-TV Academy. Mr. Sullivan made it clear he was more interested in starting his own “really big shew,” The Mike Awards, which he later did.
In the first two decades of the Emmys telecast, it was traditional to simulcast hosts from Los Angeles and New York. Comedians and talk show hosts such as Steve Allen and Art Linkletter were often selected to glitz up the show in the City of Angels. (Production gaffes and dead microphones convinced producers that a comedian who was fast on his feet would be the best choice to keep the crowd entertained.) The New York branch usually chose a serious news anchor or a reporter to dole out the prizes (Dave Garroway and John Daly were two early favorites).
In those days, not only did male and female actors compete in the same categories, but prime-time entertainment programs shared the spotlight with documentary and news fare.
Since the mid-1960s comedians-mostly male comics-have dominated the role of host. The rise of the solo male comic coincided with the broadcast moving to a sole Los Angeles base.
Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop and Danny Thomas each soloed in the job several times. In 1964 Mr. Bishop as host in fact helped usher in a different type of Emmy show. Mr. Bishop poked gentle fun at how winning an Emmy was not only not good for a career but could be a kiss of death for a program. An inordinate number of programs, he pointed out, would win an Emmy but already had been canceled.
Hollywood occasionally reached back to the film community for hosts through the ’60s, including Fred Astaire (1960), Danny Kaye (1966) and Frank Sinatra (1968).
By 1972 Mr. Carson (who also hosted the Oscars many times) helped make standard an opening monologue, complete with elements of politics, world affairs and names in the news. It also invariably made fun of TV-it was in 1973 that Mr. Carson uttered what many consider a classic award show quip: “This show is being beamed to millions of people,” he said, “whether they want to see
it or not.”
While the role of the host is seen by many industry insiders as vital, it should be noted that in some years there has been no host at all (most recently in 1988). And there have also been some off-the-wall choices, such as John Denver, who co-hosted with Mary Tyler Moore in 1976. From the mid-’70s through the late ’80s, most networks that telecast the show chose someone from one or two of their popular programs to host (Cheryl Ladd, Ed Asner, Henry Winkler, Tom Selleck and John Forsythe, to name a few). In 1983 Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy were paired, and the critics howled when the two comics got a little too ribald for the academy.
David Letterman (hosting with Shelley Long) got good notices for his turn in 1985, but his hosting stock dropped after his shaky hosting of the Oscars in 1995 (remember “Oprah … Uma … Uma … Oprah”?).
Funnyman Jerry Seinfeld hosted in 1990, but it was actress Kirstie Alley who got off the best line of the night when in her acceptance speech she thanked her then-husband Parker Stevenson for “giving me the big one” all these years.
While the two-host format was standard through the ’80s and ’90s (actress Angela Lansbury soloed in 1993, and newsman Bryant Gumbel did the same in 1997), in recent years any number of hosts could be on hand. In 2003 there were nine-count ’em, nine-hosts, all popular comics: Garry Shandling, Darrell Hammond, Conan O’Brien, Wanda Sykes, Brad Garrett, George Lopez, Martin Short, Jon Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres. The night’s most memorable moment came when Brad Garrett planted a sloppy, wet kiss on Garry Shandling, parodying Madonna and Britney Spears’ lip-lock during that year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Ms. DeGeneres helped the Emmys pull through in the wake of 9/11. She hosted in November 2001, after the event was postponed twice. She drew raves in 2003 for her warmth and wit, which many credited with turning an increasingly lower-rated show (in 1989 even the Daytime Emmys out-ranked the prime-time show) into a water-cooler TV event once again.