Pulling the show together brings host of issues

Comedians draw best reviews

In a race for best Emmy host, who’d win?

The nominees are:

  • talkshow stars (like past Emmy emcees Oprah Winfrey and Dick Cavett)

  • newsmen (Bryant Gumbel, David Brinkley)

  • dramatic actors (John Forsythe, Angela Lansbury)

  • comedians (Johnny Carson, Ellen DeGeneres)

  • nobody.

The winner: All of the above — except newsmen, who, curiously, tend to get bad press.

While the Oscars usually embrace comics as ceremony hosts, TV’s Golden Girl has wooed a much wider span of stars over the years, with varying success. Dramatic actors and talkshow hosts have done surprisingly well, and critics even enjoyed the fancy hosting footwork of one dancer (Fred Astaire).

But like the Oscars, the Emmys have relied mostly on comics. Of the nine stars who have hosted two or more times, seven were comedians or comic actors — as were 54% of all past hosts.

How’d they do? During the 1990s, comedians got the best reviews (Ellen DeGeneres was “moving, funny, witty,” said Daily Variety) and worst (Paul Reiser was “punishing”). The second-best notices went to nongagster Angela Lansbury, who oversaw an Emmycast that Daily Variety cheered for “zipping along faster than a ‘Seinfeld’ episode on speed.”

Last year no star was considered worthy to host the Emmy Award’s special 50th-anniversary gala, and Daily Variety declared, “Simplicity was a winner.”

So what’s the secret to getting the show right?

“No one person should overpower the ceremony,” says Emmycast producer Don Mischer. “A good host is someone who fits into the groove, feels comfortable on stage and moves the show succinctly and efficiently forward. A comic who’s naturally at ease works well, like Ellen, but so does a star like Angela Lansbury, who brought dignity and class to the Emmys.

“The worst thing a host can do is try to hit a comedic home run every time they come out on stage. They end up trying too hard and failing miserably,” Mischer says.

DeGeneres offers this advice: “Try not to make it your show, because it’s not. You’re just the ringmaster. The whole key to it is just being yourself.”

But appearing to be at ease isn’t easy. “You’re in front of a cynical audience of jaded showbiz professionals who’ve seen everything,” DeGeneres adds.

That audience also is composed of industry power brokers who hire and fire, making the high-profile host job a high-wire act that can affect the star’s future. That turned out to be fortunate for DeGeneres, “who was a virtual unknown when she emceed the Emmys in 1994,” producer Mischer recalls. “She’d only done six episodes of her sitcom at that point, but after she did such a great job at the Emmys, her publicist, Pat Kingsley, told me that Ellen got three film offers the next day.”

But DeGeneres insists, “Hosting the Emmys, Grammys or Oscars is the toughest job in showbiz. It’s the big buzz every year, with everybody asking, ‘Who’s gonna host? Who’s gonna host?’ It’s also a big deal because you’re going out live to 90 countries and a billion people. You can screw up at any second, and let’s face it, lots of people are hoping you will.

“It’s like watching somebody walk down the street and you see the banana peel ahead of them and you’re wondering: Are they gonna miss it or are they gonna fall? You kind of want them to fall.”

Producer Mischer admits he sometimes has trouble convincing stars to take the job. “A lot of people say, ‘Why should I risk this? I have a whole lot more to lose than I have to gain.’

“Everybody wants to avoid David Letterman’s ‘Uma-Oprah’ disaster at the Oscars,” he adds. By contrast, few people remember Letterman earned rave reviews for hosting the 1986 Primetime Emmys.

“It’s kind of a thankless job,” DeGeneres admits. “Hosting the Emmys is like flying a plane. People don’t really care about the pilot unless it crashes, and then everybody hates the pilot. It’s so easy to say you did a horrible job.”

Staging the Emmys with no host is an attractive option to Mischer.

“With a no-host format, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability,” he says. “You never know who’s going to come out next, and the surprise factor adds to the excitement of the show.

“With no host, there’s also no focal point. It makes viewers feel as if the whole television community got together to host the Emmy Awards, and, in many ways, that works for you.”

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