In the “Survivor” spoof that opened the 52nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards, performer Jeff Probst stated that Garry Shandling would be the evening’s host. Somewhere between the island and the podium, however, Shandling’s alter-ego Larry Sanders got the gig. Maybe they’re inseparable, but Shandling went so deep into his guilt-ridden and libidinous talkshow-host character that folks must’ve been wondering, “Where’s Hank Kingsley?” Hey now. For fans of “The Larry Sanders Show,” the first half of the Emmycast was as funny and surreal as any episode of that hilarious (but defunct) HBO series; those unfamiliar with “Sanders” may have laughed, but not as hard. And Emmycast’s second half turned into an efficient if familiar handout of trophies.
In “Larry Sanders,” real life merged with scripted comedy as the series presented a bland fictional talkshow and showed the goings-on backstage, which were always infinitely more interesting. Stars spoofed their own images and the whole Hollywood mindset.
At the Emmycast, the Sanders touch was omnipresent. In a series of supposedly unscripted backstage scenes at the Shrine Auditorium, Conan O’Brien’s gave a convoluted “women are awesome” speech, to which Shandling gave lip service; when Shandling went to the bathroom, he ran into former “Sanders” guest David Duchovny, who was handing out towels; and, deep into the kudocast, Shandling recoiled when Michael J. Fox backstage suggested Sanders was gay.
The entire approach gave the awards a farcical undertone — until the second half of the three-hour event, when awards had to be dispensed and Shandling’s onscreen time was greatly reduced.
Then it felt like another even-keeled awards show. Which was a pity — the show had a real chance to rate high on the weirdness meter.
The technical highlight of the night was the slow-mo replay of the victors; Charles S. Dutton’s passionate acceptance speech showed winners how it should it be done. The set from production designers John Shaffner and Joe Stewart was simple yet visually interesting.
Continuing a recent tradition, Emmycast director Louis J. Horvitz won an Emmy himself, so the Emmy cameras went into the booth to show the man celebrating his win. In the future, they could simply have a Louis J. Horvitz Memorial Award, to avoid that awkward “is he a winner or a worker tonight?” moment. On the other hand, it was yet another Dada “Larry Sanders”-style touch to the evening.
As for the writing, from a team of Judd Apatow, Rita Cash, Jeff Cesario, Scott Fifer, Jon Macks, Stephen Pouliot and Shandling: Sex jokes ruled the opening monologue. Regardless of the quality of the jokes, their appropriateness was questionable. (Shandling said he cracked a one-liner using the word “orgasm” just “to prove we’re live.”)
Presenters were given solid introductory remarks, as much of the writing was sharp and even pointed, often jabbing at reality TV. And why not? These are actors who stand to lose out on a dozen jobs every time a network decides to lock people in a house or strand them halfway around the world.
Humor veered toward the inside — Jean Smart’s “All About Eve” joke, Shandling’s references to Pomona and a Ventura Boulevard strip joint, James Gandolfini mentioning the ATAS gift basket — but then again, ABC is a network that thinks football fans understand references to Christo and the Marquis de Sade (thanks to new “Monday Night Football” commentator Dennis Miller).
The show’s negatives were few, top of the list being Wayne Brady’s far-too-obvious musical tribute to the last TV season and presenters mispronouncing Eddie Izzard’s name. (Thankfully, Conan O’Brien got it right.) There’s no point in even getting into Cher’s blonde hair.
Emmy voters never heeded Larry Sanders’ trademark line advising viewers not to switch allegiance — “No flipping!” They tuned out on the series a record number of times during its run: 16 nominations, no wins.
Yet as the Emmy show came to its conclusion, Shandling shifted into a great Sanders moment with Calista Flockhart, proving Emmy does have a sense of humor about these things. Maybe there’s another Emmy nomination in it for Shandling.