Conan O'Brien

Regardless of how kudocast producers approach the challenges of reinvigorating the flagging format in this age of saturation celebrity coverage, the accepted wisdom is that awards shows need a charismatic anchor, preferably one who is funny, irreverent and capable of spontaneity.

Regardless of how kudocast producers approach the challenges of reinvigorating the flagging format in this age of saturation celebrity coverage, the accepted wisdom is that awards shows need a charismatic anchor, preferably one who is funny, irreverent and capable of spontaneity. There’s no shortage of untried candidates who might bring freshness and edge to the job of hosting TV’s big night — Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Craig Ferguson — so the route ABC chose to go with this year’s Emmys was a head-scratcher.

Not only did the network invite back the wan ringmaster of last year’s forgettable Emmycast, Ryan Seacrest, he was flanked by the four reality hosts nominated with him in an unnecessary new category; none of them will cause Billy Crystal to lose sleep. As the dozen or so folks who watched the 2007 Tonys can testify, the rotating host gambit is a sure way to create a personality void. The 2008 Emmys did little to change that thinking.

There was nothing in the hosts’ scripted banter to match Seacrest’s tense faceoff on the red carpet with nemesis Kathy Griffin. “I don’t do anything but fill time,” Seacrest said in an admission he might have mentioned earlier to the Emmy producers.

Things got off to a worrying start with a workmanlike montage of famous faces quoting TV catch phrases to minimal effect. Then Oprah Winfrey introduced the host quintet, dressed like “Reservoir Dogs” refugees. Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst and Seacrest stood around awkwardly making ill-advised quips about having nothing to offer. Clearly, the awkwardness was also evident in the house. “What if I just kept talking for 12 minutes?” wondered the evening’s first winner Jeremy Piven soon after. “That was the opening.”

Some hint of chemistry did spark when the hosts pared down into smaller formations, notably between the affable Tom Bergeron and glamazon Heidi Klum, even if the punchline was the removal of most of her clothes.

But the first presenter to demonstrate how an awards show could fire on all cylinders was Ricky Gervais, giving tips on the ideal acceptance speech. “Keep it short, particularly if you’re not onscreen talent,” he said. “No one wants to hear from a producer. Don’t cry. It’s pathetic; it’s just an award.” Gervais then veered off the teleprompter to riff with a determinedly unamused Carell in the front row over the supposed theft of the Brit comic’s 2007 Emmy.

Mercifully, the lackluster hosting team remained AWOL for long stretches of the show, which alternately dragged and felt rushed. Ultimately, the reality recruits became as innocuous as the lava-lamp video wallpaper on the rear screens.

High points in the evening came mostly from presenters. Conan O’Brien gave a nice nod to “The Simpsons.” Steve Martin kept the droll twists coming in his speech about vet writer Tommy Smothers, who received a commemorative award. And Smothers blithely ignored the standard veto on political comments with a pointed dedication to freedom of speech. “There’s nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action,” he said in what seemed a clear reference to the current administration.

That statement opened the floodgates for frequent political comment. Martin Sheen struck a more bipartisan note, segueing neatly from a “West Wing” tribute to a reminder to all Americans to exercise their right to vote. That sentiment was echoed by Paula Weinstein, accepting for made for television movie, “Recount.” And co-presenters Colbert and Jon Stewart chose prunes as an eloquent metaphor for Republican government.

Accepting the miniseries trophy for HBO’s “John Adams,” producer Tom Hanks said, “The election between Jefferson and Adams was filled with innuendo, lies, a bitter partisan press and disinformation. How great we’ve come so far since then.”

But occasionally, producers intervened to cut out the politics, abruptly truncating “John Adams” writer Kirk Ellis as he mourned “a time in our history when articulate men articulated complex thoughts in complete sentences.”

There were some clever pre-taped segs, such as the nominees for variety, music or comedy program writing. (The “Laugh-In” tribute that also served to present the Emmy for variety, music or comedy series writing, however, was a miss.) Jimmy Kimmel scored some of the show’s funniest writing in his rundown of the reality host noms – complete with commercial-break cliffhanger. And romantic crooner Josh Groban was an unexpectedly inspired and offbeat choice to warble through some 20 vintage TV theme tunes.

The 60th anniversary Emmy tributes to great TV of the past, including “Seinfeld, “MASH” and “The Mary Tyler More Show,” were integrated with varying success.

The nostalgia factor was more infectious when a worshipful Griffin accompanied Don Rickles onstage, barking “Get up!” to an audience slow on the ovation uptake. “Let’s read these funny lines they wrote for us,” deadpanned Rickles with raised eyebrows. Soon after, he returned to accept the individual performance nod for his HBO special, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.” The vet comic shouted, “It’s a mistake,” before launching into a lovely speech that balanced wry wit with heartfelt gratitude.

And the influence of vintage TV was graciously acknowledged by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner: “I want to thank all the people that went before us in television to make a show like this, because we’re just channeling it every day.”

From Your Couch: The 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards

ABC; Sunday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m.

Production

Taped at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Executive producer, Ken Ehrlich; producer, Renato Basile; co-producer, Danette Herman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, David Wild, Jon Macks, Ehrlich.

Crew

Production design, John Shaffner, Joe Stewart; lighting, Bob Dickinson; line producer, Sergio Alfaro; multi-screen director, Robb Wagner; music director, Greg Phillinganes. Running time: 3 hours.

Cast

Hosts: Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Ryan Seacrest.
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