Experience of Hosting the Emmys Proves to Be a Mixed Bag

Neil Patrick Harris Emmy Host
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Some years, who’s hosting the Emmy Awards proves more memorable than the winners themselves. Sometimes it’s because the hosts were great, but occasionally it’s because they felt flat.

“It takes a lot of talent to host, but it’s a lot of hard work. I’m still a little tired,” says three-time host Garry Shandling, who most recently hosted in 2004. “It’s a fantastical adventure to be hosting. It’s surreal, almost as if it’s animated because the clock is ticking and people are moving; yet you’re doing it live. There are no retakes.”

That is, unless you’re including pre-taped segments, which have become almost de rigueur of late.

Conan O’Brien — who hosted in 2002, 2006, and co-hosted in 2003 with Shandling and nine other comedians, including Ellen DeGeneres — calls a sequence of him running through every nominated show his favorite bit.

“There was a moment where I drop through the hatch on the ‘Lost’ island and crash through the ceiling on ‘The Office.’ That is one of my all-time most gratifying visual gags. To get that shot, I actually flew to Hawaii and back in 24 hours,” O’Brien says. “I also loved locking Bob Newhart in an airtight box and threatening him with death if the show ran long.”

This year’s first-time host, Seth Meyers, says he’ll probably film some things ahead of time, as well, but believes the best hosts build shows around their particular skillsets, like O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel incorporating their playfulness and wry wit.

“When Jimmy Fallon did it four years ago it was very much the perfect execution of Jimmy’s version of the Emmys,” Meyers says. “People like Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy bring that real showmanship to it that I’ve enjoyed.”

“The wisdom of doing a musical number depends on the host,” O’Brien says. “If Neil Patrick Harris or Jimmy Fallon is hosting, it’s a fine idea. If former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is hosting, I’d skip music and stick strictly to dance.”

More seriously, O’Brien adds, “I always loved seeing Garry Shandling host because he has such an edgy style that I honestly never knew what was going to happen. He’s a guy with very sharp, original jokes.”

Last year’s host, Harris — no novice at hosting a kudocast — says the Emmys are unlike other awards shows. “It’s such a structurally heavy show that you have to commit so much of your timeline to things that are already pre-determined,” Harris says. “Each thing gets its chunk, so you don’t get a lot of extra time for ‘Look at me, I can sing.’ ”

That’s why he looks for moments between awards and before and after commercial breaks to have a little fun. “Those are great opportunities to do something unique that’s water cooler-y and people will talk about,” Harris says. Leaving room for spontaneity is important, he says. “Otherwise they’d just hire the Abe Lincoln animatronic from Disney.”

Good hosts need to be able to improvise, which is why comedians and talkshow hosts tend to be naturals.

“They can handle everything and simultaneously entertain an audience,” Shandling says. “It’s why Ellen is good. It’s why Fallon is good. They’re doing their shows every day so they’re comfortable in the moment. It’s a tricky line, but that’s what makes it exciting when that line is played correctly.”

Spending years honing your skills on “SNL” doesn’t hurt either.

“Working in live television for so long, you have this understanding that sometimes the idea you had on Monday that you think is really precious and perfect … all of a sudden something happens in the first hour of the show, and you have to have the wherewithal to throw that thing away and be willing to try to come up with something better on your feet,” Meyers says.

Understanding the audience, at home and in the auditorium, feeling the rhythm of the show, and going with the flow are vital skills for Emmy hosts.

“It seems to me when they did the reality show hosts, it was too scripted,” Shandling says, recalling the 2008 Primetime Emmys co-hosted by Ryan Seacrest, Heidi Klum, Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron and Howie Mandel. “Anytime there’s no life in the show it’s because they’ve let it become what they think is just an awards show, which it isn’t. There’s a life to it.”

Those reality show hosts weren’t the only Emmy emcees to receive less than complimentary reviews.

“I think David Letterman’s hosting was ahead of its time,” says Shandling, recalling a bit of backlash when Letterman co-hosted the Emmys in 1986. “I never understood why people weren’t comfortable with it. I thought he was hilarious.”
While every new approach won’t necessarily succeed, not trying new things virtually guarantees failure.

“It should be fresh each year to give it the energy it needs,” Shandling says. “It should reflect the progress that television has made, in all directions, and be willing to look at itself, and laugh at itself, and honor itself.”

O’Brien offers a suggestion for 2015: “[Let’s] shake things up and get incredible stuntmen to host. By now, most every quip has been made and every musical number has been performed, but to see the host burst into flames or ride a motorcycle over the cast of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ — now that’s television at its finest.”

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