The 67th annual Primetime Emmy Awards memorably opened with a pre-taped sketch that saw then-host Andy Samberg becoming increasingly overwhelmed with the amount of television shows his friends were watching but on which he was not caught up. The year was 2015, when there were about 409 scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming, and Samberg’s solution was to enter an underground bunker, armed with a stack of DVDs, determined not to come out until he knew all there was to know about the hottest shows of the year.
Though Samberg doesn’t consider himself a “particularly political” comedian, he does feel that the need to be topical ebbs and flows in comedy. The Emmys, which this year will be hosted by Stephen Colbert, offer a perfect opportunity to focus on what’s going on in the industry, if not also the world.
“It was really born of just being in the writers’ room with everybody and just saying, ‘So what shows should we really do stuff about?’ for the show and realizing that everybody watched five different shows from each other,” Samberg says of his peak TV piece. “The opening film was something I really wanted to focus on and make sure it felt big and had a ton of jokes in it and got the energy up right out of the gate.”
How the Emmy ceremony begins sets the tone for the whole night. While Samberg chose to go with a pre-taped piece because that’s what he felt he was most known for at “Saturday Night Live,” Neil Patrick Harris, who first hosted the 61st annual Emmys in 2009, played to his strengths by starting the show with a musical number that featured him singing and dancing, and invited everyone to “Put Down the Remote.” When he returned for the 65th Emmys in 2013, he played more with the structure of the show and put the musical number in the middle “as a palate cleanser.”
“You want to open the show with confidence, whatever that might be,” Harris says. “I wanted to keep the audience at home, and especially the audience in the theater, alert. In my mind, the host shouldn’t be quote-unquote performing too much or it could look like a bad audition. The host has to be welcoming and let you know you’re in good hands.”
The first step to becoming a successful host can be lining up a strong team off which to bounce ideas. Samberg had Scott Aukerman, Neil Campbell and “basically the whole writing staff of ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’” but still called upon such friends as Colin Jost and John Mulaney for additional input; while Jane Lynch, who hosted the 63rd Emmys in 2011, chose Jill and Faith Soloway, as well as Carol Leifer and Dana Gould.
“The first thing I wanted to say when Mark Burnett asked me to host was ‘no,’ because I was so scared, and it was a great unknown,” Lynch says. “But he let me have any writers I wanted, and I felt really good about the personnel I had around me.”
Once the cameras turn on, commanding the audience is all up to the host. “Time management is key, and being able to read the room,” Harris says. “It is a marathon, and there are four-fifths of nominees who have to sit there licking their wounds, so as the night goes on, it’s better to have fewer jokey bits and just start moving on.”
Harris also thinks unifying the room is key because the ceremony is made up of groups of people working in different genres. “Focus on the love of television and the process of making it,” he advises. And be flexible, he adds, noting that as acceptance speeches inevitably run long, a host will have to change or completely throw out planned bits to keep the show moving smoothly.
Keeping the audience — both in the theater and at home — interested and engaged requires a balance of what a host has to say and how they say it. “Everyone has their own style and you have to make it work within the parameters of what’s going on within TV for that year, but also make it work for what you feel like you’re most comfortable doing,” Samberg says.
Lynch, who went from hosting the Emmys to her own game show (“Hollywood Game Night” on NBC), agrees that feeling comfortable is key for a host because that makes everyone else feel comfortable, as well.
“You run into everybody backstage — all of the presenters and all of the winners — and it’s all about moving the proceedings along and making them feel at home,” Lynch says. “You want to make sure everyone is having fun. You’re hosting a party and allowing the magic to happen.”