How the Emmy Awards’ Best Hosts Created Memorable Moments

There’s something paradoxical about the Emmys. We look forward to them and write endlessly about them, wondering who’s going to win and what stars will wear and what silly things will happen, all the while complaining about the show’s length and pace. Really, the Emmys can’t win. Except, of course, when they do.

It starts with the host. Misfires happen, of course, like the super-serious Bryant Gumbel in 1997, or the disastrous experiment 11 years later when the five nominated reality TV hosts (Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Ryan Seacrest) ran the proceedings and, aside from drawing the lowest ratings in the show’s history, made the unforgivable mistake of being boring. But there are certainly magical hires, as well.

Perhaps the two best hosts in recent memory are Conan O’Brien in 2006 — in a show that featured pre-taped sketches with casts of nominated shows, a winning monologue and a barrage of self-deprecating jokes that helped to keep things moving at a brisk pace — and, especially, Ellen DeGeneres in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks occurred. Few hosts have ever had to work with such a high degree of difficulty as she did, having to balance the shock and sadness of what happened with the lighthearted nature of an awards show. But somehow, she pulled it off, poking fun at all the security present, at the fact that the show had been postponed — twice! — and then, two minutes into her monologue, winning the crowd by saying, “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. I didn’t even think we’d make it this far.”

The real reason to watch the Emmys, though, is for the spontaneous moments. Sure, there are the brilliant planned pieces, like Jimmy Fallon’s incredible opening number in which he and guests like Tina Fey, Cory Monteith, Joel McHale and Jon Hamm belted out Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” or the time O’Brien locked Bob Newhart in an airtight glass cage with three hours’ worth of air and threatened the audience that the TV legend would suffocate if the show went overtime (it didn’t, finishing three minutes early).

But it’s the presenters and winners doing gags that prove they’ve got talent to spare. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for instance, can be counted on for laughs every time she wins, which is quite often of late. From switching speeches with fellow nominee Amy Poehler in 2012 to having co-star Tony Hale whisper her speech in her ear a year later, the “Veep” star almost assures herself a chance to win just because people want to see what she’ll come up with next.

Sometimes, brevity is a winner’s best friend, as it was for Merritt Wever in 2013, when she won a supporting actress in a comedy trophy for “Nurse Jackie,” said thank you and then, “I gotta go. Bye!” and walked off to a standing ovation. Winners have been known to use the platform to campaign for work, as when Kristin Chenoweth won for “Pushing Daisies” in 2009 and asked the producers of “Mad Men,” “The Office” and “24” for a job. And then there’s pure sarcasm, like the time Dabney Coleman won in 1987. Shortly after a tribute to “Hill Street Blues” in which creator Steven Bochco said, “We told NBC we would only do the show if we could have creative autonomy, and you can see the result,” an annoyed Coleman took the stage as winner for supporting actor in a movie or miniseries for his work in “Sworn to Silence,” and said, “I told the producers I would only do this movie if I could have creative autonomy, and you can see the result.” Snark wins.

Some of the best stuff, though, comes from the moment itself, as when Bryan Cranston surprised Louis-Dreyfus with a kiss upon her win last year, following other great kisses like Matthew Perry on Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett on Garry Shandling, both in 2003. Or when all six lead actress in a comedy nominees took the stage like pageant finalists in 2011, only to converge on winner Melissa McCarthy with a tiara when her name was called. Or when Ricky Gervais won an Emmy for his role in “Extras” in 2007 but didn’t show up, so presenters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert decided to award the trophy to Steve Carell instead. Then, at the ceremony a year later, an annoyed Gervais demanded the statuette from a deadpan Carell, who was hiding it under his seat.

It’s the little moments that make any show a success. With proven comic talent Andy Samberg serving as this year’s host, that’s already a good start. Add in all the funny people nominated and lined up to present, and the evening is rife with possibilities.

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