Comic relief

"Extras" star Ricky Gervais was one of the only bright spots of the Emmy telecast. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

SOMEONE at ABC should just cut Ricky Gervais a check. For 35 minutes the 2008 Emmys seemed well on the way to being the Worst Awards Show in the History of Television, including this year's Golden Globes, which happened in the middle of the writers strike and wasn't really a show at all.

Up until the moment Gervais showed up to present the award for outstanding directing for variety, music or comedy program, the highlight of the broadcast was a clip from an old " Seinfeld." OK, it was the "master of your domain" episode, but still.

With a deadly dull preface, Jimmy Kimmel introduced the show's five "hosts," the nominees for the newly created "best host of a reality show" category, with a little skit so bad it defies description. After which Oprah Winfrey took the stage for a laborious salute to the educational aspects of television -- she really made it pop too.

Then for what felt like an hour and a half (it was really less than five minutes), Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Heidi Klum, Ryan Seacrest and Tom Bergeron vamped about how they hadn't come up with an opening before summoning William Shatner onto the stage to rip Klum's clothes off.

If that sounds at all entertaining, then you could not possibly have been watching.

After a few more equally special moments, namely the weird presentation of mini-sets from "Seinfeld" and " Desperate Housewives," you had to assume that somewhere some poor ABC underling was being encouraged to pull the backstage fire alarm.

Then the British comedian showed up, and proceeded to convulse the audience. Gervais took down Steve Carell, who was "given" Gervais' Emmy by presenters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert last year because Gervais wasn't there.

"I've made you who you are," Gervais said to the frozen-faced Carell in the front row, "and I get nothing back. Have you even seen 'Ghost Town'? I sat through 'Evan Almighty;' give me my Emmy."

It was hilarious and over all too soon, leaving us to wince every time one of the official hosts appeared onscreen and sigh with relief at the sight of an actual performer, like Steve Martin or Don Rickles (and thank you Kathy Griffin for screaming at the somnambulant audience to "Get up!" when Mr. Warmth took the stage).

If we come away with nothing else from this year's Emmys, let us all agree that having a host with some experience actually entertaining people is not a luxury, it's a necessity. Seriously, Mr. Gervais, what do you need to make this work for you next year?

But no single man or presenter could completely save a show that showcased a medley of famous TV theme songs performed by Josh Groban.

It was just one in a string of "please shoot me now" moments (whose highlight may have been Klum referring to "Bones" as "The Bones"): the old "Laugh-In" gang presenting the nominees for outstanding variety, music or comedy (Alan Sues, Alan Sues, it's just been too long honey); a random series of actors mimicking the show's "Sock it to me" line (marking, perhaps, the first time Richard Nixon looked good, at least in comparison, on television); Probst channeling Joe Friday; William Petersen's alternative tux (What was that anyway? A black T-shirt with satin chest wings?).

Meanwhile, though HBO political dramas "Recount" and " John Adams" swept through their respective categories, Martin Sheen exhorted everyone to vote and Tommy Smothers called for Americans to never stop speaking out, political commentary was surprisingly scarce -- perhaps everyone remembered how Sally Field got bleeped last year when she spoke out against the war in Iraq. Oh, the chilling effect of self-censorship.

The show never quite recovered from its unforgivably bad opener, or its less-than-useless hosts. By the halfway mark, the show was running long and many presenters whined about their bits being cut. Most of the winners were long-agreed-upon favorites (" Damages' " Glenn Close! "John Adams' " Paul Giamatti! " Mad Men's" Matthew Weiner! Tina Fey, Tina Fey and again Tina Fey!), but still, it would have been nice to let them speak for more than 15 seconds.

During the three hours, there were really only two surprise moments: Bryan Cranston's lead-actor-in-a-drama win for AMC's first-season " Breaking Bad" and the commercial-break revelation that Rose is pregnant with Derek's baby on " Grey's Anatomy" -- say it isn't so, Shonda Rhimes.

In what now seems a hideous oversight, Gervais didn't win in any of his three categories so he never returned to the stage. Promise you won't hold it against them, Ricky. Because they really, really need you.

mary.mcnamara@latimes .com