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A Long Evening With TV’s Cultural Elite

Roseanne Arnold came out in feathers and one of Mae West’s old gowns, Tom Arnold talked about “kissing a little butt,” Kirstie Alley turned a mention of the series “Herman’s Head” into a double-entendre, and so on and so on.

Yes, another evening with Hollywood’s cultural elite. A very, very long one.

This was no silent cultural elite, predictably, for that punching bag for monologue writers, Vice President Dan Quayle, took a beating again during Sunday night’s Emmy telecast on Fox, a payback for making the entertainment community--specifically “Murphy Brown"--a political scapegoat for many of the nation’s problems.

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“Boy, Quayle is just getting stomped tonight!” said co-host Dennis Miller as the telecast was nearing 3 1/2 hours.

Quayle had “better learn how to spell the word potato because if the economy keeps going the way it is, that’s all we’ll be eating,” Miller said in starting off the evening with his own string of Quayle jokes.

He later compared Quayle to Dan Tanna’s sidekick in “Vegas"--"You let him answer the phone, but he doesn’t get to drive the T-bird.”

Although it was her TV character, Murphy Brown, who was attacked by Quayle for having a baby out of wedlock, Candice Bergen was relatively gentle on the vice president when accepting her Emmy. She thanked Quayle and also thanked her writers “for not only writing these great words, but spelling them correctly.” Enough with the potato jokes already.

The evening’s family values counterattack wasn’t pretty, with “Murphy Brown” Executive Producer Diane English even taking a shot at Ronald Reagan’s family in accepting best comedy award.

And a clip chosen to illustrate “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson"--also a winner Sunday night--featured Robin Williams mocking Quayle as President: “Does Sweden have a king or a maitre d’?”

Even an entire segment showing the evolution of TV’s female characters--from Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to Murphy herself--seemed intended almost as an “in your face” response to the Bush-Quayle ticket’s self-righteous lectures about the proper role of women in families.

Meanwhile, there were so many stand-up comics on the telecast that it might have been mistaken for “Evening at the Improv,” their prominence a metaphor for their prevalence in contemporary prime-time comedy. Mostly, they made a slow evening even slower. At one point, for example, Richard Lewis was allowed to deliver a rambling five-minute monologue in advance of presenting Emmys in a lighting category.

“I’m not going to do stand-up--don’t anybody panic,” Garry Shandling cracked as the telecast was winding down and presenters were being told to stop being so long-winded.

Actually, the funniest moments came not from traditional stand-up comedy but from an inventive bit of nonsense that had great fun with nominated writers of variety shows. For example, the writers for the Emmy-winning Academy Awards telecast were named while viewers were shown footage of Jack Palance doing pushups. It was hilarious.

There were some disappointments, including that extraordinarily unpredictable off-the-cuff speaker Ted Turner saying only a few terse words while receiving the Governors Award. And there were some staggering omissions, including Patricia Birch failing to mention Nat King Cole after winning an Emmy for her direction of “Unforgettable, With Love: Natalie Cole Sings the Songs of Nat King Cole.” Another gaffe was Fox apparently being unprepared when Emmy-winning Beau Bridges mentioned that the subject of “Without Warning: The James Brady Story” was in the hall. The cameras finally found Brady in the poorly lit rear of the room.

More than anything, though, this Emmy telecast joined many of its predecessors in failing to capture the qualities that make television worth celebrating.

If anything capsulized the essentially uninspiring nature of the telecast, it was the four words that Emmy-winning actor Hume Cronyn used to end his own acceptance speech. “I guess that’s it.”

And that was it.


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