Long Night's Journey Into Television History


Going . . . going . . . still going.

What a historic week. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa each hit their 62nd home runs. Kenneth W. Starr's X-rated report on President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is released to the globe. And Sunday night, the four-hour Emmys on NBC.

You know how it is on such occasions that become emblazoned in your memory. You'll always remember where you were and what you were doing when the 50th annual nighttime Emmys finally signed off at 11 p.m. just after NBC's "Frasier" had won its fifth-consecutive sitcom Emmy.

In front of your TV, dozing.

How long was the show? So long that NBC's Bob Costas gave an awards update midway through. So long that you half-expected the last hour to be a retrospective of the first hour.

Such cheap shots notwithstanding, the entire telecast was largely a retrospective, something that the extra hour (Emmycasts usually time out at about three hours) allowed executive producer Don Mischer to achieve in a comprehensive way unusual for awards telecasts.

With so many repeat nominees from year to year, the awards themselves are mostly routine. Helen Hunt of NBC's "Mad About You" is a good actress, for example. But how much of a rush can you really get when the Emmy she wins is her third straight? Or when Kelsey Grammer wins his third Emmy in five years for his work on "Frasier," which now has a lock on the sitcom Emmy?

It's what happens beyond the awards that defines an Emmy show and distinguishes one from another. Not that TV retrospectives are a novel and exciting concept. They're about as bold as mashed potatoes.

Yet this one, commemorating a half-century of Emmys, was mostly quite nice.

The antique clips were swell, as were the appearances by TV pioneers ranging from Sheriff John in the Shrine Auditorium audience to that trio of old lions on stage, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Sid Caesar, followed later by TV innovator Pat Weaver, a worthy inductee into the TV Hall of Fame.

What gave this Rolodex of memories a bit of a fresh twist, though, were the interwoven taped comments of ordinary Americans reflecting on TV, from the ripened old couple who never miss "Jeopardy!" (the wife said she was the one who had all the answers) to a young soap-opera and "Jerry Springer" fan who wondered what Americans did with their time before television. His own son someday may be just as mystified about life before the Internet.

NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw was on hand, meanwhile, to deliver a ponderous lecture about the omnipresence of TV news regarding epic stories, as in an airliner crashing or (wink, wink) "when a president is in trouble."

Speaking of that, President Clinton was the nearly invisible man of this telecast, despite the Emmys traditionally being a forum for political potshots, and despite the presence on stage of a number of comics (such as Jay Leno, Dennis Miller and Billy Crystal) not known for timidity when it comes to stinging the White House.

Chris Rock's lame reference to cigars was the only one-liner aimed at Clinton's reported extramarital sexual high jinks contained in the Starr report. Perhaps the participants were instructed by producer Mischer or his staff to ease up on Clinton. Or perhaps there was a general feeling that the crisis in the White House was too critical to be glibly joked about.

The setting of a decorous tea-and-finger-sandwiches tone for this no-host telecast was left early to Costas, whose interviews with a few arriving celebrities were decidedly low key. He sounded almost like Dick Clark.

That there was but one off-color remark throughout the evening, from David Spade of NBC's "Just Shoot Me," was ironic and more than a little misleading, given that sex is such a heavy component in the new season's comedies.

The Emmys did produce a number of memorable lines, though, headed by ample-sized Camryn Manheim's acceptance of a supporting actress award for ABC's "The Practice."

"This is for all the fat girls!" she proclaimed. It remains to be seen whether network series will now cast more "fat girls" in substantive roles.

In the area of bad ideas Sunday night, one of the worst was extending "Dateline NBC's" banal topical-events quizzes to the Emmys. Another was trying to squeeze a song from thin-voiced Brandy, the star of UPN's "Moesha," whose Cinderella was the weakest component of last season's "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" on ABC.

That was one shoe that didn't fit.

When it comes to aiming a joke at Clinton, meanwhile, it's a dirty job but somebody (blush) has to do it. Even though it wasn't Mary Tyler Moore's intent, the president is who you thought of when she quoted a line from the famous "Chuckles the Clown" episode of the classic CBS sitcom of the '70s that bore her name.

"A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants."

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