Column: Jimmy Kimmel skipped the Trump jokes for the first (and, please God, only) ‘pand-Emmys’

Jennifer Aniston douses a trash can fire at the 2020 Emmys as Jimmy Kimmel uses tongs to grab an envelope from the flames.
Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel extinguish the blaze of an Emmy envelope on fire in a comedy bit from the 2020 Emmy Awards.

What do the Emmys and COVID-19 have in common? You can’t have either without a host.

Apologies to Jimmy Kimmel, who made a similar joke as he opened this year’s first (and please, dear God, only) “pand-Emmys.”

Also, as long as we are addressing the Almighty, let’s be clear that Kimmel hosting the one does not in any way require him to host the other. In fact, in a just world, the chutzpah involved in taking on the task of hosting these awards — often a thankless burden even in the best of times — would somehow generate its own set of coronavirus antibodies.

Kimmel was the no-brainer choice for the audience-free, digital-dependent gig. Not only does his show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” air on ABC, purveyor of the Emmys, but he also has, successfully, without fault or fallout, hosted both the Emmys and the Oscars twice.

More importantly, Kimmel has been on vacation since June! Which means he, and possibly only he, could look at the giant wall of screens through which nominees were “joining” him from far-flung locales and make a joke — “I feel like I’m in Best Buy, this is wonderful” — instead of simply collapsing in a heap at the sight of yet another Zoom meeting.

Before going on hiatus, Kimmel, like other late-night hosts, was shooting his show remotely. This new sort of direct-TV demands an even greater intimacy and flexibility than traditional live TV — performing without an audience is tough, especially if you’re trying to get jokes to land. Kimmel’s ease with the new format was obvious, and very welcome, from the first moments of the Emmys telecast.

So obvious that, for a Hollywood minute or two, it felt like there was no pandemic.

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Determined to establish some normalcy to the proceedings, the show’s producers resurrected old Emmy and Oscar audience footage, which they threaded through Kimmel’s first few jokes so perfectly that some of us (OK, me) thought for an entire “Wait, what?” minute that everyone involved had lost their minds and decided to attend the show as if there were no pandemic.

For an Emmy host appearing in the midst of multiple crises, many of them political, Kimmel was relentlessly upbeat — “Right now we need to have fun” — and surprisingly brief. There was the requisite dig at the Emmys itself: “It might seem frivolous and unnecessary to do this during a global pandemic. But you know what else seems frivolous and unnecessary? Doing it every other year.”

He acknowledged all the various grim realities — “This has been a year of division, disease, Zoom school, disaster and death” — but there was really only one hint of the politics that many viewers love/loathe about awards shows.

Then, in a cute twist, the footage of celebrities laughing and clapping suddenly included Kimmel himself laughing and clapping among them, and the camera pulled back to show him alone on an empty stage in a cavernous arena. Whew!

“Of course there’s no audience,” Kimmel said, scoffing at the very notion of large gatherings. “This isn’t a MAGA rally, it’s the Emmys.”

And that was it for election-year zingers or pandemic PSAs, at least during the opening. No sober reminders of all the work that lies before us; we’re here to have fun!

It was a bit surprising.

In recent years, Kimmel has become increasingly political, taking a bull-by-the-horns approach to current events and his responsibility as a person with a platform. Three years ago, he became involved in the healthcare debate after he spoke about his infant son’s heart surgery and made a plea for universal coverage; later that year, in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, he called for stricter gun control.

Like most other late-night hosts, Kimmel has been critical of President Trump, including but not limited to his response to the pandemic. During the early Black Lives Matter protests, Kimmel used one night’s opening monologue to address his changing attitudes toward his own white privilege, and shortly before going on hiatus, he apologized for his past appearances in blackface, but he also pushed back hard against those who argued that those instances defined him.

So why the soft “I know, it’s crazy right?” opening?

Perhaps his vacation mellowed him. Perhaps he just wanted to give everyone a break from the fires and the virus and the Twitter feed of terror. Perhaps there are just so many terrible things happening now, including the death of the revered Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and its snowballing political fallout, that he couldn’t choose a topic.

Or perhaps he realized that, with so much going on in the show logistically — nominees at home, Emmy statues delivered by interns in hazmat suits — that he didn’t need to make it about him and his feelings about the state of the world. Even for a few minutes. To a certain extent, an awards host owns the telecast. He, or she, appears at least to be the one in control, which means that the show’s success, fairly or not, is often laid at his or her feet.

But this Emmys was different, yes because of COVID-19, but also because of all the challenges Kimmel chose to acknowledge only in passing in his opener. This year, the tone was set by our reality.

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In one brief interchange, Jason Bateman gave voice to what many are feeling about this moment — “I’m clean, guy ... I haven’t left the house in six months ... I want to eat shrimp with the cast of ‘The Crown’” — before choosing to leave rather than be obligated, as the sole in-person audience member, to laugh at Kimmel’s jokes.

Minutes later, Kimmel and presenter Jennifer Aniston had a funny scripted bit that ended with both yelling “What?” — struggling to understand each other as so many of us are these days. Then followed an even funnier unscripted bit in which, while going to extreme lengths to sanitize the first winner’s envelope, they set a trashcan fire that would not go out. “Put it out!” someone could be heard yelling from offstage as Aniston, remarkably cool given her floor-length dress, discharged a fire extinguisher many more times than originally planned.

As Kimmel noted: “We have a hundred different feeds going all at once; what could go right?”

Kimmel as host was a very good start.