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THE 49TH ANNUAL EMMY AWARDS | THE SHOW / A CRITIC'S
VIEW

Mundane Awards, Momentous Words

September 15, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

It probably won't make as many headlines as NBC's "Frasier" winning its fourth consecutive Emmy and NBC's "Law & Order" winning its first.

But the seminal moment and highlight of Sunday night's Emmy telecast on CBS wasn't an award, or a joke or host Bryant Gumbel not only looking like a maitre d' but acting like one.

It was what Ellen DeGeneres said early in the program when accepting a writing Emmy won by "Ellen" for its famous episode last season in which her character disclosed that she was gay.

Here is what DeGeneres, who publicly acknowledged her own lesbianism last season, told a global audience estimated by CBS to be 620 million:

"I accept this on behalf of the people--and the teenagers especially--out there who think there is something wrong with them because they're gay. And there's nothing wrong with you, and don't let anyone make you ashamed of who you are."

Although her comments were hardly bold or revolutionary in 1997, they symbolized a level of TV maturity concerning homosexuality that her ABC comedy has helped bring about through humor.

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It was no accident that, early in the broadcast, African American comic Chris Rock felt comfortable enough to joke about DeGeneres and the African American Gumbel: "So far, we've seen two black men and a lesbian. . . . Welcome home, CBS!"

Political and social speeches are hardly a surprise during awards shows, which from time to time become soapboxes for one cause or another. Only a few years ago, however, a statement like DeGeneres', emphatically on behalf of the sexual orientation of gays, would have been controversial, at the very least, if not evoking outright shock and outrage.

Don't expect much of that, however, for the bright spotlight on "Ellen's" and Ellen's near-simultaneous coming out made her words Sunday night seem almost routine. Which made the occasion all the more significant.

That they came during an Emmy show was especially momentous given that these telecasts traditionally rank only slightly behind color bars as TV's biggest white elephant, a redundant mammoth with one foot on the windpipe of change, the other in a tar pit.

As for Gumbel, you half-expected him to seat presenters and give them wine lists instead of introducing them. If this is a preview of the vitality he's bringing to his new CBS newsmagazine series, "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel," keep a toothpick handy to prop up your lids. After taking part in a clever opening, in which he asked comedians what they thought about his hosting the show, Gumbel lapsed into stiff formality. More than merely dignified, he was dry.

His demeanor was at least partially in keeping with the Emmy show produced by Don Mischer, which was crisp, efficient, businesslike and punctual (coming in at three hours) but not especially inspired.

On the positive side, it was light on hyperbole, foregoing much of the pretentious self-praise associated with past Emmy programs, rarely pretending that TV is any more than it is.

The show was funniest, in fact, during a self-effacing bit from presenter Jerry Seinfeld, with the "Seinfeld" star alluding to getting omitted from this year's Emmy nominees for lead comedy actors and the inclusion of Michael J. Fox of ABC's "Spin City." The routine included a duel of Seinfeld and Fox clips, with Seinfeld adding about not winning an Emmy in 1996, when he was nominated: "I guess last year you people didn't quite buy me as me."

What was hardest to buy about the Emmy show, as always, was that many viewers, beyond those nominated or working in the industry, would be getting very excited about the awards, given that there seemed to be at least as many repeaters as first-timers.

"This is as good as it gets, folks," said "Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf. For the winners, but not necessarily for the viewers.

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