Thanks to Neil Patrick Harris and the writers and producers of this year's Emmy broadcast for reminding us that an award show does not have to be a drag.
After stirring up the wrath of their constituents by proposing that, in the interest of time, several of the writing and producing winners receive their awards off-stage, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences turned around and gave us a show that should serve as a playbook for all award shows to come.
Although fated to be long and occasionally disappointing by nature (How, exactly, did Kevin Bacon not win for "Taking Chance"? And did Tina Fey have to make the snarky "wow, that was a nail-biter" when "30 Rock" inevitably won for comedy series?), this year's Emmys introduced a smartly refurbished format. By breaking down the awards by genre -- why did no one think of this sooner? -- and ending with comedy series and drama series, the show Sunday at the Nokia Theatre had a welcome sense of narrative sweetened with a smattering of humorous grace notes, including taped bits of writer and director nominees answering questions like: "How dramatic is writing a drama?"
But it was Harris, fresh off his success at hosting the Tonys, who set and sustained the smart but lighthearted and convivial tone of the evening. From the moment he walked onstage, itself a richer and more evocative setting than last year's bleak theater-in-the-round, you knew you were in good hands.
Announcing right up front that he hoped to "master this ceremony," Harris went for a Dino-esque version of emcee -- dig the white tux jacket, also the use of the word "dig" -- and, of course, immediately launched into song. Urging the audience to "put down the remote," he pulled off the always-welcome gentle industry ribbing, some of it self-directed -- Joan (Christina Hendricks) of "Mad Men" could "turn a gay man straight; oh, wait, there's Jon Hamm" -- and ended with a musical recitation of all the networks, free and premium, that would have made Tom Lehrer proud.
The audience laughed and collectively released the tension from its shoulders; even Steve Carell turned to his wife and said something that looked very much like, "That was good."
Throughout the night, Harris effortlessly managed to keep the humor sharp but never insulting. He acknowledged things as benign as the brevity of theme songs -- pointing to the almost tuneless musical theme of "Lost," Harris ranted that "the last time there were people on a desert island, there was a song about it and, dagnabbit, it was awesome" -- and as troubling as the invasion of the Internet. (This also may have marked the first use of "dagnabbit" during the Emmys.)
A parody of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" with Nathan Fillion hilariously sent up the new media, acknowledging the fear that television's days are numbered while showing how ridiculous those fears may be.
Most important, he created a palpable comfort level among the audience that continued, with a few exceptions, throughout the evening.
There were some surprises -- Toni Collette beat the unbeatable Tina Fey, Kristin Chenoweth won for "Pushing Daises," which had been canceled) and there were several lovely moments. Chenoweth, fighting back tears, announced that she was unemployed "and I would like to be on 'Mad Men.' I also like 'The Office' and '24.' "
The redoubtable Ken Howard, who won for supporting actor in a miniseries or movie for "Grey Gardens," acknowledged that the win "was very encouraging" and went on to thank the woman who saved his life by donating one of her kidneys, a strangely moving addition that "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner unfortunately chose to mock during his acceptance speech.
Jessica Lange thanked the writers and producers of "Grey Gardens" for her role as Big Edie Beale, saying, "This part was a gift, and they don't come around that often for me anymore," and "Survivor's" Jeff Probst, who won for reality host for the second time, quoted Joseph Campbell, saying, "The adventure you get is the adventure you're ready for," and he carried it off nicely.
The evening's biggest laugh went to Jimmy Fallon, who came out singing "Everybody Ready to Party," his voice electronically stuttered through an Auto-Tune, and promptly fell on his butt, calling out for help in perfect Auto-Tune.
But the night belonged to television. With Weiner praising the "Mad Men" cast for making writing look fun "and it isn't," Brendan Gleeson (who won for lead actor in a movie or miniseries) thanking the makers of "Into the Storm" for showing a rough cut to his parents before his mother died, "Lost's" Michael Emerson saying he is "living a character actor's dream" and the welter of compliments Harris received from his peers for his expert handling of an often-unwieldy show, this was a night that celebrated the medium and the community that creates it.
If Harris and his team keep it up, we might wind up looking forward to award season again.