awards season

The 2019 Emmys Proved That Award Shows Actually Do Need Hosts

Homer Simpson at the Emmys, before the whole piano incident. Photo: Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images

After the Academy Awards successfully proceeded without a host earlier this year, the 2019 Emmys decided to do the same thing, a move that suggested the awards-show host, as a concept, might be officially dead and buried. After Sunday night’s telecast, though, I’m not so sure.

From an efficiency standpoint, the Emmys’ no-host approach worked beautifully. Michael Douglas, presenter of the final Emmy to Outstanding Drama winner Game of Thrones, said goodnight at 11:01 p.m. on the East Coast, which meant the show ended almost exactly on time. That was after presenting 27 awards, three more than were given out at the Oscars, which clocked in at three hours and 23 minutes. Aside from a few sidebars — the tributes to Game of Thrones and Veep, an odd musical number about the Variety category, the in memoriam segment — the Emmys focused on handing out the trophies and giving the winners enough leeway to make acceptance speeches that didn’t feel too rushed.

But the Emmys telecast still felt all over the place. I trace the problem back to the opening, which started with a tuxed-up Homer Simpson “walking onstage,” then getting squashed by a falling piano, at which point a panicky Anthony Anderson scrambled to replace him. Anderson quickly got sidetracked by an attempt to steal Emmy statuettes, prompting stagehands to shove Bryan Cranston in front of cameras to introduce a montage saluting this season of television. The whole thing was like a Ping-Pong ball bouncing around the tile floor of a rec room: You couldn’t get your hand around it because it kept skittering every which way. What that opening needed was a host, even if the Emmy Awards as a whole didn’t need one.

Rather than removing hosts entirely, shows like the Emmys should redefine what it means to be an awards-show emcee. The Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys have all made a big deal about their hosts in past years, hiring talent that presumably isn’t cheap. When you pay a lot of money for someone to host an awards show, you want to put them to work. That typically translates into an opening monologue, comedy bits sprinkled in between awards, and some longer introductions of presenters. But the fact is you don’t need all that. You just need someone to set the tone at the beginning of the ceremony.

The Oscars producers understood this, which is why Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler kicked off the broadcast last February, telling a few jokes and presenting the first award. The trio didn’t officially “host,” but their appearance gave the show a sense of familiar structure. I think the Oscars and the Emmys should go a step further and appoint a comedian as the official opener, then have that person stay onstage a little longer than Rudolph, Fey, and Poehler did. Have them do a tight five, and then segue directly into the first award. That feels like a much better solution given last night’s flailing first few mintues.

Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler *not* hosting the Oscars.

It also feels like a necessary one, if what Sarah Silverman said during the Emmys preshow is any indication of how these ceremonies are planned. When Jason Kennedy (who, for the record, did a graceful job handling purple-carpet duties) asked Silverman if she had any bits planned for the evening, she said, “Nothing. They’ve cut us off at the knees. There isn’t even a host anymore at these shows. They don’t want comedians to talk.” That last line — “They don’t want comedians to talk” — calls to mind how the White House Correspondents’ Dinner no longer features a comedian either. You can argue that these events don’t really need someone to tell jokes. But my counterargument is: Yeah-huh they do.

All of these events — the Oscars, the Emmys, the Correspondents’ Dinner — are celebrations of achievement in industries that can be insular and self-important. The comedians are there to provide entertainment and some laughs to loosen everyone up. But they’re also there to drop a few respectful but blunt truth bombs about entertainment, journalism, and what’s happening in the world. That strikes me as important, especially given the heightened conversations about fairness and equality in Hollywood, and a broader political climate that begs for mockery and commentary.

One could say that Thomas Lennon’s job as Emmys commentator last night allowed for that sort of irreverence. While some of his absurd anecdotes were hilarious — I particularly liked the one about Jason Batemen wearing the “same-size slacks he wore on Little House on the Prairie” — on more than one occasion they distracted from the winners’ shining moments. Winners deserve to own their moment in the spotlight, and so do comedians’ zingers.

This whole no-host trend, to the extent that it is a trend, started because of the Kevin Hart controversy, prompted by concern that his past homophobic tweets and jokes might alienate members of the Oscar audience at a time when awards shows can’t afford to lose any more eyeballs. Understandably, the Oscar producers decided that it’d be easier to ditch their host and avoid that friction. That choice was also easier because of another problem that Silverman mentioned last night: A lot of comedians don’t want to take on awards-show gigs because, as she put it, those gigs are thankless.

But if the job only entailed a short stand-up set, I bet that more smart and funny comedians would be willing to say yes. It would involve much less of a time commitment, plus the blame for the show’s success or failure couldn’t be so easily placed on a single pair of shoulders.

Every time a prominent comedian gets reprimanded, people have Twitter fits about how funnymen and -women are being censored. But I have not sensed the same uproar about the fact that two of the biggest awards shows have done away with their comedic elements. Both the Oscars and the Emmys, flawed as they are and as low as their ratings have dropped, still provide one of the most high-profile platforms for comedians to speak to a worldwide audience. Not tapping comics to fill that role may seem smart at first, but it’s also a sly way for the networks to avoid the prospect of any political jokes that might rub someone the wrong way. For an industry that prides itself on its supposed bravery, that isn’t very brave.

I say: Let’s reserve the opening of each awards show for a gifted comedian, then give that comedian the opportunity to do their material, in their style, without micromanaging the hell out of them. Shows like the Emmys need to kick off with humor and some solid jabs at the Establishment — for further study on how to do this right, see the Golden Globes ceremonies hosted by Fey and Poehler — and then get right to the business at hand.

The odds are strong that the Oscars won’t have a traditional host again in 2020, but it’s not too late to mix things up. Ask Tiffany Haddish to do a tight five to start the ceremony. Or Hasan Minhaj. Or John Mulaney. Or Hannah Gadsby. Don’t call them the “host” if that seems like a misnomer. Call them the toastmaster, or the comic, or the opening entertainer. Just don’t remove the comedians entirely. We need them, especially if the only alternative is to drop pianos on cartoon characters.

The Emmys Proved That Award Shows Actually Do Need Hosts