You had a sense it was going to be one of those lo-o-ong nights at the Emmys when Garry Shandling stumbled out of the gate, then made a joke of it. Sort of.
"Was I just delivered on a Lazy Susan?" Shandling ad-libbed after slipping as he took the stage at the Shrine Auditorium. "Television has become that? It's not just enough to walk out?"
Not this year, anyway. And apparently it's not enough anymore for one person to get up and wisecrack for three solid hours, which is why Fox hedged its bets — er, spread the wealth — by getting 11 (count 'em!) comics to emcee television's annual awards show.
With so many funny folks assembled in one time slot, it seemed the sheer volume of one-liners, impersonations and rapid-fire witticisms would have 'em rolling in the aisles, or at least not rushing toward the exits. But too many routines either started flat or quickly fizzled. Several were deservedly met by the audience with crooked smiles and half-hearted chuckles.
Couldn't Hollywood's best gag writers have come up with something more to joke about than the California recall? There were no fewer than three gubernatorial-related quips in the first half an hour or so, a ratio you might expect from a strip-mall comedy club open-mike night, but not from a prime-time industry showcase. Poor David Schwimmer and his "Friends" friends got stuck with an especially punch-less variant on the theme.
Rather than off-the-cuff, much of the comedy felt off-the-rack: stiff, synthetic and pre-tailored for one-size-fits-all consumption. Shandling took a predictable poke at the "Sex and the City" gals' having slept their way up and down Manhattan. "What are they gonna do, start having sex with every guy in New Jersey? 'Sex and the Tri-State Area'?" Damon Wayans made an awkward joke about Doris Roberts' age that had the award-winning co-star of "Everybody Loves Raymond" shaking her head with a bemused expression.
There was a sour taste to much of the humor, which was liberally spiked with smirky put-downs of the television medium itself. Dennis Miller's series of tongue-in-cheek tributes, including one to Kobe Bryant for being a role model who "still found time to reach out and touch young fans," went down with a resounding thunk. "Just readin' the prompter," Miller said with a forced grin.
Jon Stewart offered the night's best mock salute, honoring TV news for becoming like TV entertainment: "mindless ratings whores." Thereafter followed a montage of newscasters serving up alarmist questions about dirty bombs and monkey pox, Howard Dean looking uncomfortable being introduced on "Larry King Live," and Geraldo Rivera tooting his own horn like only Geraldo can.
Stewart also got off one of the evening's best impromptus when he collected an award for his "The Daily Show" surrounded by his team of middle-aged white guys. "I've always felt that diversity is the most important part of a writing staff," Stewart zinged. "I don't know if you can tell, but Steve has a beard, and J.R. isn't Jewish."
Less amusing was Wanda Sykes, strolling the aisles and trying to goose the audience out of its black-tie formality with honest-to-goodness improv. Problem was, Sykes was more confrontational than improvisational. When she wondered what she was doing there, she barked, "I should be home booing all of y'all."
Later, she baited humanitarian award recipient Bill Cosby about being presented by Ray Romano. "Was Nipsey Russell busy tonight?" she taunted. Cosby hid his mirth, or lack thereof, behind a pair of sunglasses. A few comedians managed to score a solid laugh or two. Conan O'Brien convincingly feigned indignation when his "That's Entertainment"-style show stopper was aborted because, a voice-over informed him, Shandling's routine had run over. Martin Short sang an acerbically amusing homage to the evening's losers. Ellen DeGeneres did a nice follow-up to her ditzy stream-of-consciousness routine as a cartoon fish in "Finding Nemo."
And Shandling ended his otherwise hit-or-miss opening monologue on an up note by planting a smoldering smooch on Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond." It wasn't quite as hot as Britney Spears frenching Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards, but with a little make-over help from the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" crew, who knows?
Oddly, apart from the inevitable recall barbs, the show's political and social humor lacked bite; Darrell Hammond's impersonations of Ah-nold and Donald Rumsfeld were practically toothless. So it was welcome when George Lopez bared his teeth, introducing himself as "the Lopez you aren't sick of" — right, Ben? — then launching into an inspired riff on why Latinos can't relate to the premises of reality shows like "Big Brother": "Twelve people living in a house? It's been done. You want to make it a reality show? Put 'em in a garage."
That's the kind of sharp, topical humor that could bring a smile to the faces of Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Hope, John Ritter and the other funnymen whose names were reverently invoked Sunday night. Inadvertently, this would-be laugh-in may have succeeded mostly in reminding viewers that, while sometimes good comedy can be written by committee, it takes a singular talent to make a joke worth telling.