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Conan O'Brien finds his TV-loving groove

Chicago Tribune television critic

After an uncomfortable, twice-postponed 2001 show, Emmy settled back into a big, fat, TV-loving groove Sunday, with a program that offered oodles of winning in-jokes, pleasant surprises in the awards and an ultimately strong performance from host Conan O'Brien.

Perhaps signaling what would be the evening's split personality, O'Brien opened awkwardly, with an only so-so "The Osbournes" parody and then a series of monologue jokes that, mostly, fell similarly flat.

But with each successive bit, the host of NBC's "Late Night" and former "Simpsons" writer gained steam, whether playing the "most annoying part" of "Aqualung" as his candidate for the music to let winners know their speech was too long to introducing Bernie Mac as a guy who, amazingly, had beat "thousands of aspiring hopefuls" to win the lead role on "The Bernie Mac Show."

By show's end, O'Brien had turned his self-deprecating, child-of-television persona to a plus, even earning a public pat on the back from presenter Garry Shandling.

What was scheduled as a three-hour show went over by some 20 minutes, breaking an Emmy tradition of bringing down the curtain close to on time.

Still, it didn't feel painful in the manner of other awards shows that blow their deadline (hello, Oscar). This was, except for perfectly apt diversions to honor Oprah Winfrey's humanitarian work and the TV news divisions' performance after Sept. 11, a show that was limited to jokes about television and awards for television.

The awards, too, showed something of a dichotomy.

On the one hand, Emmy took a big step forward by honoring some innovation, a welcome change from its hidebound past.

Michael Chiklis, in the biggest upset of the evening, took best drama actor, beating out big names from nomination leaders "Six Feet Under" and "The West Wing" for his fine work as a shockingly crooked cop on "The Shield," a series that runs on small cable network FX and only started in March.

The writers of "24," Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow, took the drama-writing award because of the great concept they came up with, a thriller series unfolding in "real" time, one hour per week.

And HBO's edgy "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under" took directing honors.

On the other hand, Emmy had plenty to offer those who bow before tradition. In a year that "The Sopranos" was not eligible, "The West Wing" won best drama again, though "Six Feet" had more nominations. And "Friends" and co-star Jennifer Aniston finally got long overdue Emmys.

Meanwhile, the great veteran Doris Roberts won again, for supporting comedy actress on "Everybody Loves Raymond." And the unforgettable, gravel-voiced character actor John Spencer got his first win, for "The West Wing," while a castmate, Broadway vet Stockard Channing, won the counterpart award.

With the awards show spirit in mind, some more observations:

Pardon My Television Insecurity: Interviewing Oscar winner and Emmy nominee Sissy Spacek on NBC's preview show beforehand, Katie Couric asked, "Do you feel like this is sort of small potatoes?"

Pardon My Television Insecurity II: The first four people in the video testimonial to Oprah Winfrey, the deserving winner of the academy's first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, were movie types, including Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg.

Most Touching Moment: The spontaneous standing ovation for the men of World War II's Easy Company, shown live at an L.A. hotel party, during Spielberg's acceptance for "Band of Brothers" as best miniseries. The HBO movie dramatized their story.

Most Graceful Touch: The introduction, in the crowd, of the widow of Philo T. Farnsworth, the somewhat-overlooked lone scientist who invented television 75 years ago.

Best Acceptance Line: "Raymond's" Brad Garrett, accepting his supporting-actor-in-a-comedy nomination, said, "I just hope that this award breaks down the door for Jewish people who are trying to get into show business."

Comedy Writers Make Emmy Telecast Actually Funny. Go Figure: It's becoming a great tradition, the video accompaniment that enormous comedy-writing teams come up with for the reading of their names. This year, the team from "Saturday Night Live" (which, stunningly, won) offered oddball action figures. "The Daily Show" used video of corporate honchos testifying before Congress. And the best of them yet came from O'Brien, who showed a clip of the "Late Night" star going ballistic on his writers.

This Has Got to Count as Progress: Two of the five nominees for best director of a drama were African Americans, Clark Johnson for "The Shield" and Paris Barclay for "The West Wing." The winner, Alan Ball for "Six Feet Under," is openly gay.

Hey, That Tony To Sure Does a Great Tom Hanks: The PA voice said director To would speak on behalf of "Band of Brothers'" band of best-movie or best-miniseries directing winners. The on-screen ID said "Tony To." But the -- mercifully brief -- speaker was a dead ringer for multiple Oscar winner Hanks, also a "Band" director and executive producer.

Speaking of Look-alikes: At least until they talk, I still can't tell the difference between Dr. Phil McGraw and "The Larry Sanders Show's" Jeffrey Tambor.

The Best Image Buffing a Crank Could Ever Get: "Late Show's" award as best program of its ilk was accepted not by its reputedly cranky host, but by his executive producer Barbara Gaines, who told the A-list crowd, "I started as the receptionist on Dave's morning show over 22 years ago."

Best Presenter Moment: Jon Stewart, dishing out the comedy-directing trophy, came out and described directors as guys trying to get out of the hell of series television, but inevitably seeing the film contracts go to guys who've done three MTV videos. "And you're slogging away in the mines with your eighth Tim Curry pilot," Stewart said. As if to add insult to punchline, the award went not to a pure director but to a writer first, "Sex and the City's" Michael Patrick King.

Cover the Kids' Ears, Honey, It's an NBC Promo: What was the network thinking in airing all those leering, sexually frank (and unfunny) ads for the new show "In-Laws" during the 7 p.m. hour?

Finally, Here's Why NBC Just Downsized Conan's Christmas Gift: Pointing to the bank of TV sets in the stage's tasteful old-TV motif, O'Brien said, "In about 10 minutes, I'm gonna turn all of these televisions to `The Sopranos.'" While true and quite funny, it surely also cost the telecast a few ratings points.

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