Hitting the right notes with musical and pre-taped segments in a television award show can be tricky. A cautionary example might be that of Rob Lowe dancing with a woman dressed as Snow White in the opening of the 1989 Oscar telecast.
The juggling act becomes even trickier when a telecast primarily known for its glitter and glitz comes on the heels of a national catastrophe. In 2001, for example, the Emmy Awards show was twice postponed before finally airing in the wake of terrorist attacks. Producers of tonight's 57th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards show find themselves facing a similarly sensitive situation as the country mourns the death and destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.
The return of Ellen DeGeneres, who successfully presided over the 2001 telecast as emcee, is expected to go a long way in establishing the right tone. But director Ken Ehrlich also has added several pre-taped segments aimed at elevating the tenor of the broadcast. Foremost is a series of brief monologues given by presenters remembering the first time they won Emmy Awards. The group is mostly A-list: John Travolta, Candice Bergen, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Lisa Kudrow and Charles S. Dutton.
The memories are touching or, in some cases, act as landmarks in pop culture history. Travolta reflects upon accepting his Emmy on behalf of his first love, actress Diana Hyland, who had died a few months before the award. Bergen recalls the political fallout that was triggered in 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle spoke out against the character she played on CBS's hit show Murphy Brown.
But it is Dutton's recollection that promises to be tonight's show-stopper. In 1967, the 54-year-old actor was sent to a Maryland prison for manslaughter. From there, he went to the Yale School of Drama and Broadway stardom. In tonight's show, he describes how he felt as he stood onstage in 2000 after receiving an Emmy for directing The Corner, an HBO mini-series about a family's struggle to escape a life of drugs in Baltimore.
"As I started to speak, what hit me was the journey itself - the fact that some 30 years earlier, I was on a stage in a prison in Hagerstown, Md., and here I was now in Hollywood holding the Emmy," Dutton said last week in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
"The thought that overwhelmed me: America works. That's what I'll be talking about in the taped segment that airs just before I present the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series during the telecast."
Dutton dates the start of his acting career to a day in 1972 when he found himself in isolation at the Hagerstown prison: "In those days, it was common punishment to put you on a cold cement floor - no blanket, no sheet, no toilet, just a hole in the floor, and you only got fed every 72 hours," he said.
Inmates in isolation were, however, allowed one book. In Dutton's case, it was an anthology of black playwrights that included Douglas Turner Ward's 1965 work, A Day of Absence. Described by The New York Times as a "reverse minstrel show," the Obie Award-winning play features an all-black cast, in whiteface makeup, recounting the mayhem that occurs when a town in the Deep South is suddenly and inexplicably faced with the disappearance of all its black citizens.
"It's a hilarious political satire, and it had me just breaking up in laughter on this cold cement floor in the isolation cell," Dutton recalled last week. "And I decided that when I got out, I was going to get the craziest guys I knew in the prison - the most demonstrative - and put on a drama group, with me directing and starring in this play, even though I had never done either."
With the help of a local actress who volunteered as prison drama coach, Dutton successfully staged A Day of Absence as part of the prison's 1972 Christmas talent show. "There were 14 or 15 acts in the talent show, and 13 or 14 of them were singing groups. And they were all singing 13 or 14 different renditions of My Girl [The Temptations 1965 Motown hit]," Dutton said. "So, I knew whoever did something different was going to win."
Dutton said he felt like a winner before the production even ended. The moment arrived when he delivered the play's big speech, a plea made on national television by the white mayor for the black residents to return: "It was during that speech when I had that captive audience - I guess, pun intended - in the palm of my hand, that I realized I was doing what I was born to do while on this planet."
Dutton's troupe did win, and he will never forget the moment. "It had all the pomp and circumstance of an awards show. They announced the winner on the stage with all the groups standing there - going from third place, to second, to the winner. We all got our little statuettes - cheap little plastic things that were supposed to look like Oscars - but the audience was screaming and shouting, and that was the start of my emergence as an artist."
Any awards show that creates a space for such memories can't be all bad. On the other hand, the Emmy telecast does also have a history of both goofiness and excessive self-congratulation, and it looks as if both patterns are likely to continue tonight.
One pre-taped segment will be a salute to the network anchormen who left the airwaves during the past year. While such a tribute to ABC's Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer last month, seems apt, saluting CBS's Dan Rather is another matter. Rather was forced to step down in March after serving as correspondent for a 60 Minutes II report about George W. Bush's military record that was based on documents CBS News was unable to authenticate.
On a lighter note, the live broadcast is also scheduled to include an American Idol-like competition featuring celebrity duos singing TV theme songs throughout the evening. The teams: Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Donald Trump (The Apprentice) singing the theme from Green Acres, (CBS 1965-'71), Gary Dourdan (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and R&B; performer Macy Gray performing the title song from The Jeffersons (CBS 1975-'85) and William Shatner (Boston Public) and opera star Frederica von Stade singing the theme from Star Trek (NBC 1966-'69).
One can only hope the balance tonight tips in favor of memories like the ones promised by Dutton - and a strong performance from DeGeneres.
Here are the nominees in several major categories:
Comedy series: Arrested Development, Fox; Desperate Housewives, ABC; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Scrubs, NBC; Will & Grace, NBC
Drama series: Deadwood, HBO; Lost, ABC; Six Feet Under, HBO; 24, Fox; The West Wing, NBC.
Lead actor in a comedy series: Jason Bateman, Arrested Development, Fox; Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Tony Shalhoub, Monk, USA; Zach Braff, Scrubs, NBC; Eric McCormack, Will & Grace, NBC.
Lead actress in a comedy series: Marcia Cross, Desperate Housewives, ABC; Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives, ABC; Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives, ABC; Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle, Fox.
Lead actress in a drama series: Jennifer Garner, Alias, ABC; Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC; Patricia Arquette, Medium, NBC; Glenn Close, The Shield, FX; Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under, HBO.
For an extensive list of nominees, please visit baltimoresun.com/emmy