Shales on TV Live: The Emmys, more

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Aug. 31, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: A host of reasons for Emmy show's winning ways

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

____________________ This chat will begin at 12:30. Having technical problems. Please stand by. Thank you.


Tom Shales: Hello and forgive me for being late. Some of today's technical difficulties were made possible by MAC, the computer for people who don't want to SAVE any of the documents they spend hours writing. Want to destroy it forever and never be able to retrieve it even if it's a matter of almost life and death? THEN JUST PRESS ""SAVE" ON YOUR MAC and when it asks you, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO SAVE IT???? because it never believes you -- you say YES and then you know FOR SURE that it will be obliterated into 20 million irretrievable electrons. Yes I'm in a jolly-holly mood -- And now, the news - and thanks to all who are participating today --


Madison, Wisc.: I felt like Terry O'Quinn deserved to win this year. His performance on LOST was amazing throughout the series, but the past season's performance was the best. I was surprised and disappointed that he didn't win.

Tom Shales: Was he even nominated? Sorry but it's hard to remember individual names from that vast sea of humanity. It's inevitable that some of the worthiest performances in shows you love with go overlooked -- just because no awards can be all - inclusive and totally fair. Of course - that's a platitude, Sorry, I will try to be less platitudinous......


Annapolis, Md.: "Technical difficulties" Tom? Or are you really just too morose over being left out of the "Dancing With the Stars" cast again?

Tom Shales: AS A MATTER OF FACT YES. IT's unfair too never to have had a fat man with arthritis who sometimes needs a cane and who can't dance and never could! I mean Come on, People!!! Is this the land of opportunity or is it not? And how come nobody wants to carry me to the top of Mt Everest, while we're at it. Bingo to this reader who gets today's grand prize -- unless I choose to keep it for myself. At home. in the fridge.....


Niles, Michigan USA: It seemed like the August 29 Awards show moved forward with jerks and speed bumps -- at each genre "Reality"/"Comedy"/"Drama" there were clip anthologies that seemed rather unrepresentative for what actually were memorable 2009-10 moments during the award "year" preceding -- I found the show to be overstuffed with NBC self-promotional moments and therefore unbearable to watch without fast forward. Agree?

Tom Shales: I don't know if it was "unbearable" cause after all, i did bear it - but then I'm just in the habit, I guess -- but you're so right, the clip tsunami was a mess. It was hard to tell what belonged where and next to whom and why and the whole idea of dividing it up into genres - and then putting comedy first (isn't that what they did? my memory not perfect on Emmy Shows) -- seemed to me emphatically NOT to work. There should be a certain amount of disorganization because otherwise there aren't likely to be many surprises.... Thank you Niles Michigan, home of famous golden-age announcer WENDELL NILES !!!! Yayyy as Kermit would say. And I just made that up, I don't know where Wendell came from. Forgive me......


Annapolis, Md.: Bravo for Modern Family ... watching it early on reminded me of another show that I found hilarious and well-written and well-acted, but I felt I was the only one watching: Seinfeld. When networks of any size, air or cable, recognize quality and give it a chance to find its audience (or vice versa) we all win. Thank God for cable, though ... they really took advantage of the Big Three's inability or unwillingness to do quality and now the bar is raised for all. Too bad cable has picked up the reality show habit.

Tom Shales: Yes they've picked it up and then shoved it in America's face. And it turns out that among those "minority tastes" that we always heard cable would appeal to and satiate is this one: BAD TASTE. That gets more attention than almost any other, or so it often seems. Why aren't the feminists picking on the Housewives shows? Or have they protested? I thought even the term Housewife was supposed to have been retired. i guess it's okay if you cloak it in ""irony"" with lots of ""quote"" "marks".....real or implied. I'll tell you a show I loved from way way back JAMES AT 15 by Dan Greenberg. And the other day I read that the actor who played James, Lance Kerwin I think (another Kerwin, Brian, was an older actor), is practically destitute and was arrested for a minor misdemeanor in Hawaii where he now lives. as the theme song put it (this IS a direct quote) : Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh James. "James" got in trouble with NBC censors because the writer wanted him to lose his virginity AT SIXTEEN. imagine!!! What decent American boy would ever do THAT?! sorry for the digression but it was sad reading that item.....


Alexandria, Va.: I don't watch awards shows, so I didn't see this one either. Which one is Jimmy Kimmel and which one is Jimmy Fallon? (I don't stay up late at night, either.)

Tom Shales: Jimmy Fallon is, uh, pretty funny much of the time and Jimmy Kimmel is somewhat funny part of the time. Kimmel has all his relatives on his show and thinks it's funny when they screw up. Uh-uh, Not Funny. Jimmy Fallon invites audience members down to the stage to play idiotic games where they photograph stuff with their cell phones or "lick" some mystery object. That's enough of THAT.........


I Don't Watch Most of Them: I was very happy for Modern Family's win, as that's one of the few nominated shows I watch. I was really sad that Lost, one of my all-time favorite shows, won nothing, and I'm appalled that Law and Order wasn't honored for 20 years of excellence. Sigh!

Tom Shales: But LOST has been honored previously, hasn't it? And Law & Order many times over the years -- maybe not enough, but I don't think it's been ignored. Alas we do not have our historian here to answer these things. I don't even have a book but then if you really want to know something, and it's In a Book, then maybe you have the book yourself. Huh?


Woodbridge, Va.: Call me crazy but I actually enjoyed the Emmy Awards telecast, but that's probably because I have come to love TV in recent years. LOST brought me back to TV after a hiatus of a few years and since then the quality of shows has continued to be high (Mad Men, Modern Family, Top Chef) so I've added to my weekly viewing list. I'm also going to check out a number of shows (Breaking Bad, Glee) on DVD. Looking forward to the new season!

Tom Shales: Ok you're crazy. There, I did as you said. No you're not crazy. Perhaps a trifle overly optimistic - but then again, as the Emmys did occasionally note, there are a lot of good shows on TV with which one can easily become involved ... if you like that kind of involvement......


Baltimore, Md.: Tom: This is a follow-up to the Johnny Carson discussion of a couple weeks back. I am wondering if you have seen the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Whether you like Rivers or not, it is a fascinating portrait of someone who, even in her late 70s, is obsessed with her career. Rivers said that her career was on a huge upward trajectory while she was permanent guest host of the Tonight Show, but that when she agreed to do a late night show on Fox, everything started going downhill. She says that when she called Johnny Carson to tell him the news before it was announced, he slammed the phone down and, despite her attempts to contact him, he would never speak with her again. I'd like to know, as you are someone who met and interviewed Carson, what you think of this -- it certainly made him seem very coldblooded to me.

Tom Shales: Was he coldblooded or did he have very little patience with what he saw as disloyalty? By giving Rivers all that time on The Tonight Show, he helped her career tremendous as she said. When she tried to cash that in by becoming his competitor -- and competition is very very hot at that hour -- he simple wrote her out of his life as you would write a character out of a screenplay or novel.

I think she has whined about this enough. And I don't think she'd have made it as the host of The Tonight Show because she talks too much and would not want the guests interrupting her. I think she's hilarious and always has been, but you're right, rehashing her career is not very fruitful. How would you like it if I sat around here rehashing my career? Fortunately I don't have one so I shan't be tempted.....


Fairfax, Va.: Tom,

Methinks you need to get your MAC upgraded (or at least serviced).

They are great machines for non-nerds like myself.

I saw the clip of the EMMY folks doing Bruce -- I thought it was really good. Did you not like it just because Jimmy F did it?

Tom Shales: No I liked it - at first. It seemed not to end, to keep coming back. And it wasn't really much of an impression when you get right down to it -- I can stick a red hankie in my pocket and shift the weight on my, er, butt...

As for Macs, the garbage of computers, please tell me why when you ask it to save something it says are you sure and then when you say YES DAMMIT I AM SURE NOW JUST DO IT, then it gets huffy and OBLITERATES your document??? I mean, is that even Nice??


College Park, Md.: Guess your MAC is a fan of Christiane Amanpour...

I'm guessing you're not a fan of zombies, but curious what you thought about AMC's new series coming in October entitled "Walking Dead"? Will you take a look or pass on it right now?

Tom Shales: The Post has someone else reviewing most new shows. Personally, I think zombies are over-exposed. The "fun" kind of when out of them when an old zombie rule was re-written. Even in the classic of classics, "Night of the Living Dead," the living dead at least moved slowly, as you'd expect the dead, living or not, to do. But in films like "I, Legend" (right title?), holy cannoli, the zombies ZOOMED around a deserted New York City, leaping about as if they were all on speed when they "died." Almost too scary, you know what I mean? Saw a GREAT movie last night, no zombies, AMAZING action, "The Takers." Rewrites the rules on action movies......but in a good way, I think.....


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Geez, Tom, you made me google Wendell Niles. Granted, he's no Bucky Gunts, but you'll be (the only one) interested to know that he was born in Twin Valley, Minn. (according to IMDb)

Tom Shales: The only one?!?! Why I'll bet millions would be fascinated to learn that invaluable piece of information. He didn't get a page in Wikipedia, did he? I did, but ugh, those pictures. Whenever people want to attack me, they have like 30 horrible and 2 semi-decent photos to choose from. Guess which group gets raided. It isn't the group of two. Or "deux." Or Duh. THANK YOU for the Wendell Niles update. Used to see him on a show called "It Could Be You," a daytime game thing. I have no memory of how it was played but I do know that maybe it could be you, but it never was me.....


Annapolis, Md.: Not sure I've ever heard so many "this is the stupidest thing" acceptance speeches ... if they were going to be so upset that they won why show up at all? Talking about Edie Falco and David Straithorn among others. And besides the real stupidest thing was Clare Danes getting the award for overacting as that autistic woman ... my wife and I turned it off it was so stereotypical of the "actor doing disabled because nothing else will get them an award" syndrome.

Tom Shales: Verrry interesting. You're right about actors doing what used to be called, coldly, I know, Disease-of-the-Week parts -- they always seem to be taking a bow for winning an award WHILE they are performing. Wait, I should not say always, that is ridiculous.

Attention to someone who asked a recent question about, I think, Zombies in the Movies - at least that's what I babbled on about -- only I pressed the wrong button and -- please resubmit question. Maybe it had to do with horror movies in general. Oh I know, you're thinking my Mac is not to blame and that I am. Wellll -- no.


Annapolis, Md.: I hate to say this Tom because you are one of my favorite writers and certainly a fine dancer, but usually when I lose stuff on my MAC at home or PC at work it's because I impatiently clicked too fast on the wrong box ...

Tom Shales: Oh, now I'm an impatient clicker. I appreciate the prognosis really but this has happened to be more than once. After you save it, it asks if you want to "replace" it . Well what does THAT mean? Replace what I just wrote, but with what? Or is what I just wrote a replacement for what was there before I wrote what I just wrote? Yes of course. So why then does it ask me OVEr and OVEr and OVEr if I want to replace something? OF COURSE I DO. I WANT TO REPLACE THIS LOUSY MAC WITH A P.C.


Washington, D.C.: Any suggestions for new shows to watch this fall? NBC seems to be trying hard to pick a winner.

Tom Shales: I thought Hawaii 5-0 looked promising but I don't know - apparently they're going to joke it up a lot, you know, pretend they're being "ironic" or something. I have still put off looking at most new shows. I don't really have to look at them all this year. i don't think I've even seen all of last year's shows yet, ha ha ha. I promise I will come up with a good answer to this question the 5th time it is asked, which will be next week I think.... I apologize but then, the new shows are still mostly a few weeks off....


Monsters: I agree zombies have been a little overdone lately, and this vampire craze can't end soon enough. Monster "fads" always seem to go in cycles, so who's turn do you think is coming around again - ghosts? killer insects? aliens? (probably still a little too soon after the X-Files for the latter)

Tom Shales: Every time the vampire craze ends, well, appropriately enough I guess, the things come back, drooling and biting. I guess it's the sexual element and the fact that vampires seem to be ("seem" to be??!!!! I guess "are" is better) the one monster with strong female-appeal. I don't mean to stereotype but I haven't met many women who liked Frankenstein, whereas men adore the guy. It's like the three stooges supposedly only appealing to me EXCEPT one of the most ardent and articulate Stooges fans I ever knew is most definitely a woman so go figure. I think we gender-fy too much anyway......


Bethany Beach, Del.: So come on out we can teach you how to surf in hurricane in the words of the immortal poet James Delaney Buffett. Surf should grow to about 6 to 8 feet by tomorrow afternoon and 16 to 20 foot waves on Thurs.

Surfs up get, the Woody out and join us.

Dancing with the Stars can't compete with the over 50 surfer guys and gals! Situation would be shark bait.

Tom Shales: I pass this along even though it may be a prank. Or I may just be tragically and terminally un-hip. Hang ten.....


John Hodgman fan: I totally agree with your positive Emmy review, except I did really enjoy the 'color commentary.' The little pieces of fake info were a nice way to break up the standard 'this is the first nomination for...' voice overs. And I can never get too much Jimmy Fallon and his guitar.

Tom Shales: Now wait, are you SURE you want to go on record as saying you could NEVER get too much of Jimmy Fallon and his guitar? Never ever ever ever? How about -- for 3000 solid hours? Oh sorry, that's being ridiculous. Actually I do love Fallon's impressions, especially his impression of Robert De Niro. It totally convulses me. In fact I think he had DeNiro, who can barely talk without a script, on his premiere show but he sort of chickened out about "doing" DeNiro with DeNiro sitting there. But it was still a funny bit. I have been a sucker for impressionists going way way back to David Frye and even before.......


Housewives: Wow, I would be pretty peeved if any of the feminist organizations that I give money actually wasted any time or resources taking on a droolingly stupid Bravo series. It would be like complaining that "The Bachelor" of "Flavor of Love" perpetuated unflattering stereotypes of women. Um, yeah, and the sky is still blue. Quelle surprise.

Tom Shales: I see. Of course, makes a lot of sense.


McLean, Va.: Speaking of Kermit, I see that the original Kermit from "Sam and Friends" is on display at the Smithsonian. Will Willard Scott be displayed there too, someday?

Tom Shales: Oh you're awful. I just hope Willard lives to be 100. Then I hope he lives to be 150 so he can wish ME a happy 100th birthday. (These figures approximate. Actual figures may vary.)


Jersey City, N.J.: I agree there was toooo much NBC and J. Fallon. But I think the show depends on the emcee with all his ideas, quirks and idiosyncrasies that we have all to bear/suffer during the telecast. Like Ricky Gervais for instance. But I love Ricky. You think?

Tom Shales: What did Ricky host - the Golden Globs? I know, it's Globes. Whatever it was, I seem to recall him being pretty good....


James at 16: "'James' got in trouble with NBC censors because the writer wanted him to lose his virginity AT SIXTEEN. imagine! What decent American boy would ever do THAT?!"

Wasn't the real problem with that episode the fact that an adult relative (father or uncle, I forget which) was going to hire a prostitute to help guide James into manhood?

Tom Shales: I don't know, I don't recall it just that way ... If you're correct, well, but the thing was SUCH a big deal at the time and I just don't remember hookers being involved. Then again, maybe so, maybe so ... and that would make it unacceptable, from your point of view? And hello to Emily, out there in TV Team LAnd........


Annandale, Va.: Tom, you praised the host/telecast overall and then filled most of the column with criticisms of this or that. Kind of a strange approach! What did Fallon do well?

Tom Shales: I think he's a very agreeable presence on TV. My problem with him -- oh some problem -- is that I don't quite have his comic persona in focus. I know it sounds pretentious -- but -- who is he? Like Jerry Seinfeld is that overly practical picky social commentator -- even that awful guy on The Daily Show has a very clear persona - a loony you yells and screams about the news. Jimmy Fallon is almost too versatile -- it's as if he won't settle down and be one thing. It's probably one reason he was so good at sketch comedy on SNL; he could change on a dime. Oh I know I said I liked the Emmys and then criticized them. Well that's what critics do, kind of - find the bad in the good and the good in the bad. Or something. It was a good show -- BUT -- because everything has room for improvement. And yes every body. Oh boy.


Herndon, Va.: As a native Nebraskan, I always consider Johnny Carson one of "us," and, I, like him, am not warm and fuzzy, nor do I do group hugs. He's my favorite all-time TV personality. I think the reason so many people make much of his occasional penchant of severing ties with former friends or associates do so because his "on-air" presence was at odds with his "off-air." He seemed so warm and approachable on the "Tonight Show," but in "real life" he was shy and withdrawn, and a lot of people had trouble accepting that.

Tom Shales: Right, I think you've got it. Remember, though, the TV special he did in which he revisited his home in Nebraska, where he grew up? Very sweet and very warm, relatively speaking. Of course again, he had cameras on him. Some people seem to live only when in front of cameras and they're usually the ones who do the best on television, as simplistic as that sounds. I think people like Letterman DO sacrifice having a real life in order to live one out on TV. The time he spends on TV is RADICALLy condensed time, every second is a minute, every minute - whatever. (Like on 24?). So it's much more intense and draining.....


Denver, Colo.: The Emmys totally redeemed themselves with Aaron Paul and Jim Parsons getting their much-deserved rewards. Now if they would just give Neil Patrick Harris the supporting actor award.

The main problem with the Emmys is that they are given for specific episodes that the actors submit, not on their complete body of work. So an actor just needs to have one really good episode instead of being consistently good.

Tom Shales: N.P.H. won SOMETHING -- guest appearance on another show ... Isn't that enough? In heaven's name ISN'T THAT ENOUGH?!?!?!? Must he win EVERYTHING?!?!?!!? Sorry - over-reacting. I am sitting in 99 degree heat.......


Impressionists: Don't forget Larry Storch (of "F Troop" fame). He was the impressionist who invented the "Judy, Judy, Judy!" that all subsequent would- be impressionists themselves imitated as a Cary Grant impression (even though they were actually doing Larry Storch as Cary Grant).

Tom Shales: Yes and there apparently never was a movie where Cary Grant did say Judy Judy Judy (one of the rubes of Mayberry used to do that too, only putting absolutely no inflection on Judy-Judy-Judy, very funny). I'm not sure if Jimmy Cagney ever said you're the dirty rat who gave it to my sister or whatever impressionists used to say. And we all know about Play it Again, Sam - it was just "Play it, Sam. You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can take it, I can" and so on but never "Play it again, Sam." ingrid said, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes by.'" And every time I see the picture and she says it, I melt into a puddle......


East Dillon, Tex.: No Emmys for Friday Night Lights? We wuz robbed! The actors who play Coach and Mrs. Coach are terrific. And don't get me started on the actor who grunts out the role of Riggins. Who do I complain to?

Tom Shales: It is outrageous, i don't know why that show has such a hard time when it is so very very exceptional....


Useful Tip: Try the slightly less-simple solution: At the top under "file," click on "save." It's not as seamless as they would have you believe, but it works.

Also, you can e-mail the document to yourself and "always" have it stored on the e-mail provider's server.

Oh, and Edie Falco was right: she's not funny on "Nurse Jackie," but it's a really good show and she deserves to win something if they're giving out awards...even if she isn't an SNL alumna like everybody else you love.

Tom Shales: Hmm, everybody else I love is an SNL alumna? Gee, I wonder if that's true. Jimmy Fallon, yes. Tina Fey I think is a wee bit overpraised but yes, I do love her ... and Will Ferrell, funny beyond reason in some of his films ... and Fallon ... and oh well, I guess I do like a lot of them. But lots of others who never appeared on SNL, too. Let's face it also: Lorne and company have a TREMENDOUS eye for talent. No they really do......


I think we gender-fry too much anyway...... : Now hold on just a minute there. Who's been going around frying genders? It's been hot enough this summer without some moron going around frying genders. Why not just keep it to chicken and eggs? Aren't they good enough to fry? If you absolutely had to, you could chicken fry steak like they do in Texas. It's....what?'s not fry??....never mind.

Tom Shales: Oh. Did I say "Gender Fry."??? Oh ho ho that's a horse on me.

I think I must have meant "Gender-fy," eh?

But if I'd gotten it right, you couldn't have written this letter

and made me laugh

So you see, I got it wrong ON PURPOSE. Why, of course !!!


On record for Jimmy: Yes! I will go on record. I have many of his SNL bits on my MP3 player (which is NOT an iPod, thanks to living with a crappy MAC for years). Just was listening to the Winter Olympics one in fact.

Tom Shales: He seemed at his best with the aforementioned Ferrell, who in his later years on the show was merciless about making Fallon break-up on camera.....


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Hi Tom: Was there any moment in the Emmy ceremony that really surprised you, either positively or negatively?

Tom Shales: When they announced that next year's ceremony would originate in Burnt Hills, N.Y. Honestly, I must have been surprised more than once ... Usually I am surprised if the thing ends before midnight ... this ended VIRTUALLY on time, so there's a surprise, except Lisa De Moraes wrote in advance that it had to end on time because it was airing live on the West Coast as well as the East. Look it up if you don't believe me.


WDC: Were you surprised NBC allowed the commercials for Oprah, which primarily airs on ABC stations?

Tom Shales: Oprah belongs to the world.

And vice versa.


Watched as much as I could stand: I know that your lifetime contract with Lorne Michaels requires you to praise the desperate-to-be-loved Jimmy Fallon because he appeared on the unwatchable "Saturday Night Live" -- but deep down, you have to admit that he was really pretty terrible.

Just because a puppy wags his tail and stares up at you with longing for affection doesn't mean that he didn't just piddle on the good rug.

Tom Shales: Oh an SNL-hater. I just can't believe you watch it much. The other night they had a repeat with a thousand laughs in it .. and the guest host was good too, some country singer -- Country-fried singer ????


Glover Park, D.C.: Tom -- Aren't we perilously close to Betty White Backlash? Don't get me wrong -- I know she's a national treasure. But, c'mon ... she's in the opening Emmy sketch, she wins an award for SNL appearance, she has an ad for a movie during the Emmys, she's starring in a TVLand series. We get it. I'd love it if so much of the humor weren't "grandma does something naughty." She's better than that.

Tom Shales: Yes I completely agree and meant to include that in my piece this morning. I don't even like the way they're using her, as this dirty old lady thing. That was Rue McLanahan's role on Golden Girls anyway. Not that Betty White should have to live life as dopey-dumb Grace from Minnesota. Grace??? What WAS the name? We are running out of time. I've got to pick up my Mac and get out of here. One more second or two.......


Pittsburgh, Pa.: At what point does it become ridiculous to consider shows for Emmys if their viewership is really small? How many people actually watch some of the awarded programs that are aired on premium cable networks -- under 1 million viewers?

Tom Shales: YES but that flaw was somewhat corrected this year, with fewer awards going to tiny-tiny-itsy-bitsy shows with limited if any appeal. Of course MAD MEN continues to mop up, but the people in Hollywood HATE Madison Avenue so of course they love that show. They hate the guys who sell the ads that pay the bills that paper the house that Jack built...... Huh?.... Okay one more second....


Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Good lord, you mentioned Walter Winchell in your column today! I'm a few years older than you (born 1942) and vaguely remember Winchell on the radio, saying something like "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, let's go to press." He was huge on radio and newspapers, but his era ended as TV grew. If I recall correctly, he made the mistake of fighting with Jack Paar (this is pre-Johnny Carson, kiddies), and Paar proved anyone with a TV show for a forum was far more powerful than someone on what was left of radio -- even if he also had a column in a NY tabloid. Now, if Winchell had been able to begin talk radio as it is today . . .

Tom Shales: YES, thank you. I actually knew Walter Winchell very very late in his life and certainly not well. He was by that time a nasty old crank who thought we should send more more and more troops to VietNam and tried to become a pal of LBJ's so he could wangle invitations to the White House. I also got to know Jack Paar, an amazing guy who retired way too early and then got mad that he was forgotten. He didn't know how short memories are -- but I and many others remember him for his wit and fearlessness. Good night, Jack, wherever you are.........


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