Any lingering doubts that one has to be crazy to work in television were exorcised last night by the 39th Annual Emmy Awards, a new low in dolorous debacles for a broadcast that supposedly honors TV achievement.
For the first time in its history, the Emmy Awards telecast aired not on one of the three established commercial networks but on the network nouveau thrown together by Fox Broadcasting. The TV Academy, which works in mysterious ways, accepted Fox's offer this year even though doing so lowers the prestige of the Emmys even further.
Now the Emmys are down there on a par with the Golden Globes and the People's Choice Awards. For insufferable length in an awards broadcast, the Emmys outdo the Oscars, with last night's show running an obscene and inexcusable four hours.
Occasionally a touch of class would elevate the Emmys, and these touches were gratifying. When it comes to gracious and dignified acceptance speeches, the winner by a mile was James Woods, who won for playing James Garner's schizophrenic brother in the much-Emmy'd drama special "Promise" on CBS. Woods accepted for himself and, earlier, for supporting actress Piper Laurie. His speech included a tribute to his costar, Garner, and was uncommonly generous in sharing credit.
Grant Tinker, sheepishly accepting the honorary Governors Award, managed to keep his dignity too. He always does. It's almost irritating. To a standing ovation, Tinker responded, "Please don't do that."
Others who stood out for the way they accepted the prize included Cathy Guisewite, creator of the comic strip "Cathy" which won for best animated special; Terry Hughes, the winning director of "The Golden Girls," named best comedy series; Alfre Woodard, the brilliant actress who won for her work on the "L.A. Law" pilot (and who was appearing at the same moment on the HBO movie "Mandela"); Michael J. Fox, who won for his role on "Family Ties"; and Rue McClanahan, a winning "Golden Girl" who politely overlooked the fact that presenter Howie Mandel mispronounced her name "McCallahan."
Dabney Coleman was hilarious accepting for best supporting actor in a special ("Sworn to Silence," whatever that was) and David Letterman not only was very funny, but as usual, the host of NBC's "Late Night" managed to rise above the fray, and this was a shabbier fray than most.
Letterman ridiculed executives of Fox Broadcasting, whose median age is about 15 ("What a brain trust") and also reviewed the Emmy show in progress: "I think these behind-the-scenes things are really starting to work," he said, clearly not meaning it.
The behind-the-scenes things were tedious reports from backstage and from the wings by Alan Thicke and Phylicia Rashad. Even when it was clear the program was running ridiculously long, the producers refused to cut these brain-deadening segments. Incredible. Executive producer of the Emmys this year was Don Ohlmeyer, who should stick to sports broadcasts, his home base.
Ohlmeyer's Emmy show was flat, too often emotionless, lacking glitter and schmaltz, filled with maddeningly trivial time killers. Comedian Jay Leno joked that next year the Emmys would appear on "the DuMont network," a reference to a fourth network that's been out of business for 30 years.
On the Emmys, it's traditional for some of the least deserving nominees to win. It happens every year, in part because the people who work in television hardly ever watch television. A lot of them think they're too good. How else to explain John Larroquette, of the unfunny "Night Court," winning a third Emmy in a row for supporting comedy acting and beating out superiors like Tom Poston and Peter Scolari ("Newhart") and George Wendt ("Cheers")? Even Larroquette confessed to being "slightly embarrassed."
There was no reason in the world to give Sharon Gless a second Emmy in two years for the tired "Cagney & Lacey" when Susan Dey and Jill Eikenberry, of the new and vital "L.A. Law," were nominated in the same category.
"L.A. Law" won four major awards, including best drama series, but probably should have won more. Little on television is in its league. But the status of all the awards was diminished by their sheer numbers. Perhaps the idea is to assure anyone who is thinking of going into television that they are guaranteed, after a few years' work, of winning an Emmy too. The prizes are really getting to be about as distinguished an honor as receiving a "you may be a millionaire" letter from the Publishers Clearing House.
Each year the awards become more unwieldy and perverse but the TV Academy heroically resists all attempts at reform. The fervor of the death wish is awe-inspiring.
As Johnny Carson pointed out on his show the other night, the Academy conspicuously ignored Jackie Gleason during his long populist career in television -- never an award -- but now that he has died, time was found for a tribute, hosted by Audrey Meadows, Gleason's "Honeymooners" costar. Even in attempting, however feebly, to make amends, the academy was tastelessly negligent. The Gleason tribute did not air until 11 p.m. Only the masochists were still watching by that time.
The technical snafus (a photo of Christine Lahti identified as Piper Laurie) were de rigueur; the dispiriting sense of pointlessness was beyond precedent. The show was a conceptual shambles and an arduous drag. Television has many things to be proud of, but the Emmy telecast isn't one of them.
Winners of the prime-time Emmy Awards announced last night:
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Jackee Harry for "227," NBC.
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: John Larroquette for "Night Court," NBC.
Writing in a Comedy Series: "Family Ties: 'A,' My Name Is Alex," NBC.
Writing in a Drama Series: "L.A. Law: Venus Butterfly," NBC.
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: John Hillerman for "Magnum P.I.," CBS.
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Bonnie Bartlett for "St. Elsewhere," NBC.
Directing in a Variety or Music Program: "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts," CBS.
Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program: Robin Williams for "A Carol Burnett Special: Carol, Carl, Whoopi & Robin," ABC.
Animated Program: "Cathy," CBS.
Directing in a Drama Series: Gregory Hoblit, "L.A. Law" pilot.
Directing in a Comedy Series: "The Golden Girls: Isn't It Romantic?," NBC.
Guest Performer in a Comedy Series: John Cleese for "Cheers: Simon Says," NBC.
Cinematography for a Mini-Series or a Special: "Christmas Snow," NBC.
Technical Direction/Camerawork/Video for a Mini-Series or a Special: "Barbara Mandrell's Christmas: A Family Reunion," CBS.
Guest Performance in a Drama Series: Alfre Woodard for "L.A. Law: Pilot," NBC.
Directing in a Mini-Series or a Special: Glenn Jordan, "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Promise," CBS.
Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or a Special: Piper Laurie, "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Promise," CBS.
Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series or a Special: Dabney Coleman, "Sworn to Silence," ABC.
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Bruce Willis for "Moonlighting," ABC.
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Sharon Gless for "Cagney & Lacey," CBS.
Writing in a Variety or Music Program: "Late Night With David Letterman: Fifth Anniversary Special," NBC.
Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program: "The 1987 Tony Awards," CBS.
Writing in a Mini-Series or a Special: "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Promise," CBS.
Lead Actor in a Mini-Series or a Special: James Woods for "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Promise," CBS.
Lead Actress in a Mini-Series or Special: Gena Rowlands for "The Betty Ford Story," ABC.
Miniseries: "A Year in the Life," NBC.
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Rue McClanahan, "The Golden Girls," NBC.
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Michael J. Fox for "Family Ties," NBC.
Drama or Comedy Special: "Hallmark Hall of Fame: Promise," CBS.
Drama Series: "L.A. Law," NBC.
Comedy Series: "The Golden Girls," NBC.
Governors Award: Grant Tinker.