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2009 Emmys: Same Winners, But A Better Show

When Jon Stewart paused in the middle of his acceptance speech during Sunday night's Emmy Awards to thank host Neil Patrick Harris, he did it in three capacities.

First, Stewart was a winner (accepting on behalf of The Daily Show, which was named best variety, music or comedy series). Second, he was a former awards-show host congratulating Harris on handling a job that has devoured many applicants — including the five reality show hosts who managed last year's very bad show.

But most of all, Stewart seemed to be speaking as a guy sitting through a three-hour ceremony from a probably uncomfortable seat and finding it far less agonizing than he expected.

It's not that anything was radically different about the 2009 Emmys. In fact, the awards for best drama series, best comedy series, best lead actor in a drama, best lead actress in a drama and best lead actor in a comedy went to exactly the same people and programs that won last year (see a list of winners).

The surprise was that the show itself improved substantially. Awards telecasts are notoriously — and perhaps a little ironically, in the case of the Emmys — bad television. They're usually long, boring, poorly paced affairs that drag in some places and are rushed in others. Viewers sit through clumsy clip packages and awkward musical numbers, only to see potentially interesting acceptance speeches interrupted by the orchestra as if there isn't a moment to spare.

The show started off with a silly but boundlessly energetic song that Harris delivered with a level of commitment reminiscent of his performance at the Tony Awards earlier this year. For all the cornball jokes, it wasn't inept or obligatory; if you put Harris out there, he sells what he's there to sell. Getting the show off to a strong start by leaning directly on the host was the right call.

Heidi Klum
Matt Sayles / AP
Heidi Klum

But the best call turned out to be grouping the awards by genre: comedy, reality, miniseries and movie, variety and drama. That structure spread the awards people were most likely to care about over all three hours, thus avoiding the giant sinkhole that plagues the middle sections of most awards telecasts, in which trophy after trophy is handed out and none of the nominees are familiar.

Most importantly, the show was paced so that almost no one was involuntarily played off the stage, and it still ended only about three minutes late. Somehow, someone ran a tight ship while remaining mostly invisible to the viewer. There seemed to be less scripted banter between presenters than usual, and there was certainly less needless filler of the "Salute to the Boom Microphone" variety.

All awards shows are exercises in silliness and vanity, to some degree. But this was a much more palatable example than most. Perhaps it's not the most enthusiastic praise one could offer, but whether you're Jon Stewart in the auditorium or a viewer at home, it could have been — and in the past, it has been — a lot worse.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.