Since the nominees for the 55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were a who's who of repeat contenders, we were left to focus on what the ceremony's producers wanted us to the good-humor men and funny ladies they recruited to emcee. So which of them left us laughing so hard that they ought to be going for the gold themselves next year? A quick review of Sunday's live broadcast reveals the host with the most... guffaws.
•Gary Shandling: Our favorite neurotic got the evening off to a shaky start, perhaps because he could tell that his disappointing material wasn't so much hit and miss as it was hit and miss and miss and miss. Having money grubber Brad Garrett lumber on stage for a lingering kiss during the erstwhile Larry Sanders's riff on the infamous Madonna-Britney smooch did nothing to give his set the illusion of originality. At least he landed one good punch line in closing. "I just want to say to CBS," he said, breathless, "[Brad's] worth every nickel." (For our money, presenter Matthew Perry got more mileage out of the lip service he paid Doris Roberts moments later.)
•Darrell Hammond: If we hadn't already been sick of California-recall-election gags before the SNL impersonator approached the dais as Arnold Schwarzenegger, we sure would have been afterward. Dude, remember: topical, good; amusing, better. Still, he managed to score as grumpy old Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Taking the tube to task for its tawdry titles, he attacked Fox's addictive skank-o-rama, Paradise Hotel. "What do they do after those shows air?" he asked. "Send 'em straight over to the Smithsonian?"
•Wanda Sykes: Warming up as the marathon dragged on, the Wanda at Large big mouth commiserating with the losers forced to sit up front and smile as all the winners strolled by handed out statuettes to Lauren Ambrose and Cynthia Nixon. (Not Emmys, mind you. Just figurines.) To Kim Cattrall, she instead handed a flask. After being beaten again by Doris Roberts, "[Kim's] gonna need a little more," she reasoned. More impressive, the jabberjaw got notoriously dour Peter Krause to get up and boogie with her to "The Electric Slide." If only she hadn't felt the need to repeatedly plug her grating series.
•Jon Stewart: Finally, the Daily Show anchor got the kudofest on track. "It hurts me," he said in the glib manner that makes him impossible to resist, "to know that some of our colleagues aren't going to be recognized. First, those who aren't that good." Next, he introduced a series of hysterical clips "saluting" the "mindless ratings whores" in the news game. Fox even let him replay a so-bad-it's-amazing tape its own news department aired of Iraq bombings set to Muzak. "My God!" Stewart exclaimed afterward. "They're attacking Vangelis!"
•Conan O'Brien: Although an announcer teased that the night owl (accompanied by a dozen chicks in Rockette tuxes) would be performing "That's Entertainment," he'd uttered scarcely a syllable before the powers that be informed him over the loudspeakers that his number had been cut. What followed was a truly dazzling hissy fit: Disbelief, disappointment, rage... "I don't know if you'll get paid!" he barked at a chorine. "Just go!"
•Ellen DeGeneres: The new Rosie O'Donnell proved why she's the perfect personality to headline a talk show boy, can she talk (and when she does, we listen, rapt). Her rambling bit we could hardly tell you what it was about, ultimately managed to work in licorice, Kim Cattrall and the Japanese. She also threw her support behind the black-tie back-slap's co-ringleader format. "Easiest gift basket I ever earned."
•Bernie Mac: We bow down before the king of sitcomedy pretty much every week, but here, his tried-and-true shtick was no treat. He told us he wouldn't name the nominees who didn't deserve plaudits, and then, by God, he didn't. He did get one chuckle, though. After variety series writing winner Jon Stewart and his army of white scribes approached the mike, and Stewart joked that diversity was key in his organization, the camera slowly panned to Mac, a priceless expression on his face.
•Brad Garrett: Okay, Brad. You lost a whole lotta good will holding out for a bigger piece of the pie. But all is forgiven now. A sketch in which the Everybody Loves Raymond second banana opened up the Emmy losers' gift basket was quick and hilarious. Among the contents: "the whole first season of My Big Fat Greek Life... both episodes," "The Caucasian Viewer's Guide to UPN" and a TV Guide Award. Hey, wait a...! "This was Scott Baio's," he added quickly. Well, in that case.
•Dennis Miller: There's just no dumbing down the Raw Feed smartass. "If sucking up and air kisses were silver and gold," he cracked, marveling at the phoniness on display, "we could pay off the national debt." Then he wryly remarked on a collection of "highlight" clips, noting, as Kobe Bryant's image flashed on screen, that "our role models still found time to reach out and touch young fans." Cheap shot our favorite kind.
•George Lopez: "I'm George Lopez... the Lopez you're not sick of," he quipped, kicking off his outstanding stand-up routine with a cute dig at the media's Bennifer obsession. Before presenting the best reality show prize, he also poked fun at everything from the sublime (The Amazing Race) to the ridiculous (Fear Factor), making special mention of his favorite reality show, TV's first-ever. "I thought," he praised, "The Dukes of Hazzard captured white people perfectly."
•Martin Short: We admit it. We were disappointed that he didn't come out in full Glick mode. But he quickly made us glad to see him being himself... or rather, a really, really bitter, self-aggrandizing version of himself. "Your applause means more to me than winning," the sore loser groused. And prior to launching into a musical tribute to his fellow failures (with Paul Shaffer on keyboards), he let fly the sauciest zinger of the night. By way of forgiving Academy members who didn't vote for him, he remarked drolly, "As David Gest said to Liza Minnelli on their honeymoon night, no hard feelings."
And the winner is... Jon Stewart. He had us at hello, and he never let go. Homeboy was cracking wise even in his acceptance speeches, for Pete's sake. So may we suggest that, as part of his prize package, the Academy invites him to co-host next year with DeGeneres and G. Lo?For more on the Emmys, click here.