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Talk-show hosts have mixed success on awards shows

Dale Roe
David Letterman admitted that he felt like he wanted to go home during his Oscars gig.

I wonder how Jimmy Fallon will do as host of the 62nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Aug. 29 on NBC? Will he be funny, refined and gracious like Johnny Carson, the high-water mark of talk show hosts turned awards show emcees? Or will he Hindenburg it like his "Late Night" predecessor David Letterman did so infamously in 1995 (I know, I just stuck "Oprah, Uma; Uma, Oprah" in your head. Oh, the humanity).

Maybe Fallon will have actor Christopher Walken present the award for best picture, then giggle through the actor's entire speech, ruining it like he did "Saturday Night Live's" classic cowbell sketch.

You can probably tell that I'm not a Fallon fan. I find his humor to be juvenile — which I wouldn't mind if it were funny. And I think his embarrassed, aw-shucks mumbling got old years ago. So, yeah, I think he's an odd choice for Emmys host. But what really confounds me is why the show is once again returning to the talk-show host well when none of them since Carson — even the good ones — has been all that good.

Steve Pond, awards columnist for TheWrap.com and author of "The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards," blames Carson.

"He was sort of considered the gold standard when he hosted the Oscars, which was only a few times at the end of the '70s and into the '80s," Pond says. "I think because he did it so well, people thought, you know, 'Oh, that's the right kind of guy for the job.' So ever since then it seem like if you need a host you go for a talk-show host. And it clearly doesn't always work."

For instance, Pond was backstage during Letterman's Oscar stint. He recalls standing next to Clint Eastwood in the wings when Letterman walked offstage at one point about halfway through the show. Clint asked Dave how he was doing and Letterman, Pond says, replied simply, "I feel like I want to go home."

"He clearly was not comfortable with that environment and you could see it in his performance," Pond recalls. "He knew that he bombed as much as anybody."

So what went wrong? Letterman is a huge star by any measure.

"It just was a bad fit," Pond says. "His stuff wasn't all awful, but he was trying to do 'The David Letterman Show' on the Oscars, and that doesn't work. If you're on the Oscars, you need to adapt what you do to the show, and he was trying to get the show to adapt to him."

Robert Osborne, primetime host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies television network and "official biographer of Oscar," contends that wasn't Letterman's fault. "When you're buying David Letterman," Osborne says, "that's what he does."

If Carson was the undisputed king of talk-show awards hosts and Letterman was the worst, where do others fall?

"I think that Jon Stewart's problem — and I think that he was a decent host, especially the second time — his problem was that it is a really, really hard room to work," Pond says. ("The Daily Show" star hosted the Oscars twice, in 2006 and 2008.) "I think he's a smart guy who had some good stuff, but I think he started very awkwardly and I think he was thrown by the lack of response." Pond says that Stewart became more comfortable as the evening wore on and did better in his second outing.

Osborne is a little less critical. "I thought he was very good. He's very sharp and witty and he's also basically a very classy guy. I thought he was terrific," Osborne says. He had less praise for another talk show turned Oscars host, Ellen DeGeneres.

"I wasn't so crazy about her. But, again, that may be personal. I mean, I like her, but I don't watch her enough to be what you'd call a fan of hers," Osborne says.

Pond concurs. "She wasn't awful; she was OK," he says. "She was fun and inoffensive, but I don't think she brought anything fresh or new to the show. She was certainly the most relaxed host I've ever seen in terms of watching them from backstage."

I ask Osborne to list the necessary abilities for a successful awards show hosting gig: "You really need somebody that understands television and the rhythm of it and how to keep an audience entertained and how to pick up the slow spots and talk without a teleprompter and all those things," he says.

OK. But that sounds exactly like Letterman, Stewart and DeGeneres. Pond contends that the bag of tricks a talk show host brings to a big-time awards hosting gig is just too small.

"I think the skill set for talk show hosts is a narrower one than for people like Neil Patrick Harris," Pond says. Harris — a television, film and stage actor — was a hit hosting both the Tony and Emmy awards in 2009. "Somebody like that has a broader skill set that sort of fits with hosting a show — he can sing and dance."

Both Pond and Osborne hold up 2009 Oscar host Hugh Jackman and frequent past host Billy Crystal as other models of versatility that made for successful awards show outings.

Something inherent in being an actor and having experience playing different roles also might come in handy. Pond points out that successful talk show hosts have spent their careers carefully crafting singular, inflexible personas that don't bend easily to the demands of an Oscar or Emmy gig.

So how does that bode for Fallon?

"The thing that Jimmy Fallon's got working for him is that he does have more of a performance background than a lot of talk show hosts," Pond explains. "You know, he did the ‘Saturday Night Live' stuff. I mean, he can be very funny and more of a performer than somebody like Conan (O'Brien), who is basically standing up there telling jokes."

Pond's assessment of O'Brien is decidedly less enthusiastic than others who have passed judgment on the once and future talk-show host's three Emmy gigs, which often rank at the top of critics' picks for recent hosts. In any event, O'Brien's move to TBS was a lucky one for Fallon: Had the Jay Leno/O'Brien "Tonight Show" situation not imploded, O'Brien would likely be hosting again this year (he helmed the Emmys' last two NBC outings; Leno, currently toxic, was probably never seriously considered).

Pond worries that Fallon could be "a little too out there" for the Emmys, bringing more of an "MTV Movie Awards" sensibility to the proceedings, but that seems to be exactly what NBC is counting on. "His proven skills as a comedian and host — as well as his openness to new ideas — will fully engage audiences and ultimately deliver a lively Emmy telecast," said network vice president of alternative television Paul Telegdy.

I guess I hope Fallon succeeds. He seems, after all, like a decent guy. I think I could catch Fallon fever. Especially if the cure is more cowbell.