Ellen DeGeneres is to awards shows what Jon Stewart is to political satire -- better at it than most. Standing out among all the flowing chiffon and plunging decolletage in a black tuxedo and black silk shirt, DeGeneres quickly and matter-of-factly acknowledged the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and then put that tragedy on hold for the evening. Noting that she had been the host of the show in 2001, which was delayed twice after Sept. 11, she paused and added, "Be sure to look for me next month when I host the North Korean People's Choice Awards."
Altruism and self-celebration are never a good mix, and almost always fatal at a Hollywood awards show, and DeGeneres wisely chose to keep the show lighthearted. Even the moment when Tyler James Williams, the young star of Everybody Hates Chris, introduced a boy who was left homeless by Hurricane Katrina was sweet, but not maudlin.
It was not the most electrifying Emmy Awards night, but much of it was brisk and good-humored, like its emcee. Not that DeGeneres lacks a mean streak. "Not winning does not mean you are a bad person," she said in her opening monologue: "It just means you're not a good actor."
It was a pretty tame evening, however. The closest thing to controversy was Blythe Danner stretching her time limit to make an anti-war statement. She paid tribute to "our kids in Iraq." As the music swelled in warning for her to get off the stage, Danner hurriedly added, "Let's get them the heck out of there."
There were few other unscripted moments, and nothing that came close to Kanye West's impromptu "George Bush doesn't care about black people" outburst on NBC's recent hurricane relief telethon. In a skit, Stewart poked fun at NBC's decision to edit West's remarks for the West Coast broadcast, but that was balanced by the actor Charles Dutton, who almost seemed to be rebutting West in his taped Emmy remembrance segment, recalling that he won his first award at a prison talent show. "America works," he said.
There were lots of African-Americans on stage and in the audience, and S. Epatha Merkerson was touchingly nervous when she accepted her award for best actress for the HBO mini-series Lackawanna Blues and admitted she dropped her notes down the bodice of her gown. But Hollywood looks a lot less multicultural behind the camera.
When the horde of white, male writers of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart gathered onstage in black tie to accept their award, they almost looked like a mock tableau of the past -- the Whiffenpoofs, circa 1961. Stewart joked about it, bragging that his staff members were only "80 percent Ivy League-educated Jews."
The memorial tribute Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather paid to their former rival, Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer this summer, was well handled and touching. But Rather, who resigned this year after a flawed 60 Minutes report, looked sadly diminished next to Brokaw, who retired on a higher note.
It made sense to have CBS' David Letterman honor the late Johnny Carson because he had a far closer friendship with him than Carson's replacement on NBC, Jay Leno. But Letterman was surprisingly stiff in describing Carson's comic legacy.
Humor on these kinds of shows is not very dangerous these days. Nor are the Emmy Awards a place to go for daring fashion statements anymore. Almost all the women, from the cast of Desperate Housewives to Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: SVU, wore tight, shiny dresses and tight, shiny foreheads -- they looked less like actresses than members of a new, genetically altered cult: Nicole Kidmanites.