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Affable O’Brien lights up predictable Emmys

Cassie Belek | Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It’s official. Conan O’Brien is the Billy Crystal of the Emmys.

In only his second time hosting the awards show, the late-night personality opened with a comedic montage that put him in the television shows “House,” “Lost” and “The Office,” did a song and dance number about the sorry state of NBC and kept Bob Newhart in an airtight glass container that would run out of oxygen if the awards ceremony ran over three hours.

The last shtick was a running joke throughout the telecast, with Newhart pounding on the walls in “panic” during commercial breaks. Fortunately, the show ran on time and Newhart was released in order to present the award for Outstanding Comedy Series.

After last year’s somber ceremony in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this year’s show was filled with light heartedness, laughter and Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise jokes.

Still, the 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday night were also controversial after a revised nomination procedure failed to produce the results many expected. The new rules added a step to the nomination process in which a panel of top judges selected the five nominees in each category after voting members had whittled the categories down to 10 or 15 nominees.

Dubbed “The Lauren Graham Rule” and meant to recognize those who usually go unnoticed, Lauren Graham from “Gilmore Girls” was not even nominated. The new process did work for first-time nominees Charlie Sheen (“Two and a Half Men”), Kevin James (“King of Queens”) and Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: SVU”). Unfortunately, expected nominees such as Edie Falco and James Gandolfini (both from “The Sopranos”) were shunned.

Last year’s best series winners “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” similarly garnered few nominations and were practically shut out. Even more perplexing was the fact that “House,” “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs” were all nominated for best series, but their lead actors – Hugh Laurie, Jason Bateman and Zach Braff, respectively – were not.

That’s not to say last night’s nominees were not deserving, an issue that presenters and nominees Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Sean Hayes jokingly confronted.

Another phenomenon among this year’s nominations was the multitude of nominees and winners from cancelled series. Winners who will no longer be seen in their roles included Alan Alda (“The West Wing”) for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, Blythe Danner (“Huff”) for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, and Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”) for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

While accepting her award, Danner quipped, “I guess I have to thank Showtime, even though they have canceled us.”

Jeremy Piven, a bona fide character actor, won his own statuette for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of crazed agent Ari Gold in HBO’s “Entourage.” In a heartfelt speech, Piven thanked his mother and then kissed his award, raising it to the sky in a tribute to his father. In a post-show interview, Piven reflected on his new Emmy-winning status.

“No one will look me in the eyes,” he joked. “I will have rules. I will live in a celebrity space shuttle and hover around the universe.”

After only one season in her show “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Julia-Louis Dreyfus won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, beating fellow former NBC leading ladies Lisa Kudrow (“The Comeback”) and Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”), and breaking the infamous “Seinfeld” curse.

“Curse this, baby!” Dreyfus exclaimed while accepting her award.

After three consecutive nominations, Mariska Hargitay finally won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her character Olivia Benson in “Law & Order: SVU.” Nominated for an episode in which she talks entirely to a voice on a speakerphone, the new mother accepted her award with gratitude and joyful tears.

“When I named my son August I had no idea the month would end like this,” she said.

In perhaps the most shocking upset of the evening, Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) beat favorite Steve Carell (“The Office”) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Shalhoub, who now has four nominations and three wins to his name, expressed disbelief at his victory and his conviction that another actor, no doubt Carell, was going to win.

“I would like to feel good, but I feel too numb,” he said in a post-ceremony interview. “I was convinced it was going in another direction. That other show is so hot right now and he is so on fire – not just in television but in the feature world.”

Other awards went to “My Name is Earl” for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, “The Sopranos” for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series and “24” for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series.

The broadcast featured two touching tributes to entertainment extraordinaire Dick Clark and the late producer Aaron Spelling. Clark appeared to express his thanks after a montage of “American Bandstand” clips.

“Everybody should be so lucky to have their dreams come true,” Clark said, the effects of his stroke still apparent.

Singer Barry Manilow then appeared on stage – the night before hip surgery – to perform his song “American Bandstand” in a fitting tribute. Shortly after the performance, Manilow won the Emmy for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, beating Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman and Hugh Jackman. His coup shocked not only himself, but presenter Stephen Colbert, who later exclaimed, “I lost to Barry Manilow! Barry Manilow!”

Aaron Spelling’s tribute included clips from the opening montages of the television shows he produced and touching words from Heather Locklear (“Dynasty,” “Melrose Place”), Joan Collins (“Dynasty”), Stephen Collins (“7th Heaven”) and the original “Charlie’s Angels” – Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith.

“Aaron made TV that simply tasted good,” Collins said.

In the last awards of the evening, “24” took home the trophy for Outstanding Drama Series after finishing its most critically acclaimed season.

“24” star Kiefer Sutherland also won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for portraying federal agent Jack Bauer.

Steve Carell may not have won in his own category, but any disappointment soon disappeared when “The Office” won Outstanding Comedy Series, capping off an exceptional second season after a rocky start in the show’s first year.

Despite the controversy surrounding this year’s awards, the Emmys remained an entertaining and rewarding three hours. O’Brien kept the show flowing with gags no doubt pulled from his own comedic genius.

Old favorites were honored along with some newer talent as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar revealed himself to be an Ernst & Young accountant, Bob Newhart lived to see another day and one television season ended to prepare for the new one to begin.