If you’re searching for outrages when it comes to the Primetime Emmy Awards, you typically don’t need to look far. Let’s begin with the fact that Jackie Gleason never won one. Astounding, but true.
Here’s another: George Carlin never won one, either.
Feel free to swear and mutter under your breath with impunity. I’ll wait.
OK, that’s enough. But seriously now, how is it even possible that the man who did more than anyone this side of Lenny Bruce to push edgy stand-up and social criticism into the American mainstream never was able to win a single Emmy during his half-century of exposure on television?
I mean, you’d think that just by accident he might take home one lousy statuette, given his history of having centered 14 stand-up specials on HBO — far more than anyone else — stretching from 1977 to the year of his death, 2008.
But no. The man who had the distinction of hosting the first-ever edition of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 never made it to the Emmy Promised Land during his lifetime, his six nominations producing zero wins.
There isn’t much that can be done at this point to appropriately honor Gleason. But it happens that the voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences do have an opportunity to undo the embarrassing Carlin slight posthumously.
The “George Carlin: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize” special that aired in February on PBS, and celebrated the great comedian’s life through clips and live tributes from his contemporaries, is nominated for an Emmy this year in the Outstanding Special Class Program category.
This is the grouping where they toss all of the shows the TV Academy brass don’t know what else to do with, resulting in some very strange bedfellows indeed. Yet it represents a chance for Emmy voters to reverse a longtime crime, even if it wouldn’t technically count as a win for Carlin since it’s a mere special surrounding his receiving, after death, the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for Humor.
This was an honor that actually meant a great deal to Carlin. I know this because he told me so in person during an event in May 2008 at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The night was a tribute to Carlin that it was my amazing good fortune to moderate, representing something of an out-of-body experience for me given that Carlin was (and remains) my idol.
Though I didn’t ask him directly that magical night six weeks before his passing, I gathered that the Emmys — and awards in general — didn’t mean all that much to Carlin. But the Mark Twain Prize was a different matter altogether. It was to him the crowning acknowledgement on a legendary career, and he learned of it mere days before his death.
So now here we are roughly 3½ weeks away from the Emmy Creative Arts ceremony on Sept. 12. And the special that paid him reverence is now part of a quintet competing for Emmy glory, though I can’t say I’m terribly confident of its chances at victory.
Here is the show’s competition in Special Class Program: “The 81st Annual Academy Awards” (ABC); “Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony” (NBC); “Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2008: A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein (Great Performances)” (PBS); and “The 62nd Annual Tony Awards” (CBS).
I think the only show I might be able to eliminate from contention out of hand is the Carnegie Hall thing, which would seem fatally pretentious. But the Academy Awards telecast always winds up getting ludicrously nominated for, and winning, like a zillion Emmys every year. Then that Olympics thing left everybody gaga with the usual dazzling wonder.
The nod for the Tony Awards, meanwhile, doesn’t recognize the edition in June that resulted in praise heaped on host Neil Patrick Harris but the one from 2008 hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. Yet you’ve got to figure that the Carlin/Twain program has “lost in the shuffle” written all over it. I’d actually lay money on the Opening Ceremonies bagging this gold medal.
Playing off of Carlin’s arch spirit, the "Kennedy Center" backers are taking dead aim at the Opening Ceremonies in a trade ad campaign that playfully bashes any Olympic vote as downright anti-American.
"Stalin would have loved the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. Vote for ‘George Carlin: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize’"; "Don’t the Chinese have enough? Vote for ‘George Carlin: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize’"; "Vote America. Vote for ‘George Carlin: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize’."
I don’t care if the Kennedy Center show isn’t viewed as the finest or most entertaining production. Screw that. This is about giving an honor to George, even if it isn’t by George.
Because doing the right thing is never the wrong call.