NEW YORK – “Are we ready to make the Emmys great again?” asked Jimmy Kimmel as he finished his opening monologue.
The Emmys may or may not be all that great, but ABC’s Emmycast, in Kimmel’s capable hands, was dandy.
It started with a filmed piece tracking him as he hitched his way to Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater, catching rides — or trying to — with such TV faves at the “Modern Family” cast, “Late Late Show” host James Corden (who imposed on him a carpool karaoke session), “Game of Thrones’” khaleesi Emilia Clarke aloft on one of her dragons, and the presidential limo of “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose driver was a big surprise: former real-life White House hopeful Jeb Bush, who reminded Kimmel he’s between jobs right now but can earn $12 an hour driving for Uber.
In his breezy monologue, Kimmel scolded multi-honored Maggie Smith for never attending the Emmy ceremony: “She shows up at the Oscars. She goes to ‘The Soul Train Awards,’” he scoffed, threatening to impose an Emmy policy that “you must be present to win.”
(Later, when Smith’s name was announced as, once again, a winner — as outstanding actress in a drama — Kimmel strode onstage and snatched the trophy from its presenters. “Maggie,” he said, speaking into the camera, “if you want this, it’ll be in the Lost and Found.”)
In his monologue, Kimmel reminded everyone that the TV world is more diverse than ever, then noted, “Here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.”
“Television can bring us together, but television can also tear us apart,” he went on, easing into a back-handed tribute to “Celebrity Apprentice” impresario Mark Burnett, the man he said “is to blame for the Donald Trump phenomenon.”
Were it not for Trump having been hired to host “Celebrity Apprentice,” he wouldn’t now be running for president, Kimmel declared. “He would be at home right now, quietly rubbing up against his wife Melania while she pretends to be asleep.”
Under Kimmel’s leadership, the glitterati in the audience got a snack break as the kids from Netflix’s “Stranger Things” delivered peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches Kimmel said were prepared by his mother, who was seen in a remote kitchen hard at work.
Perhaps Kimmel’s most well-crafted remark, which sparked a roar of approval from the audience as much for its pithiness as its wit: The much-honored Amazon transgender series “Transparent,” he said, “was born a drama, but it identifies as a comedy.”
And there were many winning quips, such as when Courtney B. Vance left the stage after collecting his Emmy for lead actor in a limited series for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” as the late Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
Vance “was so great,” said Kimmel warmly before adding, “I have to believe Johnnie Cochran is somewhere smiling up at us tonight.”
In this way, Kimmel actively engaged with the show, propelled it and stayed visible throughout, rather than bookending the broadcast with opening jokes then a fast good night with long absences in between, which is often the case with awards-show hosts.
Kimmel even made comic hay after his late-night ABC show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” lost out to John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” as outstanding variety series.
Feigning annoyance as Oliver departed, Kimmel faced heckling from Matt Damon, with whom he was shared a famous make-believe feud for years.
“You must be bummed out,” said Damon, strolling onstage and nonchalantly eating an apple.
“Yeah, I’m a little disappointed,” Kimmel admitted.
“You lost,” persisted Damon, “and now you have to stand out here for the rest of the night, when you probably just want to go home and curl up and cry.”
Finally he took his leave with the parting words, “I’ll see you later at the after party.”
“There’s an after party?” said Kimmel, looking crestfallen.
Moments later, the ever-nimble Kimmel gained his comeuppance when he introduced the next presenter as, “finally, a Damon with talent.” Namely, Damon Wayans, Jr.
But Kimmel’s triumph as Emmy host wasn’t getting the last word. It was his effortless skill delivering words — funny and shrewd — all the way through.
And bonus: He brought the three-hour broadcast in on time.
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