LOS ANGELES — Stephen Colbert opened the Emmy Awards with help from a surprise guest: former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, wheeling out his own podium and predicting that Sunday’s ceremony would break viewership records.
“This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world,” Spicer shouted Sunday with authority, echoing his claim that President Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever and evoking Melissa McCarthy’s manic Spicer portrayal on “Saturday Night Live.”
Colbert’s song-and-dance opening and monologue celebrated TV and repeatedly tweaked Trump, including the president’s assertion that he should have won an Emmy for “Celebrity Apprentice.” His subsequent presidency was the fault of TV voters, Colbert said. He also called the president “the biggest TV star of the past year.”
John Lithgow, who received the best supporting drama actor for his role as British leader Winston Churchill in “The Crown,” took a more diplomatic approach to political commentary.
“Most of all I have to thank Winston Churchill. In these crazy times, his life, even as an old man, reminds us what courage and leadership in government really looks like,” Lithgow said.
Kate McKinnon, who played Hillary Clinton last season on “Saturday Night Live,” was honoured as best comedy series supporting actress. She thanked Clinton for her “grace.”
The show kicked off the Colbert — with help from Chance the Raper — singing the song “Everything Is Better on TV,” which repeatedly slammed Trump. (“Even treason is better on TV”)
Before the show started, “This Is Us” stars Sterling K. Brown and Ron Cephas Jones were among the Emmy Awards nominees playing it cool as they arrived.
The actors paused for photographs and interviews on the red carpet, which for the first time was tented and air conditioned to provide relief from the usually warm September weather in Los Angeles. Nature provided a break as well, with temperatures in the 70s.
Brown won an Emmy last year for playing O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden in the limited series “People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and this time is up for best drama actor for the NBC drama.
“It does feel different but for different reasons. I’m the first African-American in 16 years nominated. That kind of blows my mind,” he said.
Andre Braugher, who was the last black actor to get a nod in the category, for “Gideon’s Crossing” in 2001, also was the last one to claim top drama performance honours, for “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1998.
Another “This Is Us” star, Chris Sullivan, made a fashion statement with a top hat, cane and purple bow tie. He wasn’t alone in going for a bold look — Jeremy Maguire from “Modern Family” vamped in a purple cape — while Tessa Thompson and Issa Rae dazzled with sophisticated, brightly colored gowns.
Jackie Hoffman, nominated for the FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan” said she’s “less freak-out nervous” now that all the pre-Emmy festivities are over and she’s finally at the big show.
Colbert, whose “Late Show” is a regular forum on the Trump administration, said last week that the president is fair game during the awards show.
The Emmys are a celebration of TV, “and the biggest television star of the last year was Donald Trump,” Colbert said at last week’s ceremonial red-carpet rollout outside Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater. He’s also claimed that his nude rear — or part of it, suitably tanned — will be included in the opening musical number.
How will winners and presenters approach the evening? Will they weigh in with political jokes or speeches, or could the recent devastating hurricanes that ravaged parts of Texas and Florida prompt moments that avoid divisiveness, at least for the show’s three or so hours?
The honours themselves could make a statement. In the drama category, the nominees include polar opposites “This Is Us,” a heartfelt family drama, and the dystopian “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which some observers have called a reflection of our time.
A victory by NBC’s “This Is Us,” the first network drama series to be nominated since CBS’ “The Good Wife” in 2011, would prove that broadcasters can compete with the more adventurous premium cable and streaming platforms that target niche audiences. No network series has won in the category since “24” in 2006.
With previous two-time winner “Game of Thrones” absent because it fell outside the eligibility window, “This Is Us” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are among an unprecedented number of newcomers that include “The Crown,” ”Stranger Things” and “Westworld.” Repeat contenders “Better Call Saul” and “House of Cards” round out the field.
Among comedy nominees, the political satire “Veep” is a favoured again after two consecutive wins, and its star Julia Louis-Dreyfus is considered equally if not more likely to claim the best comedy actress trophy for the sixth time for her role. Combined with Emmys she’s won for “Seinfeld” and “New Adventures of Old Christine,” that would tie her with Cloris Leachman as the most-winning Emmy performer ever.
“Veep” is competing with “Atlanta”; “black-ish,”; “Master of None”; “Silicon Valley”; “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Modern Family,” which, with five previous wins in the category, is tied with “Frasier” for most top-series awards ever.
It could be a big night for African-American performers. There are a record 12 black actors competing for lead or supporting honours in continuing comedy and drama series, including “Atlanta” creator and star Donald Glover. But no Latinos and only one Asian-American — “Master of None” star and co-creator Aziz Ansari — were nominated.