From #EmmysSoWhite to questionable COVID jokes: Emmys highs, lows and head-scratchers

You might say that Cedric the Entertainer saw it coming. In his opening monologue, the host of the 73rd Emmy Awards called out Black-ish star Anthony Anderson in the crowd and congratulated him on his 11th nomination. But he also alerted his friend that tonight probably wasn’t his night. “He’s up against Michael Douglas and Ted Lasso,” Cedric joked. “Good luck, but I gotta say, looks like it’s still hard out here for a pimp.” 

Turns out that it was a hard night for representation in general, even though the show boasted one of the most diverse group of nominees in its history. Only two performers of color — I May Destroy You's Michaela Coel and RuPaul's Drag Race's own RuPaul — accepted statues, neither of which was in an acting category. That trend didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter, where #EmmysSoWhite immediately started trending as soon as the last award of the night was handed out to Netflix’s blockbuster limited series, The Queen's Gambit, which itself only featured one Black character in a significant role. 

Black host, Black announcer hell even Black music. We doing everything but win.

— ~Alexandria~ “AstroPetty” (@DOPECHICKBEATS) September 20, 2021

The pronounced lack of diverse winners capped an Emmys telecast that was notably short on laughs and long on comic bits that fell flat and acceptance speeches that mostly faded from memory — with a few notable exceptions. (Someone give Debbie Allen and Jean Smart a project to collaborate on, stat.) Here's Yahoo Entertainment’s guide to the highs, lows and head-scratchers of this year’s Emmy awards. 

HEAD-SCRATCHER: That opening jam session was some weird Biz-ness

After last year’s hermitlike virtual ceremony, it’s understandable that the incoming emcee, Cedric the Entertainer, wanted to celebrate being back in front of a live audience by getting them to their feet. So he enlisted a bunch of his pals — including LL Cool J, Dave “Lil Dicky” Burd and … Rita Wilson? — to do a TV-themed version of the 1989 favorite, “Just a Friend,” by the late, great Biz Markie. While the performers gave it their all, this cover version didn’t measure up to the original, especially for those of us watching along at home and cringing at the bonkers sight of the boldfaced names in the crowd trying to dance and rhyme along with Cedric’s crew. (We’re looking at you, Catherine Zeta-Jones.) It sure was a memorable way to open this year’s ceremony — but not necessarily memorable for the right reason.

LOW: Another year, another case of #EmmysSoWhite

Once again, the Emmy nominees recognized an increasingly diverse group of actors, including the first transgender woman ever nominated for a major acting statue — Pose's Mj Rodriguez. But it was impossible to miss that performers who made it to the winners’ circle all shared the same complexion. In fact, Coel and RuPaul — who picked up statues for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series and Outstanding Competition Program, respectively — were the only winners of color throughout the entire telecast, not including Debbie Allen’s previously announced Governors Award. It’s no surprise that #EmmysSoWhite started trending immediately after the show ended.

HIGH: Debbie Allen’s Governors Award speech is gonna live forever

Debbie Allen rocketed to Fame with the 1980 movie, and hasn’t stopped making big moves since. That includes her Governors Award acceptance speech, which lit up social media with its earnest appeal to the next generation of artists. “Let this moment resonate with women across the world and across this country, from Texas to Afghanistan," Allen remarked after becoming the first Black woman to receive this honor. “For young people, who have no vote, who can’t even get a vaccine — they’re inheriting the world that we live in and will leave them. It’s time for you to claim your power. Claim your voice, sing your song, tell your stories. It will make us a better place. Your turn.” 

HEAD-SCRATCHER: Reggie Watts was too cool for school

Put him in the right room and the musically inclined comedian Reggie Watts can slay with the best of them. Unfortunately, the Emmys weren’t really the right room for his deadpan comic stylings, which fell flat amid the pomp and circumstance of the event. Watts seemed to recognize that his voice wasn’t being appreciated, because he became less vocally present as the telecast unfolded. He’s welcome back at Bikini Bottom anytime, though!

HIGH: Norm!

Days after his death from cancer, Norm Macdonald was on the mind of some of his closest collaborators and fans. John Oliver paid tribute to one of the best “Weekend Update” hosts to grace Studio 8H in his acceptance speech for Last Week Tonight’s latest win for Outstanding Variety Talk Series. “No one was funnier in the last 20 years than Norm Macdonald on late-night comedy,” he said, advising people at home to watch YouTube clips of his appearances on Conan O’Brien’s various talk shows. SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels also spoke briefly and eloquently about the Not Ready for Primetime Player, and elaborated on those remarks backstage. “He meant the world to people there,” Michaels said, going on to call Macdonald one of the funniest people he’s known.

LOW: The pandemic jokes got panned

How do you solve a problem like poking fun at the COVID-19 pandemic? Nobody at the Emmys could figure it out, starting with Seth Rogen, who handed out the first award of the night and half-jokingly wondered if the audience was participating in a potential super-spreader event. Cedric the Entertainer and the night’s DJ, Watts, instantly tried to correct him. “It actually feels amazing in here, unlike what Seth was talking about,” the host said, before comparing the various vaccines to major department stores. Ken Jeong also tried and failed to find humor in the pandemic, telling a backstage guard “Four booster shots,” as he tried to get into the auditorium to present the winner for Best Variety Sketch Series.

HIGH: The Emmys, f*** yeah!

You didn’t expect Roy F****** Kent not to talk blue at the Emmys, right? Ted Lasso scene-stealer — and very much non-CGI actor — Brett Goldstein opened his Outstanding Supporting Actor speech with a string of expletives that were very much in character and very much bleeped by Emmy producers. And he wasn’t the only one who let loose with a few swear words. The Queen herself — The Crown’s Olivia Colman — dropped some not so royal phrases in her Outstanding Lead Actress speech, as did Evan Peters, who won as Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for Mare of Easttown.

LOW: Cedric’s comic stunts didn’t entertain

Cedric the Entertainer will always be an original king of comedy, but the comic bits he sprinkled throughout the Emmys telecast were decidedly … unoriginal. First, he attempted awkwardly to insert himself into Tom Brady’s viral trophy-tossing video; then he enlisted his Neighborhood co-stars Tichina Arnold and Beth Behrs to heckle him unconvincingly from the audience; after that, he took an ill-judged swipe at Mike Pence’s #Flygate and assembled a roomful of Emmy losers — including Jason Alexander and Alyson Hannigan — to complain about never taking home a statue.

HIGH: Jean Smart ain’t no hack

Jean Smart has already been winning some of the best reviews of her career for Hacks, so the audience was primed to see her win her first Lead Actress Emmy and leapt to their feet when her name was announced. Smart rewarded them with a moving speech about the recent loss of her husband, Richard Gilliland, who passed away while she was in the middle of shooting the HBO Max series. “I would not be here without him, and without him putting his career on the back burner so I could take advantage of the opportunities I’ve had,” she said, through tears.

LOW: Scott Frank overstayed his welcome

It’s true that the Emmys producers were a little heavy-handed when it came to playing winners offstage, but the mastermind of The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank, didn’t win any new fans by demanding that they literally stop the music so that he could finish his lengthy speech. While the Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy beamed through his refusal to cede the stage, his behavior was roundly booed on Twitter, with viewers describing his actions as “arrogant” and “entitled,” especially set alongside Michaela Coel’s succinct and emotional speech. Clearly, it was a gambit that didn’t pay off.

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