"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Once you turn 60, you probably figure you’ve earned the right to be a little long-winded. Clearly this was the thinking behind the 60th Emmy Awards on Sunday night, because the broadcast rambled on and on and on like a drunken grandparent anxious to impart a lifetime of wisdom to a gaggle of disinterested heirs. The tag team of reality show hosts was rambling and insipid, the flashback TV tributes were almost uniformly devoid of entertainment value, and the one substantive political outburst, by “John Adams” scribe Kirk Ellis — utterly appropriate during this apocalyptic election season — was cut short by the usual flinchy, controversy-fearing corporate overlords at ABC.
By the time the big awards were passed out at the end of the three-hour-and-eight-minute broadcast, most viewers at home were passed out in front of their TV sets — if they hadn’t tuned out long before. And that’s not to mention the absurd injustice of overlooking “The Shield” and “The Wire” completely in favor of mediocre nominees like “Boston Legal” and “Two and a Half Men.”
But a night of pageantry this amateurish and underwhelming had to begin with an equally (if not more) weak and dorky pre-Emmy broadcast on ABC. The network started with big celebrities in gowns on the red carpet, and made them look about as glamorous and sophisticated as a bunch of disheveled home economics students in a junior high school fashion show. Aside from Kathy Griffin’s enormous mass of bright orange, tangled-seaweed hair extensions and her nanny-nanny-boo-boo taunting of Ryan Seacrest and his “manscaping,” the entire preshow amounted to a string of inane interviews punctuated by promotional bits for ABC’s new and returning fall lineup. Like a cross between a bad episode of “The View” and a two-hour-long infomercial on tooth whitening, the red carpet coverage made the whole Emmy thing seem self-indulgent and hopelessly outdated before it even began.
After that travesty, “Jimmy Kimmel’s Big Night of Stars” (which aired before the Emmys on the West Coast) offered a mercifully odd “Daily Show”-inspired farce. From introducing Salma Hayek as “not completely Mexican” to asking Michael Phelps which nation peed in the pool the most (the U.S., of course), Kimmel’s bizarre sideshow was a refreshing shift away from the Vaseline-covered lenses and tear-jerking of Barbara Walters.
But enough of all that, the Emmys are about to begin! Oprah Winfrey opens the night with a short speech about how great TV is, then the five nominees for outstanding reality host (Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron and Ryan Seacrest) file onto the stage and prove Oprah a liar in a matter of seconds. Their rambling, unplanned opening “skit” (“Really, this is completely unscripted!” they keep reminding us, as if we don’t believe them) may qualify as the worst, most painful three or four minutes of self-indulgent, ego-driven delusion ever witnessed on live television. Their babbling winds on, there are no jokes, and it all ends with William Shatner ripping Heidi Klum’s clothes off, which Klum responds to with her usual robotic interpretation of “sexy.” How did these sad humans come up with this mess? At least psychology professors studying the crappy decision making of groups have another disturbingly palpable example to throw in with the Cuban missile crisis.
Mercifully enough, when Jeremy Piven is awarded the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, he remarks, “What if I just kept talking for 12 minutes, what would happen?” Then he answers his own question: “That was the opening.” Finally, the audience roars.
After Zeljko Ivanek (who?) wins outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for his excellent performance on FX’s “Damages,” Ricky Gervais comes out with an extended skit involving getting his Emmy back from a stone-faced Steve Carell. Why isn’t Gervais hosting this thing?
Next, Dianne Wiest wins outstanding supporting actress in a drama series for her role on “In Treatment” (easily one of the best 10 shows on TV right now), “The Colbert Report” wins for outstanding writing for a variety, music or comedy program, and Josh Groban sings a surprisingly accurate but lengthy medley of 30 TV theme songs.
Laura Linney bests the very deserving Susan Sarandon for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie for her role in HBO’s “John Adams,” and says the part made her grateful to the “community organizers who helped form our country.” Way to turn the screw without alerting the censors, clever Mrs. Adams!
Then, let’s see, we’ve got a tribute to “Laugh In” that’s largely laugh-free, but Tina Fey of “30 Rock” wins for outstanding writing for a comedy series. And sweet Lord Jesus, we’re only halfway through the broadcast. Let’s just split the rest of the statuettes between Tina Fey and Matthew Weiner and call it a night. Somebody mail one to David Simon while we’re at it, and justice will be served.
Ah, but justice is never served during these torturous times of censorship, rampant idiocy and national decline, haven’t you noticed? That’s why, after HBO’s “Recount” wins Emmys for made-for-television movie and for directing for a miniseries, movie or dramatic special, “John Adams” writer Kirk Ellis is cut off midway through his acceptance speech (writing for a miniseries, movie or dramatic special) just for thanking a few people “for giving me this amazing opportunity to talk about a period in history when articulate men articulated complex thoughts in complete sentences. They used words …” Cue chirpy promo for the next segment. Yes, articulating complex thoughts and using words are strictly forbidden at these 60th annual Emmy Awards, just as in the mainstream press coverage of this presidential election. If you can’t speak entirely in empty clichés, America doesn’t want to hear it.
Adding insult to injury, instead of giving Laura Dern the Emmy for her breathtaking tragicomic turn as Katherine Harris in “Recount,” Dame Eileen Atkins wins outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or movie for Masterpiece’s “Cranford.” Snooze.
Oh good, here comes Kathy Griffin. Please, woman, tell Jesus to suck it again before audience members start taking kamikaze dives off the balcony in protest. Griffin successfully urges the crowd to give her co-presenter, Don Rickles, a standing ovation, then Mr. Warmth grumbles, “Let’s read these funny lines they wrote for us” and gets one of the biggest laughs of the night.
Outstanding reality-competition program: OK, we’ve got “Project Runway,” “Top Chef” and “The Amazing Race,” all well deserved, along with “Dancing With the Stars” (ugh) and “American Idol.” (Shouldn’t that show fall under “outstanding infomercial” at this point?) “The Amazing Race” wins for the millionth time, which is only fair, and Rickles stays front and center and says, “Let me stand here like I just won.”
Next … Don Rickles really does win! He takes home the Emmy for individual performance in a variety or music program, beating out Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, David Letterman and Stephen Colbert! “It’s a mistake!” Rickles intones. “I’ve been in the business 55 years, and the biggest award I got was an ashtray from the friars in New York.” Next, he thanks “wonderful, wonderful Mike Richardson, who came up with a money truck and said, ‘Here’s four dollars, Jew. Try to make it work.’”
When Rickles leaves the stage, big salty tears run down our faces. Bring the man with the crappy attitude and the funny stuff to say back! Don’t leave us with these soulless clones!
The rest of the night is mostly a rushed mess, since the show is running over, big time. Outstanding writing for a drama series: Obviously no matter what other shows are nominated, this should go to “The Wire,” but instead Matthew Weiner wins for “Mad Men.” Good for him, but a little bittersweet for us, considering that one of the best shows in the history of television, “The Wire,” might be overlooked yet again.
Paul Giamatti wins a well-deserved Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or movie for “John Adams.” Accepting his award, he quips, “I’m living proof, kids at home watching, that anybody can play the president.” Sarah Palin is probably the best proof of that.
Outstanding lead actor in a comedy series: The nominees include Lee Pace as Ned on “Pushing Daisies” — fine but no cigar. Tony Shalhoub in “Monk”? Worthy, yes, but old news. Charlie Sheen as Charlie Harper on “Two and a Half Men”? Can someone tell me who thinks Charlie Sheen is funny? And of course we all love Steve Carell as Michael Scott on “The Office,” and any other year he’d be the clear winner.
But who can deny Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock”? Every single breath the man takes is pure genius. He steals every scene. He’s transcendentally, alarmingly great. Remember that scene last season where he acted out every member of Tracy Jordan’s (Tracy Morgan) family? Unbelievable, breathtaking, hysterical — the man should win an Emmy for that scene alone. If Baldwin doesn’t win this one, I will set myself on fire in protest.
And the winner is Alec Baldwin. Phew!
Here’s a tough one: Outstanding lead actress in a drama series. How do you choose between Glenn Close on “Damages” and Holly Hunter on “Saving Grace”? I think Glenn Close is my personal favorite, but then there’s Sally Field from “Brothers and Sisters,” and once you’ve won an Oscar, I think everyone automatically wants to cough up every other award in the book for you. Ooo, Glenn Close — who’s been nominated for an Oscar five times but never won — takes home the Emmy. Good for her.
Onward, to outstanding lead actor in a drama series. Some of the usual suspects are here, all of them worthy: James Spader on “Boston Legal,” Hugh Laurie on “House,” Michael C. Hall from “Dexter” and Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad.” I do love Jon Hamm as Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men,” but performance-wise, I think I was most impressed this year with Gabriel Byrne as Paul on HBO’s “In Treatment.” The winner? Bryan Cranston! This should attract more viewers to “Breaking Bad,” anyway.
Next, Tina Fey wins another well-deserved Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series and gives a shout-out to her fellow nominees, then says, “Sometimes on the ’30 Rock’ set when I don’t know quite how to play a scene, my husband will just remind me, he’ll say, ‘Just try to act like Julia Louis-Dreyfus.’ So thank you, Julia, that is really working out for me.” Louis-Dreyfus gives her a sarcastic thumbs up from the audience. But Fey isn’t done! “I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done. That is what all parents should do!”
Fey’s point is clearly thrown into question by the overconfident five-headed host-Hydra that now bumbles onto the stage to accept its Emmy. Which hideous head will take home the big prize, the ever-robotic Heidi Klum, the unbearable Ryan Seacrest, the ever-cheesy Tom Bergeron, the effortlessly faux-casual Jeff Probst or … Howie Mandel? What’s he doing up there?
In the end, Probst wins, and let’s face it, the guy is at least lifelike, with the added bonus that he has nothing whatsoever to do with “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” or “Deal or No Deal.” Probst promptly thanks Jimmy Kimmel for trying to warn the five hosts that their “We’ve got nothing!” opening bit might not work. Good way to end the evening, really — by admitting that you started the evening by signaling that this would be the most tedious, dreadful Emmy Awards broadcast to date.
Oh yeah, then “30 Rock” and “Mad Men” win best comedy and drama (which is a big relief given the inferior nominees in contention) and everyone rushes home, hoping to dodge the inevitable onset of post-traumatic stress with a few stiff drinks. Hurray for “30 Rock,” hurray for “Mad Men,” and boo for ABC! Roll credits and thank the gods that it’s finally over.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)