When several of the best recent hosts joined Neil Patrick Harris during his monologue last night at the Emmys, it was as a reminder that, despite the usual award show grumblings and random musical performances, the producers of the Primetime Emmys have a pretty good track record. They try new things and let the hosts have fun, and for the most part, their network-influence emcees are appropriate and talented (and when they get it very wrong, they course correct). Here's a look back at some of the best openings and monologues from the ceremony's impressive history:
Admittedly, this is a weird one. Some stars sang their opening theme songs, others sort of hung out while people danced around them, and there are a lot of sequins even for 1986. The show tried a similar dance/montage with memorable TV lines the next year, but that one has aged even worse. At least here, the participants really look like they're having fun. The show renewed that idea in 2008, with Josh Groban's awesome TV theme song montage.
Ellen DeGeneres had the unenviable task of hosting the 2001 Emmys, originally scheduled for September 16. The ceremony was delayed twice, finally occurring on November 4, 2001. After a heartfelt intro from Walter Cronkite, DeGeneres's monologue struck a delicate balance between gentle humor and appropriate solemnity that proved she was the absolutely ideal host for this show. It was a tightrope she would walk again a few years later, when she hosted again only a few weeks after Hurricane Katrine hit her hometown of New Orleans.
2002's host, Conan O'Brien, could have a little bit more fun with his opening monologue. This planned sketch was done exceptionally well, better than most that rely on audience-cutaways. Let's hope Conan found true love in the end.
When he hosted again in 2006, Conan managed one of the best opening/monologue combinations. His opening took inspiration from Billy Crystal's Oscar openings, with Conan dropping in on several popular TV shows. Incidentally, the scroll at the bottom of the screen isn't part of the joke; a plane crashed in Kentucky happened the morning of the Emmys, and NBC got flack for airing the crash sketch anyways. Conan's NBC-lambasting monologue from that night is also well-worth watching and includes a Music Man parody.
Years before Seth MacFarlane's less-than-stellar Oscar hosting, his Family Guy creations Brian and Stewie provided the opening number for the 2007 Emmys. Once again proving that MacFarlane's material is best in short doses and animated, this song is genuinely catchy, fairly funny, and sharper than anything host Ryan Seacrest could have pulled off.
While Neil Patrick Harris held back on the musical numbers for the first half of last night's ceremony, he kicked off his first Emmy hosting gig in 2009 with a show-stopping number. The first part of the song is classic, straight-laced opening, but it gets funnier and more topical towards the end. It's arguably the moment when Harris became everyone's go-to host, and deservedly so.
Jimmy Fallon's star-studded opening musical number in 2010 is classic Fallon – silly, fun, and funny without being mean. Like the 1986 open, it was a chance to see TV stars singing and dancing; it also took advantage of the relatively short-lived Glee-mania.
At last year's show, host Jimmy Kimmel skipped the musical opening for a cute cold open featuring the female acting nominees and also Lena Dunham eating a cake. But as a late night host, it makes sense that his monologue was the stronger piece. It was a classic, gimmick-free monologue that got stronger as it went, and set the stage for his fun Tracy Jordan, social media prank.