PASADENA, Calif. -- The 43rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards show was supposed to be a salute to television comedy, but it came off more as a tribute to the Oscars and a test of network censors' tolerance for blue humor.
The Sunday night ceremony opened with a bang -- and a squish -- as actor James Earl Jones parodied his own booming dramatic voice in a speech about the gifted purveyors of comedy and then gamely took a cream pie in the face.
Co-host Dennis Miller, former Weekend Update anchor on 'Saturday Night Live,' offered a spate of topical jokes, announcing the show was being televised from 'the only country with a Communist party' on Fox Broadcasting -- 'the network whose parents are out of town.'
But the celebration of 'four decades of the best in television comedy,' as Emmy producers touted it, turned out to be little more than reruns.
Those home viewers who did not flip around to other channels or dash to the bathroom during commercial breaks glimpsed 10-second clips of some of the funniest moments in TV with Groucho Marx, Mary Tyler Moore, Carroll O'Connor and others.
Unfortunately, the clips' timeless appeal only reminded viewers how few contemporary comedies, such as best comedy series winner 'Cheers,' measure up to their predecessors.
In light of the bargain-basement comedy tribute, it was no wonder that some presenters and award winners took it upon themselves to spice things up.
'I'm sleeping so much better since Pee-wee Herman was arrested,' said comedian Gilbert Gottfried, launching into a tasteless string of self-deprecating masturbation jokes that clearly left the audience in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium ill at ease.
Viewers on the East Coast saw the telecast live and had to endure the entire Gottfried routine. Fox censors sliced most of it out of the program before the tape-delayed West Coast broadcast.
A giddy Kirstie Alley of 'Cheers,' stammering through her ad-libbed acceptance speech upon winning her first Emmy for best actress in a comedy series, decided against a typical sentimental thank-you to her husband, actor Parker Stevenson.
'I'd like to thank my husband, Parker, the man who has given me the big one for the last eight years,' Alley said to gasps from the audience.
Even co-host Jerry Seinfeld, a standup comedian accustomed to coping with surprises from hecklers, was stunned by the remark.
'The big one?' he said. 'That could be just about anything. ... It could be a balloon payment.'
First-time nominee Burt Reynolds, accepting an Emmy for best actor in a comedy series for 'Evening Shade,' perpetuated the joke, thanking his curvaceous wife Loni Anderson for giving him 'the big one' for the last few years.
When the Emmy ceremony wasn't pushing the censorship envelope, it seemed to be dishing out praise for that other big yearly award bash, Oscar night.
'The 63rd Annual Academy Awards,' in the expert hands of producer Gilbert Cates and host-writer Billy Crystal for the second year in a row, was voted outstanding variety, music or comedy program.
The Oscars also won Emmys for Crystal as the host and for its team of writers, as well as a lighting direction award presented Saturday night.
The Emmy Awards also brought triumph to three black performers and a black director. Jones, after his good-natured cream pie gag, received awards as best actor in a drama series for 'Gabriel's Fire' and best supporting actor in a miniseries or special for 'Heat Wave,' a movie about the 1965 Watts riots.
Lynn Whitfield, who played the sultry Parisian cabaret performer in 'The Josephine Baker Story,' was chosen best actress in a miniseries or special, and veteran stage and film actress Ruby Dee won as best supporting actress in the same category for her role in 'Decoration Day.'
Actor-turned-director Thomas Carter was voted best director of a drama series for an episode of 'Equal Justice,' the critically acclaimed courtroom drama axed by ABC after being shuffled through the primetime schedule.