American television embraces Starr quality

The Clinton-Monica tryst barely raised a smile at the Emmys. But then TV folks have always known which side their bread is buttered.

WHILE MOST of America took the weekend to ponder the implications of the Starr report, Hollywood partied on with the Emmy awards, America's most prestigious television prizes.

But something was missing. The jokes. Seems that this year's hot topic - the Clinton-Lewinsky tryst - was too painful for the mostly Democratic- leaning entertainment industry to poke fun at. Normally, these kinds of shows are a platform for quips about a recent political gaff or posturing remarks on the latest social crisis. Who could forget the post-Los Angeles riots shows where diamond-accessoried celebs commented on a part of the city they never knew existed before it went up in flames?

The silence at Sunday's event was saying something. But what, exactly? Possibly, the hub of the country's moral wasteland felt in no position to point a finger at one of their own.

Or maybe it was the thousand wanna-be Monicas in the audience clutching the arms of their ageing producer "friends", who invited their young dates as a guarantee that they would bag at least one trophy that night.

Maybe it was a sign that Hollywood, which so strongly positioned itself behind Clinton in both elections, was not ready to admit defeat in so public a forum. After all, this broadcast was going out to millions of viewers around the world. Or maybe it simply had more to do with the adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. And there had not been enough time.

Only a few brave souls ventured forth. Comedian Dennis Miller, who won an Emmy for his HBO talk show, thanked Vernon Jordan for his job, while another Emmy-winning HBO comic Chris Rock walked on stage waving a cigar. "Early on in comedy, this was used as a prop," he grinned. "It still is." The audience laughed - very nervously.

Backstage in the press room, which was loaded with enough security to rival a Scary Spice wedding, comedian Garry Shandling stood clutching a statuette for the Larry Sanders Show finale. He looked meaningfully at the reporters, hopelessly pathetic in ill-fitting dinner suits rented that afternoon. "Hopefully, this award will be as powerful as the presidency and I'll meet someone tonight," he gushed.

Not everyone was so flip. Legendary comic Milton Berle, who also has a fondness for cigars, although preferring their more traditional use, refused to answer reporters questions about the... uh.... situation. Jay Leno, usually a leading purveyor of Monica jokes on his nightly talk show, was subdued. And Billy Crystal, toting an Emmy for his Academy Awards hosting duties, was even more sombre.

"It's such a horrible thing, I can't even look at him," he said. "It's not funny, it's sad. The guy had such great promise. To have done this, and for what?" A sudden chill fell over the room. "But I'm really happy to have gotten this award," he recovered quickly.

But after all, isn't that what the Emmys - or any awards show - is really about? Winning. Sure, during their walk up the red carpet, the actors will say to the beckoning microphones, "I've won simply by being nominated." They will acknowledge their fellow nominees to appear gracious. And they will smile when their name is not called out.

But the truth is, that after all the primping, the publicity campaigns, the agonising over designer outfits and the liposuction, no one wants to go home empty-handed. Hollywood loves a winner. The losers do not get to be interviewed. Their cost for new acting jobs does not go up. So it stands to reason that such a mentality would explain Hollywood's hesitancy for pouncing on Clinton. Even a pack of jackals will circle a hurt animal until they know for certain that it is too weak to fight back.

Perhaps it is a sign that the Tinseltown jury is still out on Clinton's ability to rebut Starr's report. But if the jokes start coming again - and a lot from this part of the States - it may be more than just some funny lines.

It may be Hollywood advertising for a new winner.

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