Conan O'Brien joking, Barry Manilow singing, Hugh Laurie putting on a brave face: The Emmys' producer tells Gary Susman what fans can expect to see this year

By Gary Susman
Updated August 25, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”At one point, we were talking about trying to do the Emmys at the beach this year,” deadpans Emmy telecast executive producer Ken Ehrlich. He’s joking about the awards show’s summer airdate this year: To avoid conflict with its new Sunday Night Football broadcasts, NBC moved the ceremony from its traditional September date to this Sunday, Aug. 27. (It airs at 8 p.m.) In fact, it’s been a tumultuous year for the Emmys, with voting rule changes that were meant to recognize fresh faces but instead seemed to result in some glaring omissions. Rather than shy away from the controversy, Ehrlich says the 58th annual Emmy show will joke about it, resulting in what he calls ”a diverse, interesting, fresh look at what happened in television this year.” With Conan O’Brien hosting, Ehrlich says the show will be humorous, emotional, and well-paced. ”It’s going to be very funny. There’ll be some extremely touching moments. Some of the categories are as interesting as they’ve ever been. It’s going to be brisk.” Also full of surprises, which Ehrlich would not divulge — but he did tell the highlights to watch for.

THE COMEDY O’Brien, who earned praise for his performance as Emmy host four years ago, will preside over a show with lots of comedy, Ehrlich says. There’ll be a running gag ”about awards shows and how they can be streamlined and things that can be done to make them a little funnier and brisker.” In other words, expect some deliberate timewasters along the lines of Ellen DeGeneres’ sparkler-and-unicycle stunt from last year’s show (which Ehrlich also produced). Also, watch for pre-taped comedy bits, one of which will come from co-presenters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (presumably using the faux-news techniques they’ve perfected on Comedy Central). ”They’re reasonably good friends of Conan’s, so that’s going to be a funny piece,” Ehrlich says.

THE TRIBUTES ”The Emmy show has an opportunity and an obligation to recognize the history of television as well as what’s current,” Ehrlich says. ”I think viewers like to get a sense of where it all came from.” Thus the evening’s two tributes to TV titans. A segment honoring Dick Clark, presented by Simon Cowell, will bridge the generations between American Idol and American Bandstand. Clark, who’s appeared only once on TV since his 2004 stroke, will be present, Ehrlich says.

The other tribute will honor producer Aaron Spelling, who died in June. Stars of Spelling’s hit dramas, including Joan Collins (Dynasty), Stephen Collins (7th Heaven), and Heather Locklear (Dynasty and Melrose Place), will pay him homage.

THE MUSIC Barry Manilow will sing during the Dick Clark tribute. Ehrlich promises another special musical number during the first half of the show, but was tight-lipped about the details.

THE STAR POWER Watch for some fun combinations of stars among the presenters, Ehrlich says. Charlie and Martin Sheen will present together. So will Howie Mandel, Megan Mullally, and some of the Deal or No Deal girls. (”Because you really don’t want to do a show without them,” Ehrlich says.) And watch for some surprise appearances late in the show, he says.

Among those confirmed as presenters are Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Patrick Dempsey, Edie Falco, Craig Ferguson, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Sean Hayes, Dennis Haysbert, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Felicity Huffman, Heidi Klum, Hugh Laurie, Jason Lee, Evangeline Lilly, Ray Liotta, John Lithgow, Eva Longoria, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Virginia Madsen, Wentworth Miller, Helen Mirren, Bob Newhart, Matthew Perry, William Petersen, Ellen Pompeo, Jaime Pressly, Tom Selleck, Kiefer Sutherland, Jeffrey Tambor, and Bradley Whitford.

Notable among this year’s presenters are several performers who, by all accounts, were snubbed as nominees this year. ”A number of our presenters are people that arguably should have been nominated,” Ehrlich says, citing Laurie, Falco, and Gandolfini, in particular. ”I’m pleased that we have a number of previous Emmy winners who might have been nominated and felt that they still wanted to support the show and be a part of this evening. Which is a real tribute to the Academy and to what the Emmy means.”