15 Star-Studded Facts About the Emmy Awards
By Kristin Hunt
Anything can happen at the Emmys: Impromptu make-outs. Presenter fraud. Near-death experiences for Bob Newhart. Before the 2018 broadcast begins on Monday, September 17, read up on the weirdest and most fascinating facts from the award ceremony’s 70-year history. Sure, hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost are likely to bring the comedy heat (with a side of politics), but can even their dual host power match the insanity of the 1974 Super Emmys?
1. THE WORD “EMMY” COMES FROM A CAMERA TUBE.
When the Television Academy was brainstorming a name for its new awards back in the late 1940s, founder Syd Cassyd first suggested “Ike,” a.k.a. the nickname for a television iconoscope tube. But the other members worried that that term was too closely linked to World War II hero (and future POTUS) Dwight Eisenhower, and therefore might seem too political. So instead, Henry Lubcke (who would go on to become the Academy's third president) floated “Immy.” It would reference another piece of TV tech, the image-orthicon tube. The rest of the team decided to feminize it into “Emmy,” so that it matched the statuette they had selected. That statuette, which resembles the one you know today, included a winged woman holding an atom. And it was based on a real person. (Keep reading ...)
2. DOROTHY MCMANUS WAS THE MODEL FOR THE STATUETTE.
Cassyd and his friends considered 47 design proposals for their award statuette, and promptly rejected all of them. But the 48th time was the charm. Television engineer Louis McManus’s design of a woman with wings (representing the arts) holding an atom (representing science) was the last one the team reviewed, but it turned out to be the winning pitch. McManus had modeled the woman on his wife, Dorothy—leading at least one art curator to wonder why the awards weren’t called “Dorothies.”
3. ONLY SIX AWARDS WERE HANDED OUT AT THE FIRST CEREMONY, AND ONE WENT TO A VENTRILOQUIST.
The very first Emmy Awards ceremony was held on January 25, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Unlike the current iteration, it was a fairly cheap affair (tickets cost just $5) and the run time was a lot shorter. Only six awards were handed out that evening. The first one, for Most Outstanding Television Personality, went to 20-year-old Shirley Dinsdale and her puppet, Judy Splinters, for The Judy Splinters Show. Other winners included a program called Pantomime Quiz and Louis McManus, who got a special Emmy for designing the thing.
4. “BEST CONTINUING PERFORMANCE IN A SERIES BY A PERSON WHO ESSENTIALLY PLAYS HERSELF” USED TO BE A CATEGORY.
In the early years of the awards, the Emmys tested out a number of categories, some of them more logical than others. By far the most nonsensical pair came in 1958, when the Television Academy decided to honor the “Best Continuing Performance in a Series by a Comedienne, Singer, Hostess, Dancer, M.C., Announcer, Narrator, Panelist, or Any Person Who Essentially Plays Herself” along with a corresponding male category. Rumor has it the categories were mostly designed to honor Lucille Ball for I Love Lucy, but if that was the intention, it failed miserably. Dinah Shore won instead for The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, while Jack Benny took the male category for The Jack Benny Show. These categories were seemingly axed by 1959, much to the relief of tongue-tied presenters.
5. JACKIE KENNEDY IS THE ONLY FIRST LADY TO WIN AN EMMY.
To date, only one First Lady of the United States has won an Emmy. That distinction goes to Jackie Kennedy, who received a special Trustees Award for her famous televised tour of the White House in 1962. (Lady Bird Johnson accepted the statuette on Kennedy's behalf.) No First Lady has matched her Emmy count since, although Michelle Obama came somewhat close: She received Emmy attention when her Billy on the Street segment earned a 2015 nomination. Alas, it lost to Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.
6. THE “SUPER EMMYS” WERE A HUGE FLOP.
In 1974, the Emmys decided to get experimental with a so-called “Super Emmy” ceremony. The show pitted the winning performers from the drama and comedy categories against each other—think Best Lead Actor in a Drama vs. Best Lead Actor in a Comedy, Best Supporting Actress in a Drama vs. Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy, etc. The ultimate champions would be crowned the actor or actress “of the year” in their respective categories, and the big winners included Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore, and Cecily Tyson. The next day, The New York Times wrote that the broadcast was "more confusing than ever" and that "the new 'super awards' are pointless"; things went back to normal for the next year's ceremony.
7. ALAN ALDA CARTWHEELED DOWN THE AISLE FOR HIS 1979 WIN.
Speaking of Alan Alda: He made a bigger splash at the Emmys just five years later. During the 1979 ceremony, he picked up a prize for his writing on M*A*S*H. Although he’d previously won acting and directing awards for the show, he’d never been recognized for his writing before—and he was excited. So he cartwheeled down the aisle in what is now an iconic Emmy moment.
“The writing one meant so much," Alda later told Variety. "I wanted to be a writer and a good writer since I was eight years old. To get an Emmy for writing meant so much that that was really spontaneous when I did the cartwheel on the way to the stage … I’m 80 now, but a couple of months after my 80th birthday, I was on the beach in the Virgin Islands and I said, ‘I’m gonna see if I can still do a cartwheel.'"
8. SOMEONE NEARLY STOLE BETTY THOMAS’S EMMY—ON STAGE.
When Betty Thomas won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Hill Street Blues in 1985, a man came up to accept the Emmy on her behalf. This was strange for two reasons: Thomas was actually in the audience, and she had no idea who this guy was. The mystery man turned out to be Barry Bremen, a.k.a. “The Great Imposter.” He was known to pull similar pranks at large sporting events, including the Super Bowl. The Emmys were just his latest target, and it cost him; he walked away from that stunt with a $175 fine and six months' probation.
9. CABLE SHOWS WEREN’T ELIGIBLE FOR EMMY AWARDS UNTIL 1988.
Up until the late 1980s, only network shows were eligible for Emmy consideration. Cable series competed for prizes at their own awards show, the CableACE Awards. But the Emmys modified their rules in 1988 to allow cable programming in. The last CableACE Awards ceremony took place in 1997.
10. LORNE MICHAELS IS THE MOST EMMY-NOMINATED PERSON OF ALL TIME.
The most Emmy-nominated individual of all time is Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, with a whopping total of 87 nominations. He'll compete this year for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series for SNL, and he'll also executive produce the Emmy Awards ceremony itself.
But when it comes to actual wins, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins has got Michaels beat; she has collected a total of 31 Emmy Awards over the years (more than twice Michaels's 15 wins), including the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special for The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.
11. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE IS THE MOST CELEBRATED SERIES.
Over its 43-year history, Saturday Night Live has racked up a total of 252 nominations and 62 wins (and counting). That makes it the most nominated show in Emmy history.
12. THE TELEVISION ACADEMY REALLY LOVES COPS.
If you’re serious about winning that statuette, it’s best to pick up a badge and a gun. In 2015, Rolling Stone crunched the numbers and discovered that characters in law enforcement receive the most Emmy love. It adds up when you look at past acting winners: Dennis Franz picked up four for his run on NYPD Blue, Tony Shalhoub won three for Monk, and Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless collectively earned six as the stars of Cagney & Lacey.
13. SOME WINNERS HAVE TO PAY FOR THEIR STATUETTES.
No, Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t have to fork over cash for her Emmy backstage. But for categories where the winners can include 15 to 20 people (think writing teams), the Television Academy imposes some fees. In the interview above, Mo Rocca recounted how he paid for his own Emmy as part of The Daily Show writing staff.
14. IT COSTS $400 AND TAKES OVER FIVE HOURS TO MAKE ONE EMMY.
Charging winners to collect their prize might seem outrageous, but then again, an Emmy isn’t cheap. Each statuette costs about $400 and requires five-and-a-half hours of labor to create. They’re all made at Chicago's R.S. Owens, where employees mold and then coat the figures in copper, nickel, silver, and gold. Watch them in action above.
15. THE EMMYS OVERCAME A DIVERSITY HURDLE IN 2015.
When Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for The Jeffersons in 1981, she was the first black woman to receive that honor. The corresponding drama category remained all-white for over six decades, until 2015. Two years ago, Viola Davis won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder. She used her acceptance speech to talk about race and opportunity, provoking tears from several audience members and wild applause from her fellow nominee, Taraji P. Henson. (Davis is nominated again this year for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for a spot she did on Scandal.)
This year will bring even more diversity to the category, as Sandra Oh is the first Asian actor to compete for the coveted Lead Actress in a Drama statuette for her role in Killing Eve.
An earlier version of this story ran in 2016.