The original Saturday Night Live cast: Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin
The Television Academy Hall of Fame induction class of 2017 offered a diverse group with one thing in common: they are all innovative creators.
The inductees were: creator-producer-showrunner-writer Shonda Rhimes, the late comedienne Joan Rivers, art director Roy Christopher, producer-writer-director-showrunner John Wells, and the original cast of Saturday Night Live.
Hosted by Larry Wilmore, the evening also boasted a diverse range of presenters. Oprah Winfrey inducted Rhimes, Chris Hardwick inducted Rivers, David Lee did the honors for Roy Christopher, Noah Wiley for John Wells, and Lily Tomlin inducted the SNL cast.
Even as the industry celebrated some of its best, host Wilmore started the evening acknowledging recent controversies concerning sexual harrassment and assault, exhorting his audience to "do better," and receiving an enthusiastic response. With that said, he moved on to the celebration. Fittingly, the evening began with two of the most powerful women in television, Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes.
Winfrey introduced Rhimes by saying that Rhimes, "could not have come at another time. She belongs to this medium, and she belongs to this moment, in a way that doesn't so much defy the odds as redefine the odds. She is currently the most powerful showrunner in television, period." She added, "Shonda Rhimes makes appointment television with an inclusive world view."
Noting that Rhimes understands power and wields it responsibly, Winfrey said, "She isn't bossy; she is the boss."
She noted of Rhimes that, "Her business card simply reads, 'Storyteller,' because that's who she is and what she does." Winfrey praised Rhimes's stories for their inclusiveness."She writes about individuals from different backgrounds who defy stereotypes."
When Rhimes took the stage, she was clearly moved by the introduction, as well as the woman who gave it. Noting that she had grown up with a very active imagination, she said she realized television could be the place to use that imagination when she saw Winfrey, a woman who "looked like me" on television.
And while diversity is obviously important to her, she said she is constantly asked, in every interview, the question, "Why is diversity so important?" She said she was asked the question because of "the adjectives. You put an adjective in front of the word writer, female writer, black writer, and suddenly all anyone asks about, all you are allowed to talk about is the adjective and not the writer part.
"And I love to talk about writing. I love to talk about my work, and I love my job. I imagine for a living, but nine times out of ten they ask about the adjectives, the black and the female and not the writer." She said she would like to respond, "Go ask someone who isn't hiring any women or people of color."
But, she added, because of this award, the moment of receiving it, she finally knows the answer. She also said that it would be the last time she would answer it, noting that from now on, she has the best "humble-brag" response, "I am so sorry, but when I was standing onstage with Oprah at my Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the Television Academy, I answered that question for the final time in my career. You'll have to refer to the transcripts of that Hall of Fame induction speech that I gave during the ceremony at the Television Academy while standing onstage with Oprah."
The answer followed. She described her childhood as one filled with dreams and ideas, and recalled her father's advice that "the only limits to your success are your own imagination." Calling that advice a gift, she said she really believed that she could do whatever her imagination led her to do. She said she now realizes how hard her parents worked to make that a reality for her.
She said of her mother "My mom was like some sort of superhero, gladiator advance team for my life, singlehandedly removing the soul-crushing boulders of sexism and racism from my path, paving the way, so that by the time I skipped happily along with my big ideas and piles of writing, the road was smooth and easy."
Noting that, even though she grew up middle class and was sheltered from blatant racism and poverty, she still had never seen anyone who looked like her on TV until she found Oprah, and later "Claire Huxtable" and other role models. When that happened, she said her imagination widened, and she knew that she could tell her stories in television. Saying, "You cannot be what you cannot see," she recognized that seeing someone who looked like her changed everything. "It is important. Diversity. Inclusion."
"This thing we do, this storytelling, this television making, it is magic. It is, as my mom was, a gladiator advance team, moving ahead of us and forging paths." She added, "Anyone watching television anywhere in the world should be able to be any damn thing they want. And that is why diversity and inclusion on television is so important."
Next up, Frasier producer David Lee inducted Production Designer Roy Christopher. Recalling some of the challenges he posed for Christopher over the years, Lee said Christopher's response was always, "Oh what fun!" From the airport in Wings to Frasier Crane's apartment to the sumptuous sets on innumerable awards shows and specials, Christopher tackled each one with the same attitude: "Oh, what fun!"
Accepting his award, Christopher's first response was, "Oh my God, am I a lucky guy!" He added, "If this is my 15 minutes, I'm enjoying it immensely." He noted that in 1984, he designed the set for the very first Television Academy Hall of Fame ceremony, and never expected that he, himself would one day be receiving one.
He said, "I love television. From the moment I walked into the NBC studios, way back in 1964 to paint scenery, I knew that I was in someplace very special. The atmosphere was vibrant and alive and exciting. One day I was painting the floor of Stage 2, where they were rehearsing an Andy Williams special. I looked at the set, and then I painted, and then I looked at a TV monitor over on the stage floor, and while the set looked very nice to the eye, on the monitor, it looked fantastic.
"And I know the camera had worked its magic, and I said to myself, 'Roy, you're gong to do this. You have got to be a television Art Director.' Well my friends laughed at me and said it wasn't that easy, but three weeks later, as luck would have it, I was made assistant art director on The Dean Martin Show. Talk about positive thinking.
"Tonight I would like to think in some small way I represent all the production designers, art directors, assistant art directors, set decorators, lighting designers and all those other amazing people that give our productions their sense of place, character and style. And I'm very proud to be among them."
Chris Hardwick took the stage to induct Joan Rivers. He began by saying, "Joan Rivers was my friend, and I really miss her." Giving a litany of the words that Joan might have unleashed in a monologue were she still alive, he said, "Anyone else, if they did that, you would be horribly offended, but from Joan, you would not only be charmed, you would be gasping for air, you'd be laughing so hard."
Noting Rivers's adaptability, Hardwick said, "Joan's genius was being able to adapt to any situation or any show, whether it was Carson, or E! or Ed Sullivan, who was clearly made of wood, and she could adapt and be just as funny on any platform." Hardwick also spoke to Rivers's neverending curiosity and kindness, as well as her trailblazing for women in comedy.
"This woman was not only one of the funniest human beings to grace the earth with her presence, she also carved a path of brilliance through the industry that left a trail of progress in her wake."
Rivers's daughter Melissa took the stage to accept for her mother and said, "When I was told my mother was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, I was absolutely thrilled beyond belief, but I was unsure as to what I should do to accept this honor on her behalf." So, she asked the question, "WWJD"? What Would Joan Do?
Turns out, Joan had written an all-purpose acceptance speech to be read posthumously. The note took in all the possibilities, and a few that seem a bit over ambitious, such as winning the Nobel Prize and the Stanley Cup. After reading the speech, Rivers noted that her mother often said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.
Naming her fellow honorees, Rivers said that her mother was keeping pretty good company and said, "She would be proud, she would be honored and humbled."
Producer, director, writer and showrunner John Wells was inducted by Noah Wyle, who had been cast by Wells into his first major role in ER. Acknowledging his own debt to Wells, Wyle also praised his mentor as a good man.
"Today, as we search for integrity and strong leadership in Hollywood and around the nation and around the world, I can honestly say that I experienced first hand what great leadership looks like.
"Great leaders make whatever and whomever they touch better. John's compassionate, confident manner and uncanny ability to decisively guide uncertain waters served him well through two terms as president of the Writers' Guild West, while his creative and managerial talents brought into being some of primetime's biggest, most talked-about, most awarded, most critically acclaimed hits: ER, The West Wing, Shameless, Southland, Third Watch. "
When Wells took the stage, he thanked "pretty much everybody I've ever known in the business, because it takes a very large village to raise a writer." After naming a number of people who helped him along the way, Wells said, "It's been an embarrassment of riches, friendships, hard work, laughter, pride in what we do."
The final induction of the night was for the original cast of Saturday Night Live. Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Chevy Chase, along with the late John Belushi and Gilda Radner were inducted by Television Academy governor Lily Tomlin.
Tomlin described the show as "a chance to hang out with the smartest and coolest kids in Manhattan for anyone with a television set. It quickly became more than just a TV show. It was a happening, a pop culture phenomenon that separated the hipsters from the squares."
She added, "But what made the show more than the sum of its considerable parts was the electric chemistry of the original cast."
Enumerating each of their individual achivements, Tomlin said, "These original seven performers created a legacy that cemented Saturday night as an institution."
As the cast members made their way to the stage, they took turns saying their thank yous. Jane Curtin recalled when she and Gilda Radner first saw their faces on the giant billboard above Times Square. She spoke of some of the societal issues the show lampooned, saying that they lived in "interesting times."
She also mentioned Bill Murray, who arrived on the show in its second season, but who attended the induction ceremony as the cast's invited guest.
Laraine Newman noted that over the years, each generation watching SNL thought that the cast they grew up with was the best cast. And she agreed. And, while she said she is grateful for the honor of being inducted, "Performing alongside Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, it never felt like work."
Garrett Morris, at 80 the oldest cast member, began with, "I don't have the words to express my appreciation for this moment." He also mentioned that, when they started, he was about 40, and "the rest of those young people that just got out of high school and out of college, and I was about 10 years away from AARP."
Noting some of the ills of old age, he added, "At the age of 80, I am now an official curmudgeon, and that means at 80, I can express my mind." He ended by saying,"One of the most monumental events in my career was Saturday Night Live, which put me with Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Chevy Chase, Danny Aykroyd, and, of course, John Belushi, and the extraordinary woman Miss Gilda Radner."
Chase began by recreating the opening of the "Land Shark" sketch, getting chuckles from the audience. He went on to remember a sketch with Belushi and Radner, saying, "My God, that stuff is funny." He said, "I tell you, I'd do it again in a minute, but I was only in the cast for about a minute, so ... I made a big mistake leaving." He closed with recreating a moment from the original "Weekend Update" sketches with Morris.
Aykroyd said, "I don't remember being on SNL, but I know I was there. And I just want to recognize that we do have a cast member here who should have been with us that first year but was a little busy doing other things, Bill Murray. He deserves a chunk of this tonight."
Aykroyd added, "I am so grateful to be a part of this community that has the full breadth of tolerance and understanding and wisdom and compassion. And I just like being a part of all of you and you being a part of me."
Once the SNL cast sat down, Wilmore invited Murray to the stage. Murray said, "I'd like to thank Laraine for inviting me. I didn't know what she was talking about, because I wasn't invited. But it's OK. I'm fine. It really was a delight to sit there and to watch them, because the truth is, they are history."
He added, "I worked with all those people up there, and I was the new guy, and they took care of me. They made it possible for me to grow and they brought me along like a young duck."
Murray ended the evening with, "I came here to see my friends. I love them very much."