What exactly is the appeal of televised awards shows? Why are there so many, and why — historically, anyway — do so many of us watch them? Clearly part of it that we like to watch big, beautiful stars get all dressed up and pageant themselves around. There are also some of us who fancy ourselves great arbiters of taste, and awards shows allow us to stand in smug judgment when the Oscars or Emmys or Tonys get it "right" or get it terribly "wrong." But at the root of it, I think we mostly watch for the capital-M "Moments." Those instances when the carefully manicured public images of actors and actresses give way to the primal emotions of winning and losing. In these moments, stars really are just like us: they like to win. Of course stars are at the same time very much not like us, and in their inherent theatricality, they win and lose with a lot more style and panache.
Which brings us to 2004, and one of the greatest moments of theatricality in awards-show victory — when longtime veteran of screen and (mostly) stage Elaine Stritch won an Emmy for the filmed version of her one-woman stage show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. The actress, who died in 2014 at the age of 89, comes across as both unhinged and also slyly clever about seizing her moment and milking it for all it's worth. It was a landmark moment for the Emmys, and although not that many people may know it offhand, it's worth breaking down, beat by beat.
Best Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program (0:00:01): Our clip begins with Jon Stewart out to present. As of September of 2004, when these Emmys took place, Stewart's The Daily Show was just one year into its decade-long winning streak in the Outstanding Variety Series category. Stewart is presenting the award for Best Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, a category that no longer exists. Back when variety specials were far more common, this category was the realm of performers like Carol Burnett and Robin Williams, though over the years it would honor everything from one-off guest appearances on variety or talk shows (Rita Moreno's Emmy for The Muppet Show or Bette Midler's for her appearance on the final Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) to concert performers like Barbra Streisand. In the old days, this was where Saturday Night Live cast members would get nominated, or where awards-show hosts like Billy Crystal and Hugh Jackman were honored. In the category's final decade (it was discontinued after 2008), the award often went to the stars of one-person shows on stage that had been filmed for TV (often HBO), going to performers like John Leguizamo (winner in 1999 for Freak) and Eddie Izzard (winner in 2000 for Dress to Kill).
The Competition (0:00:09): The 2004 nominees for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Special were a good cross-section of the kinds of performances the category honored. Billy Crystal was nominated for hosting the 76th Academy Awards (the year Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept), where the song parodies for Best Picture nominees included Mystic River to the tune of "Old Man River" and Seabiscuit to the tune of "Goldfinger."
Ellen Degeneres was nominated for her HBO comedy special Here and Now, which aired just before she began her nearly two-decade run as the nicest/meanest host in daytime talk. Tracey Ullman was on her 23rd career Emmy nomination (of 27), this time for her HBO sketch special The Trailer Tales. Bill Maher was nominated for his HBO late-night series Real Time, which was in its second year and, at that time, headlong into the 2004 presidential election and the Iraq War.
At Liberty (0:00:55): The only non-comedian in the bunch was Elaine Stritch, whose nomination came for Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, an HBO production of her one-woman show, which premiered at the Public Theater in New York in November of 2001. At Liberty was the story of Stritch's life and career, in her own words, punctuated by performances of some of the songs that helped make her famous, including "I'm Still Here" from Follies and "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company. Stritch was an incredibly well-known stage performer, but as far as TV was concerned, she'd been mostly a character actress and guest star (besides At Liberty, her two other Emmy wins were for guest spots on Law & Order and 30 Rock). So At Liberty was in many ways a career culmination for the actress, and even after having won the Tony Award for the stage version of At Liberty, this Emmy nomination was the mark of the kind of crossover success that she'd never really had before.
The Winner (0:01:07): Stewart announces Stritch as the winner, and she immediately hollers "OH! MY! GOD!" to the rafters, a great exultation as well as the equivalent of a theater actress bellowing her opening lines from the wings before she walks on stage. I'm pretty sure she also yells "Oh SHIT, I did it!" She proceeds to half-dance her way down the aisle, then pauses in front of the first row of celebrities (including Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, and Jeffrey Tambor) to yell "Oh my God!" once more.
Chivalry Endures (0:01:33): Faced with the staircase up to the stage, Stritch — with the flair and precision of a dancer hitting her mark — yells "How am I gonna get up these stairs?" At which point George Lopez, a presenter that night and star of his own ABC sitcom, got up from his seat to chivalrously escort Stritch up the steps.
A Heartfelt Opener (0:01:45): After telling Stewart to hold onto the actual Emmy trophy while she speaks, Stritch steps to the mic and tells the audience not to bother with the ovation as there isn't enough time, kicking the speech off with a note of urgency and self-aware humor. She then declares, almost plaintively, "I cannot tell you what would have happened to me if I couldn't have gotten out what's inside of me tonight." Her voice nearly breaking, she doubles down: "I don't know what I would've done with it!" For as wild as this speech ultimately gets, this is the sentimental heart of it, a reminder that At Liberty, and the reception and adulation for it, is the culmination of a long career's worth of Stritch trying to get out what was inside of her.
Off to the Races (0:02:10): And within the same breath as those heartfelt remarks, the brassy, irreverent Elaine Stritch we've all come to love comes out, as she blurts, "I try not to drink, but [bleeped]!" I'm pretty sure that what got bleeped was "shit!" but the network censors had a very itchy trigger finger back then, only seven months removed from the infamous Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake "wardrobe malfunction" that caused the FCC to come down hard on moments of perceived obscenity. Not that there was anything obscene about Stritch's joyful, comedic hollerings. Bleeped or not, though, Stritch's speech was off to a roaring, bawdy start.
The Ghost of Christmas Future (0:02:15): The camera cuts to Billy Crystal in the audience for a reaction shot (he's delighted), and like a goose walking over your grave, we see sitting behind Crystal is then-Apprentice star Donald Trump with his wife Melania. As with almost every pre-politics TV appearance of Trump, there's an eerie effect to the moment, but it's especially unsettling to know just how much the TV community embraced Trump in the early, successful days of The Apprentice, and how eager the Emmys were to feature him on their show.
A Backhand to the Competition (0:02:20): Stritch then marvels at the fellow nominees she was up against — "Look at the company I'm in!" — and then with crackerjack timing earned from a lifetime nailing her cues, she sticks the knife in: "And I'm so glad none of them won!" Stritch gets a big laugh on that one, then repeats the sentence, breaking into a maniacal yell on "NONE OF THEM WON!" and adding "I WON!" Any good Broadway diva worth her salt spends half her time performing her role and the other half performing herself, and Stritch here is clearly making the choice to go off the rails for maximum comedic effect, even as we know that her exuberant reaction at winning is very real.
Team HBO (0:02:33): While Stritch is busy slaying the competition, the camera cuts to a laughing Sarah Jessica Parker and, in the row behind her, James Gandolfini, who at the time were the two crown jewels in HBO's awards season, for Sex and the City and The Sopranos, respectively. Gandolfini and Stritch, as it turns out, would have a rather wonderful friendship, as Gandolfini spoke about in the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Not long after this Emmy Awards, Stritch would play Gandolfini's mother in the musical film Romance & Cigarettes.
The Thanks (0:02:45): Stritch then begins thanking the folks most responsible for the project, including most crucially Sheila Nevins, who was the head of HBO Documentary Films and who basically revolutionized HBO as a premier destination for documentary film on TV, as well as HBO chairman Chris Albrecht.
The Filibuster (0:03:05): Sensing that the speech might be wrapping up, the producers queue up the orchestra, to which Stritch reacts coolly but intentionally, by declaring that she's just going to start saying names until someone removes her from the stage — and that she does. She references her personal assistant at the time Rick Borutta, documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker who in addition to co-directing At Liberty also directed the seminal documentary Original Cast Album: Company, the 1970 documentary about the recording of the Company cast album in which Stritch famously struggled to nail her "Ladies Who Lunch" number and which was the primary inspiration for the Documentary Now! episode "Original Cast Album: Co-Op.
"He Got the Money!" (0:03:22): Stritch continues to recite names, including Scott Sanders, at which point she takes the briefest of pauses and says "I don't like him very much…" which earns a roar of audience laugher. At this point the crowd knows they're watching a delightful runaway train of a speech, and they're all in. Having gotten her laugh, Stritch goes in for the kill, finishing her thought: "... but he got the money! He got us the money to do the show, so tonight, I love him!" At which point this speech officially becomes its own urban legend.
The Fake-Out (0:03:38): Having run out of names, Stritch declares that she's not leaving the stage "until somebody comes and gets me." And then, knowing she's going to need to find a way to outlast the TV cameras, finishes, "You never know. You just effin' never know." She actually says "effin'" rather than the actual curse word, and while the censors never bleep her, at the moment she says it, the camera hastily cuts away and the orchestra drowns her out, no doubt the producers worried that she was about to deliver a hefty FCC fine right there on the stage. (In retrospect, it's not that outlandish a fear, considering she fully dropped an F-bomb on the Today show years later.)
In the years since, for those who remembered watching Stritch's speech at the time, a Mandela Effect has settled in, misremembering that Stritch did say the f-word — if not multiple f-words — during her speech. But with the exception of a stray "shit," Stritch's speech was not foul-mouthed. It was, rather, the performance of a lifetime, with Stritch, as she did in the one-woman show she was winning an award for, playing herself, and channeling her own relief and joy and triumph into something that theater fans and awards enthusiasts would cherish for a generation. I'm so glad none of those other nominees won either.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.