The untold story of Emmy's 2011 comedy actress 'pageant'

Lynette Rice

In 2011, Mad Men and Modern Family were the big winners of the 63rd Annual Emmy Awards, but it was the nominees of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category who truly stole the show.

At the brilliant suggestion of Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler, all of the women in the category — Laura Linney (The Big C), Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope), Tina Fey (30 Rock), and Poehler — assembled on stage in a surprise stunt before the winner was announced. Clearly moved by the display, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, and Kate Winslet quickly rose to their feet, leading a standing ovation.

McCarthy won that year, and in the best way possible — surrounded by five of TV’s biggest actresses, hugging and congratulating her like she was a queen. As we cross our fingers and hope to die that Sunday’s telecast on Fox will be jam-packed with seminal moments like this, here’s a look back at the 2011 Emmys and how a clever idea by Poehler made all the women feel like winners.

AMY POEHLER: There used to be a time when the awards weren’t taken as seriously. A lot of people don’t know this at home, but the Emmys would show clips during commercial breaks to keep the audience [entertained]. I can remember two very specific bits. One, I forget what year it was, but all the men who were nominated came up on stage together and waited to see who won and then they all left. And then another year Harvey Korman won and Tim Conway rode up on his coattails (seen below). It was really fun, stupid stuff.

This wasn’t the first time Poehler tried to lighten up a comedy category. In 2009, she cajoled her fellow nominees in the supporting actress category to wear goofy glasses as their names were read. But she didn’t alert the producers of her plan so no one in the auditorium understood what was happening. “They didn’t show in the room us on the monitors,” Poehler recalls. “There was no laughing. It was like doing it in a vacuum.”

So in 2011, Poehler not only gave the producers a heads up but made sure to inform presenters Rob Lowe and Sofia Vergara about the bit. But first, she had to get all the gals on board.

MARTHA PLIMPTON: It actually came up when we were at dinner together, with the genius writer and performer Sarah Thyre. As I recall, Amy was talking about how she’d entertained herself at past Emmy ceremonies and she and Sarah, and me to a much lesser extent, were just sort of talking about it. Then Amy or Sarah, I can’t remember who but I’m pretty sure it was Amy, burst forth with that brilliant laugh of hers with this pageant idea. And it bloomed from there.

POEHLER: A couple of days before the Emmys, I reached out to all the women. With these kinds of things, you can’t give anybody that much time to think about it. Everybody was game. I was like, “Okay, when your name is called, you should get up there, stand there, and stay there. And then we’ll all hold hands.”

TINA FEY: I think Amy realized, we should just be having more fun. Who cares, anyway?

LAURA LINNEY: I received a call from Amy ahead of the Emmys, who told me about the idea, and asked if I was in. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

EDIE FALCO: I loved the idea when it was presented to me. Mostly I was thrilled that the cool girls were asking me to go to the mall with them.

FEY: I knew I was done winning acting Emmys for 30 Rock so I was relaxed. Also, I had my second daughter about 12 days before so I was just happy to be out, wearing a pad on every part of my body.

POEHLER: They announce the nominees in alphabetical order but said, ‘I don’t want to go first. Should you go first?” I remember being like I want to go first so bad because I was excited about the uncomfortableness of getting up on stage. I thought that was going to be fun. And I just loved that Edie was like, “I’m a little nervous about going up there first. Do you want to go?” I had to play it very cool, like, “Oh. Yeah, sure.” But I was so pumped.

FALCO: My fear of going first on stage was that I feared I would be able to feel the pity from the audience thinking I’d thought I won … which I’d felt sure I wouldn’t.

POEHLER: Everybody decided to do something before they went up on stage, either kiss their partner or rub off their lipstick or adjust their dress or pretend it was a competition and storm up there like they were looking for a fight. That was not discussed at all. I really can’t reiterate how little planning went into this.

PLIMPTON: I was incredibly excited to do this bit with all these incredible women who I deeply, deeply need, still, to work with.

After the women assembled on stage and joined hands, the crowd roars and Vergara yells ‘Bravo!” Lowe says, “I just want to say, girls, everyone is a winner, and I know that you are going to go on to serve this body with distinction.’ He then announces McCarthy as the winner. McCarthy utters “Oh my God” as a tiara is placed on her head and she’s given a bouquet of red roses. Vergara hands her the Emmy.

FEY: I think Rob improvised that good joke about “Ladies, you’re all winners.”

PLIMPTON: We had to make sure the Emmy people would provide the roses and the crown. And voila! We had the most perfectly amazing presenters in Rob and Sofia. Oh my God. That was the cherry on top.

ROB LOWE: The biggest challenge for me was hiding the tiara so the audience wouldn’t see it until I placed it on the winner’s head.

POEHLER: We were kissing her like she won Miss America!

FALCO: I remember being genuinely thrilled that Melissa won… the look on her face of unadulterated surprise and joy when her name was called is what makes those award shows moving to me.

PLIMPTON: It was great. And I loved it. I was really proud to be standing next to them. Also, really silly. I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. I’ve never been in a pageant before!

FEY: It was a great feeling of unity and fun. Taking myself out of it, that category is always a murderer’s row of great actresses. Way more consistently impressive than any other category of the night. So it was kind of thrilling to be next to them all. And when Melissa won, everyone was so genuinely happy about it.

LINNEY: It was a wonderful moment. And a much truer picture as to how we all view these award shows. The Emmys allow us an evening to celebrate each other’s work. And much against the popular stereotype, most actresses are extremely supportive of each other, and grateful for each other. Both people in the business (and out) seemed to appreciate what Amy and Tina made possible. It will always be a highlight for me.

FALCO: I got feedback for some time afterwards, people having gotten a kick out of it, being so impressed we pulled it off and wondering how far in advance it had been planned. About half an hour…

LOWE: I just remember thinking what a fun bit it was and how that’s the kind of thing that more award shows should have. For the most part, award shows are so self-serious, it’s like they’re curing cancer. I was happy to be part of something that was so fun and irreverent.

PLIMPTON: People loved it I think because it was celebratory yet also wry and subtle as a kind of protest of the whole concept of awards for work that can’t be compared in this way rationally. Awards for things like this are irrational things. So to surprise people by showing you’re aware of that and still ready to enjoy the experience was really moving to people, I think? That’s why people like Amy are so marvelous. They help us do that.

POEHLER: I felt like it was going to be silly and dumb and we would have a good time regardless of how it played… In watching it back years later, I was very moved by us all being up on stage together.

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