Ellen DeGeneres: Chris Weeks/Getty Images/NewsCom; Bernie Mac: FOX
Liane Bonin
August 22, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s Emmy time again, and change is in the airwaves. While Conan O’Brien single-handedly hosted the 2002 awards ceremony, this year he shares the honor with 12 other punchline-pushers, including Ellen DeGeneres, Bernie Mac, and Dennis Miller. But are 13 comedians really funnier than 1? We won’t know that answer for a few more days, but until then, here’s a preview of the 55th Emmy Awards (8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, on Fox).

RITTER REMEMBERED Although the unexpected death of ”8 Simple Rules…” star and past Emmy winner (”Three’s Company,” 1984) John Ritter occurred late in the awards show’s planning process, carving out time for a tribute to the actor is a priority for Emmy telecast executive producer Don Mischer. ”I had spoken with him two weeks ago, and he was going to be a presenter this year,” Mischer tells EW.com. ”Because he was so well loved and so respected, and because his passing is so recent, it deserves special attention.” Though details are still being worked out, Ritter’s tribute will be separate from the show’s usual ”in memoriam” segment, which this year honors such stars as Bob Hope, Fred Rogers, Gregory Hines, Gregory Peck, and Katharine Hepburn.

FUNNY BUSINESS If you’re wondering what this year’s theme will be, the plethora of comedians on the bill should be a clue. ”We made a decision early in the summer that we wanted to focus on comedy,” says Mischer. ”Each act of the show will have a major comedic name in it.” In addition to O’Brien, DeGeneres, Mac, and Miller, Ray Romano, George Lopez, Wanda Sykes, Garry Shandling, Brad Garrett, Darrell Hammond, Martin Short, Damon Wayans, and Jon Stewart have been booked to appear. ”It’s a little riskier in some ways, but I’m hoping [the ceremony] will feel a little edgier, a little less under control,” says Mischer. One thing that will be controlled? Overlapping content. The show’s writers are coordinating with the comedians to make sure certain topics don’t get beaten into the ground. ”How many jokes can you tell about the gubernatorial recall?” Mischer explains.

TV’S A CROWD Along with the comics, dramatic stars are also taking their turn as presenters. Expect to see ”Without a Trace”’s Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery, ”Alias”’ Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner, ”The Sopranos”’ Edie Falco and James Gandolfini, ”CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”’s William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, ”The West Wing”’s Allison Janney, and ersatz cops Michael Chiklis (”The Shield”) and Dennis Franz (”NYPD Blue”).

BACK SPACE While the show broke with tradition last year by screening features for the 10 Outstanding Drama and Comedy Series nominees throughout the night, Sunday the clips will return to being aired right before the two major awards are presented. ”Part of it is just time constraints,” says Mischer. ”We went 15 minutes long last year, and we’re trying to save as much time as possible to put into the comedic content.” Time will also be set aside for Romano to present Bill Cosby with the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.

REAL WORLD The new award for Outstanding Reality/Competition Program isn’t the only tribute to the wildly popular unscripted genre. Ryan Seacrest (”American Idol”) and Jeff Probst (”Survivor”) will be presenters. What’s more, Mischer says, ”We’re hoping to do something comedic with the cast of ‘American Idol.”’ Snap to, Clay and Ruben — your chance to do that Laurel and Hardy routine is finally here.

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