Conan Ready for His Big Rush

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TVWeek

Conan O’Brien is once again looking forward to being let out of his concrete box.

“I love doing my show,” the “Late Night With O’Brien” host said, “but people forget that when I have a chance to go into a different space, use different muscles, it’s fun for me. … It’s a big change of pace. You get an adrenaline rush from going out in front of a big crowd.”

The different space this time around is Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, where Mr. O’Brien will host the “58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards” to be televised live Aug. 27 on NBC. This will be his second time hosting the telecast, his first being a well-reviewed outing in 2002 that pulled in nearly 20 million viewers.

Mr. O’Brien said his biggest memory from that evening, however, aside from having an overall good time, is how quickly the night flew by.

“When it was over, people said, `Hey, that was really good,’ and I thought, oh, OK,” he recalled. “If I’m having a good time doing it, it usually means people are enjoying it. That’s my simple show business formula.”

By going with Mr. O’Brien, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and NBC are also sticking to a simple rule: Go with what works.

“We both put our lists on the table and [NBC’s] first choice was O’Brien and our first choice was Conan,” ATAS Chairman and CEO Dick Askin said. “So it was really a very short conversation. He did such a great job last time, and it was probably one of the most entertaining Emmy Awards that I’ve been to.”

But what makes Mr. O’Brien that right man for the job isn’t merely his appealing brand of self-deprecating humor, his timing, his intellect or the fact that he has a built-in fan base and critical following. (“Late Night” received its fourth consecutive nomination this year for outstanding variety, musical or comedy series.)

Like Ellen DeGeneres, who hosted last year’s Emmys telecast on CBS-to the tune of 18.7 million viewers, a 35 percent increase over 2004-Mr. O’Brien has great respect for the medium that has made him so successful and knows when to let someone have his or her Emmy moment.

“I think one of the things I realized last time was that, if you see a moment where you can be funny, that’s great, but it’s not all about me,” Mr. O’Brien said, referring in particular to a joke he held off on when an emotional Oprah Winfrey received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2002. “It’s not the three-hour salute to O’Brien.

“That’s coming soon.”

Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of last year’s Emmys telecast and a veteran of 26 Grammy Awards shows, couldn’t agree more with Mr. O’Brien’s approach. Mr. Ehrlich will also take the Emmy reins this year, along with “Late Night” executive producer Jeff Ross.

“They do it without it becoming all about them,” he said, including Ms. DeGeneres in that sentiment. “That, I think, is what I found over the years-the least successful are the ones where it begins to be more about them than about the [show].”

When the camera does have to be focused on Mr. O’Brien, however, the audience is usually laughing. The host nailed one bit after another during the 2002 broadcast, from locking eyes and falling instantly in love with Jennifer Aniston before moving on to the safer choice of Garry Shandling (who didn’t have a playfully menacing-looking Brad Pitt sitting next to him), to drawing a quick diagram of the room and pointing out the two women with real breasts.

A similar combination of a monologue, prerecorded bits and jokes interspersed throughout is also on tap for this year and, according to Mr. O’Brien, having hit the ball out of the park on his first try does not necessarily mean added pressure on his second go-round.

“If I get into that, nothing good will happen,” he said. “I’m just going to try and do a funny show. You always learn something. I’m just going to try and enjoy myself and try a few new ideas and see what happens.”

The ability to improvise is key, of course.

“If you go in there with a big plan and you stick to it, that might be a mistake,” Mr. O’Brien said. “You have to be willing to say, let’s drop the part where I catapulted naked into the audience covered in cooking oil. Let’s drop that now. Or, let’s do it three more times. I keep landing on Eva Longoria; it’s fun.”

As for the jokes he’ll have stashed in his back pocket come Emmy time, Mr. O’Brien already has a few ideas.

“Certainly I’ll be commenting on the stupidity of having the Emmys in late August,” he deadpanned, referring to the unusually early airdate of this year’s telecast. Because of NBC’s NFL game schedule this fall, the ceremony had to be moved from its usual Sunday in September. Mr. Askin said the academy debated changing the day to a Monday or Thursday, but decided that a Sunday, albeit in August, was preferable-along with an increased marketing effort from NBC.

“I’ve had some questions where people have said, `So, what are you going to do to get the ratings up?’ and I think, you know, half of America is going to be in a tent camping, making s’mores, when I do the Emmys this time around,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I’m thinking I could reunite the surviving Beatles and cure cancer on the air and it still might get a low rating.”

The outlook isn’t quite so grim, of course. Along with the strong precedent he set for himself in 2002, Mr. O’Brien is inheriting the Emmys on a rare ratings upswing. Awards show viewership is generally in decline, and the Emmys had its lowest-rated telecast ever, with 13.8 million viewers and a 9.4 household rating, in 2004-a year that saw two deserving yet less mainstream shows (“The Sopranos” and “Arrested Development”) win outstanding series awards. But the Emmys made a roaring comeback last year, scoring a 12.5 rating and 18.7 million total viewers.

ABC ratings powerhouse “Lost” was named outstanding drama series last year, and CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” won for comedy series after wrapping up its last season.

Academy officials believe that what compels people to tune in is a combination of who hosts and who’s nominated.

“Certainly an Ellen and a are going to be drawing their own audience,” said John Leverence, ATAS senior VP for awards. “And I also think you’ve got a very strong rooting interest with the fans at home. There’s a proprietary interest, if you will, that television watchers have with `their’ programs and they want to see how they’re going to do.”

Which brings Mr. O’Brien to his next built-in joke.

“They changed the Emmy voting and it’s a little controversial,” he said. “Shows like `House’ are nominated but Hugh Laurie’s not. `Lost’ wins the Emmy last year but isn’t nominated this year-it’s strange.”

When the Emmy nominations were announced July 6, most of the commentary, as usual, had to do with who or what was missing. But this year critics had a specific direction to point fingers in-toward the changes in the voting procedure that the academy implemented earlier this year.

After academy peer groups narrowed the field down to 10 contenders each for outstanding drama series and comedy series and 15 actors and actresses in each performance category, blue ribbon panels were formed to choose the top five nominees, with decisions being based mainly on the poignancy of the particular episodes submitted for academy consideration.

“The consideration of the panelists was not for a body of work or for a general sense of whether this person is a good actor or whether it’s a character this person plays well, but a very specific evaluation of the particular episode that had been chosen, either by the show producer or by the individual performer,” Mr. Leverence said.

While originally instituted to cut down on the number of perennial nominees, inject new blood into the field and up the chance of recognition for quality shows that have so far been flying under Emmy’s radar, the revamped system seems to have only partly achieved what it set out to do.

Emmy Newcomers

A number of first-time
nominees are in the field, including “Law & Order: SVU’s” Christopher Meloni and “Two and a Half Men’s” Charlie Sheen, but in exchange a number of past nominees such as Hugh Laurie-and winners, such as “Lost”-have found themselves out of the running, prompting this comment from ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson at the TCA press tour earlier this month:

“Clearly it’s because of the new system,” he said, referring to the absence of “Lost” in the outstanding drama series category. “I mean, who wins the Emmys is one thing, but to have that kind of oversight just, to me, is remarkable. … I hope that the academy will look at it and realize that maybe the changes that they made aren’t all good and that they need to go back to the old system.”

But considering that ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” picked up 11 nominations-including one for best drama-all is not lost for the network.

“It’s a much better method for opening up the process, which has a tendency to become sequentially a closed process,” Dick Wolf, creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, said at TCA. “The fact that Chris [Meloni] finally got recognized is proof in the pudding.”

Both Mr. Leverence and Mr. Askin admit that even though they feel the academy has taken a step in the right direction, the system needs tweaking. A critical analysis will be conducted after the Emmys this year to plug the holes in the process.

“In one sense, it added a level of unpredictability in the nominations,” Mr. Askin said. “That was one of the things that the Emmys has been criticized a long time for, and I think justifiably so, that there was a sameness to the nominations year after year. … But it would be simplistic and not accurate to say we’re completely happy with all of the reactions.”

“We’re structured for a lack of success,” Mr. Leverence joked.

They also believe, however, that the academy stayed true to its annual promise-to honor excellence, if not always popularity. The new voting practices just made the episode submission process that much more critical, because the blue ribbon panels had only those hours, or half-hours, to zero in on.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the producers of “Lost,” one of the most complex and involved dramas on the airwaves right now, submitted a midseason episode for academy consideration, while “24,” also a drama with a very intricately woven plot, submitted the first episode of the year, before those threads had been woven too tightly. “24” received an outstanding drama series nod.

So did “Lost” shoot itself in the foot?

You can “structure yourself for success by bringing to the panelists the most accessible [episode] and what you consider to be your best work,” Mr. Leverence said. “There’s no opportunity to have a first impression modified by a larger perspective on what went on during the course of the day. We want that evaluation, the immediacy of the experience.”

Mr. Askin spoke of an unnamed show from which an actress submitted her name for outstanding lead actress, and said the academy had to call the producers to make sure they had received the correct episode because the actress was in it for only about two minutes.

“I think the submission of the episode was critical this year, especially in the case of some of the serialized programs,” Mr. Askin said. “If an episode was submitted that was confusing to a viewer or to a judge seeing the show for the first time, I think it could have worked against the interest of the show.

While episode choice was important in the drama category for clarity’s sake, it was just as important in the comedy category-for humor’s sake.

“There are a lot of very good comedies-some are very interesting but not necessarily broad enough to provoke laughter,” Mr. Askin said.

Series such as ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (shut out of the major categories this year), HBO’s “The Comeback,” “Entourage” and “Big Love” and Showtime’s “Weeds” walk the dramatic comedy line, with some episodes containing more laugh-out-loud moments than others, but all showcasing a mixture of satire and dark comedy.

“In the complexity of the cross-genre that you have produced,” Mr. Leverence said, “you are achieving, it could be argued, something greater than just a comedy or something greater than just a drama. [But] getting an Emmy nomination within the arena that we have set up, that fine aesthetic point might not very well give you a lot of leverage in the final voting.

“Ideally what we should have is a dramedy category, but then you’ve got another category, and the Board of Governors is concerned that awards proliferation will dilute the significance and importance of each one of the awards.”

Mr. Ehrlich does not consider himself a huge believer in breaking the mold, having seen other shows try to change too much for the sake of being different and being unable to pull it off. But he, Mr. Ross, director Louis Horvitz and Mr. O’Brien will try to infuse the Emmys with something “a little different” this year, he said.

Mr. O’Brien knows he’s in good hands, being aware of Mr. Ehrlich’s vast resume and having worked with Mr. Ross on “Late Night” since its inception in 1993.

“I’ve been with Jeff [Ross] my entire TV performing career,” Mr. O’Brien said. “He has the best instincts for what are good things for to do and what’s not so great. I think I trust him more than anybody, so the fact that he’s going to be working with Ken Ehrlich-you know, Ken’s great. He’s done these big shows, so I think the two of them will make a great team.

“And then I’ll be there to ruin everything.”