Emmy Producers on Seth Rogen Going Rogue, Scott Frank’s Lengthy Speech, Conan’s Heckles and What You Didn’t See

·13-min read

Emmy telecast producers Ian Stewart and Reginald Hudlin are still fuming over Seth Rogen’s unplanned comedy routine at the start of Sunday’s ceremony, in which he roasted the show for a perceived lack of COVID protocols behind the scenes.

The routine was delivered a bit tongue-in-cheek, but with enough credulity to cause a stir on social media — where viewers took the cue to lambast the Emmys. Stewart confirms that Rogen went off script and surprised them in the booth.

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Stewart and fellow executive producer Hudlin spoke with Variety late Monday to discuss the Rogen flap, as well as one more disappointing moment — when limited series drama winner Scott Frank took on the telecast with a lengthy acceptance speech, ignoring multiple musical hints to wrap up his time. They also cleared the air over whether there was an ADA-compliant ramp on stage.

On a much brighter note, the duo celebrated this year’s ratings uptick, which they hope is a positive sign for all awards shows. They also addressed Conan O’Brien’s also very unexpected show interruptions — which were very much welcome — and what we didn’t get to see (including Bernie Sanders) as the telecast went long.

But what got traction at the start of the night was Rogen’s chastising of the ceremony. What steams Stewart is that Rogen had participated in a rehearsal earlier that day, and very well knew the tent setup for this year’s show and how the COVID safety precautions had been put in place.

“We have worked for months and months to make that a safe space,” Stewart said. “We’ve worked with all the health authorities. We were signed off by LA County, we came up with a plan with them. Those tables were distanced. Everyone was vaccinated. Everyone was negative tested in that audience. And also he had rehearsed. So he knew exactly what it was. So, I just felt it was an unfortunate misdirect from him. Because it wasn’t just our decision. This is the health authorities’ decision as well, to say that it’s a completely safe environment if you do all those things.”

Kicking off with the first award of the night, Rogen jumped into a standup chunk on the fact that the Emmys had gathered 500 to 600 people together in a large tent. “What are we doing? They said this was outdoors. It is not. They lied to us,” he said. “We’re in a hermetically sealed tent right now. I would not have come to this. Why is there a roof?”

The show producers quickly made sure that host Cedric the Entertainer and the night’s DJ, Reggie Watts, spelled out the lengths the producers went to keeping the tent — which was still much more flexible for safety concerns than holding it inside a theater — and its attendees were compliant. But the damage was already done.

“It made three months of very hard work and many, many discussions to get it absolutely right feel a little bit wasted, really,” Stewart says. “And then we just sort of played catch up. Because we wanted the audience to know how safe it was in there. We work in this industry, we’re desperately aware of COVID. I’ve done 50 productions nearly in COVID and not have people get sick. So, it’s deeply frustrating.”

As for Frank’s speech, from the time his name was announced until the time he left the stage, it was over four minutes (longer than Cedric the Entertainer’s monologue). That’s because he took time to hug people (which, insiders note, included his competitors in the category as a sign of gratitude) on the way to the stage, and then didn’t acknowledge multiple attempts by the producers to raise the music and tip him off that he needed to wrap things up.

“I don’t want to go through that again,” Stewart said. “It’s a simple equation. These people are professionals. They understand what’s going on, it’s their industry. It’s not a sports awards. So they know what they are doing and the simple fact is, they know there’s only a finite amount of time. I’d love them to be able to speak for half an hour if they wanted to. But we don’t have that time. So it’s a simple equation. If you think that you have to speak for four or five minutes, that means somebody else can’t. It’s just incredibly disrespectful to your fellow nominees.”

Stewart said he doesn’t cut microphones, however, because you never know if that’s the moment the acceptance speech is about to get emotional or personal. “They just won a very important award. And also, of course, you don’t know what they’re about to say. That’s the problem with cutting the mic or playing the play off music over them, when they may be saving the very poignant thing to say to the end, and you’ll just ruin the moment for them,” he said. “It’s a very tricky balance to achieve. What you sort of hope is that at least when they hear the music, which wasn’t overpowering, they’d say, ‘ OK, my time is up, I probably should get off here.’ As I say, just out of respect to your fellow nominees, there’s just a thing called time. And there’s only a finite amount of it.”

Meanwhile, Stewart also wanted to clear up the confusion over whether there was an ADA-compliant ramp connected to the stage. On Sunday, disability rights advocate James LeBrecht said he was “furious” with CBS after he didn’t see a fully accessible, visible ramp on the Emmys stage. After earlier filing an ADA complaint about the telecast, LeBrecht had been told there would be one. But after the show, he told Variety that the network “lied to me.”

Stewart, however, said that’s “quite simply wrong. The ramp was signed off by an engineer as ADA compliant. It was then signed off by the city’s building and safety as ADA compliant. And then we have an independent ADA expert come in just to triple check it as well. And it always been in the plans. I didn’t quite know where that’s coming from.

“My brother is in a wheelchair, my granny was in a wheelchair her whole life. The director’s father is in a wheelchair,”he said. “You’ve got the most empathetic producer in the world here who thinks about those things at the beginning, not the end. So, I just wish these people had just reached out and said, ‘What are your plans?’ and we would have joyfully shown them, ‘This is what we’re going to do, we’re going to treat everyone with the same respect.’ It was there. No one needed to use it, otherwise it would have been on screen. He’s very welcome to see the footage of it. We’ve shot it. I’ve lived with people in wheelchairs, the whole of my life. I’m really aware of their needs and also the fact that their needs are often not met.”

(In response, LeBrecht wrote on Twitter: “I was told by CBS’s lawyer that the ramp would be apparent for the live audience and the cameras. My point was about compliance and it was about a visible sign of inclusion & the law… There is a big difference between compliance and asking that CBS discontinue designing a stage that was clearly all steps. Ramp or no ramp, which I couldn’t see, that stage was a tribute to exclusion and inaccessibility… You can be empathetic and still refuse to show the world that you want people with disabilities to be part of the industry.”)

Beyond clearing the air over those moments and issues, Hudlin and Stewart were in good spirits Monday, after ratings ticked up from last year, averaging 7.4 million viewers — up 16% from 2020.

“I’m grateful for awards shows, period, that we got that ratings bump,” Hudlin said. “For the benefit of all awards shows. We love them, and we want to see them evolve and prosper. A lot of our work has been, how do we continue to reinvent this genre and make it relevant to today’s audience? We’re just happy to see that as we try things, it seems to be working.”

Quips Stewart: “I think a lot of people on your side of the industry had probably already written most of the articles, that ratings drop again. So, I assume there were some hastily rewrites… This is a nice glimmer of ‘Actually, perhaps this isn’t dead yet.’”

Here are a few more secrets and tidbits from Sunday’s Emmy telecast:

• Conan O’Brien’s heckling of TV Academy CEO Frank Scherma was completely unexpected (as was his stage bombing of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” team). “It was such a surprise to us, that our cameras were pointing forward, and we couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Stewart said. “And Frank is such a professional and he speaks so well, for him to sort of stop, we were like, ‘what? what is happening?’ And it wasn’t until that point that they spun around and found that Conan had entered the fray. I mean it was fun, and Frank took it in such good humor. I love those moments, that’s what we love as producers. When those things happen that you didn’t know was going to happen. And you know he was only doing it in good humor.”

• Hudlin approached Rita Wilson about rapping in the “Just a Friend” opening — along with LL Cool J, Lil Dicky and others — after the writers noted her hip-hop skills. “We’ve served on a board together at UCLA, and I just knew she was a really wonderful person,” he said. “And I also knew she had this unexpected talent for rap… What’s the last thing you expect? Rita Wilson with flow and swagger. And that’s when you put the remote down. You go, ‘OK, I’ve committed!’”

• Cedric the Entertainer’s monologue was held back until the telecast’s second act in order to get to the first awards quicker. “I’ve actually done the math a lot, and it normally takes between 12 and 16 minutes to get to an award, and it’s a TV award show,” Stewart said. “Our thing was, can we set the scene as, ‘this is a party. We’re here to celebrate, start celebrating.’ We still wanted Ced to have time, but even he was like, ‘I want to keep this really short. I just want to go out there and tell some jokes and get on with it as well.’”

• Producers also sped things up by, in many cases, showing nominations packages before bringing out presenters to announce the winners. “That way they don’t have to speak twice, which keeps it moving,” Stewart said. “We all know we’ve got to get a lot of awards done.”

• The producers know that you saw random people walking in the background and other unexpected things on screen, but that was a function of the space. “Nowhere was safe, because we were shooting in every direction, all the time,” Stewart said. “It was both a party, an awards show, and a crew space of people doing their jobs. And also some of those people walking in the back of shots were literally people coming back from the toilet. We had intended it to be a bit loose. But also you can’t always dictate where someone’s going to walk or talk either. Sometimes you’re spinning around seeing things that you’d rather not see.”

• Hudlin directed the pre-tape sketch featuring Zooey Deschanel, Jason Alexander, Scott Bakula, Fred Savage and others lamenting their lack of an Emmy win, with Cedric the Entertainer as therapist. Originally Savage was going to direct, but had a prior commitment. “All spectacular actors, some of them dramatic, some of them comedic, but they all got the joke,” Hudlin said. “And I was especially impressed by Dr. Phil, because he had to button a scene with a murderer’s row of fantastic actors, and he spiked the landing, he was fantastic.”

• This year’s Emmy Awards went longer than usual, partly because three more categories were added to the show. Per Hudlin, that usually adds around six minutes per category — stuffing at least 18 more minutes onto the already jam-packed show.

Among the things that had to be cut were more of Cedric’s “Year in Review” pre-tape sketches, including one in which he played a “mitten man” who sold Bernie Sanders his iconic mittens at the inauguration.

“You know you’re not going to get everything,” Hudlin said. “I like to come in with too much stuff. Not everything’s going to make it. I try to be respectful to the viewer, most of all, and not be too long. Usually our shows end on time, but we had a really ambitious schedule because we added the categories, and Cedric the Entertainer is just so funny. We had an amazing writing staff that just kept generating jokes, so we had a lot of material, and I’m grateful for it.”

• If you noticed a bit more enthusiastic screaming during acceptance speeches, starting with first winner Hannah Waddingham, you’re not alone: The producers did too. “I just want to say thank you to Hannah,” Hudlin said. “Her enthusiasm, her sincerity, was so wonderful. It just set the tone for the evening as much as the opening number. We can do whatever we do in terms of putting the show together, but the heart of the show are the winners, and her spirit was so joyous. It just lifted the whole room.”

• The producers early on decided to end the night with the limited series category, and it paid off. While “Ted Lasso” was clearly in line for the comedy award, and “The Crown” dominated drama, the limited series award was a bit of a mystery to the very end, when “The Queen’s Gambit” won.

“There was a time when you always ended it with drama,” Stewart said. “The limited category this year, there were incredible nominees. And then we thought, balanced maybe we put comedy and drama in an act together, and then pay it off just a little differently, finally with limited.”

A day after the show, Stewart and Hudlin said they were happy to pull off a party in the room — that, yes, led to longer speeches, as the crowd of celebrities and producers were a bit looser than usual. (Perhaps the wine on the tables helped as well). But “there was a feeling in that room of the industry supporting the industry, and people were genuinely happy for other people when they were winning,” Stewart said. “The people who attended were as happy to put on posh frock and a snazzy suit as anybody. They had fun in there, which is a lovely thing.”

(Pictured: Scott Frank, Conan O’Brien and Seth Rogen)

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