Exclusive: Emmy Awards Producer Ken Ehrlich Dissects This Year's Telecast
by Michael Schneider
How did so many former Emmy hosts wind up on the same stage? Who was that strange guy side-stepping off screen behind host Neil Patrick Harris? What was cut from the show as it went into overtime? TV Guide Magazine sat down with 65th Emmy Awards executive producer Ken Ehrlich backstage at the Nokia Theatre immediately after the show to get some background on this year’s televised ceremony.
TV Guide Magazine: You managed to get former Emmy hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien on stage to help Neil Patrick Harris open the show. How did that come about?
Ehrlich: They all like and respect each other. Once you’ve been through it and you’ve done this, you want to help the other guy. That’s what this was. It moved around from one idea to another. And each one of these guys contributed something: Fallon said, “I think I’d like to tap dance my way out.” Conan said he wanted to play the strident, wizened old host. Neil came up with the idea for Jane, which was a great joke: “I don’t think that anyone who saw you when you hosted thought you were a woman.” And Kimmel was really helpful. It was really Neil’s idea to bring in Kevin Spacey [where Spacey, channeling his House of Cards persona Frank Underwood, commented on the proceedings straight to the camera].
TV Guide Magazine: Was Spacey game, or did you have to do some coaxing?
Ehrlich: He was game. He might have been the first or second guy that said yes [to participating in the opener]. We always wanted Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to pay it off in the end. I had booked them to be the first pair of presenters anyway, so it was logical for them to have a part in it. We rehearsed it for a half-hour, maybe 40 minutes [on Saturday] and then [on Sunday] at 4:30 I asked for everyone to meet in Neil’s dressing room. We ran it twice in Neil’s dressing room, and that’s it. It was loose and that was probably part of the charm, it didn’t feel over-rehearsed.
TV Guide Magazine: You mentioned there were other ideas, was there anything else you kicked around for the opener?
Ehrlich: Nothing that was really substantive. The writers were good about this. You start with 20 ideas and by the time you’re through, 10 of them go away and hopefully the best 10 survive the cut.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk about not doing a musical number to open the show.
Ehrlich: That was never considered. I had lunch with Neil two months ago when we started this process, and there was one mind: “I don’t want to open with a musical number because I don’t want to compete with myself hosting the Tonys.” And I said, “I don’t want you to open the show with a musical number. I don’t want to compete with you on the Tonys.” So we came up with this compartmentalized film opening, followed by a live bit. The writers and Neil and myself came up with the broad strokes for the idea, and Troy Miller added what I think is the perfect touch. We shot Neil in one day, two weeks ago. I think there are 900 different clips in that spot.
TV Guide Magazine: Did this rule of one representative speaking at the podium help move things along?
Ehrlich: I was monitoring closely this year and I don’t think anyone felt they were cut off, like five years ago when Matt Weiner [Mad Men] went to the mat saying, “How could they cut me off? I had so much more to say.” I think we were very fair to people. In the letter we sent out to nominees, I told them, “So many of you have been here before. You know what this is about and you know what you have to do. All we ask is you respect what we have to do.”
TV Guide Magazine: There was a moment on the show when Neil Patrick Harris was making an announcement, and a man behind him (identified by other outlets as writer Paul Greenberg) looked mortified to be on camera and side-stepped on stage. Was that a gag or a goof?
Ehrlich: He was one of our writers. That was planned. It was one of those moments we put in there so someone would ask, “What was that all about?” It was part of the show.
TV Guide Magazine: Who came up with the idea for Will Ferrell to end the show with his kids?
Ehrlich: The whole run was Will’s idea. Sometimes we like to play things a little loose, and I did not have anyone booked to do the last two awards until Tuesday or Wednesday of this past week. We wanted to keep it open, because we thought maybe something would happen. We called Will and he said, “I have this idea, I want to make it as if I just brought my kids from a soccer game.” It’s interesting how much help you can get from presenters; in this case, when you allow them to be free about what it is they want to do. It doesn’t always work for us, there are times when you have to say, “I don’t think so.” But there are more times when they know themselves and their instincts and it’s fun to develop it with them.
TV Guide Magazine: How much over did the show go?
Ehrlich: We were about eight or nine minutes over. We started late too, so I’m not sure if football overruns is factored in. We started about three minutes late.
TV Guide Magazine: Was there anything you had to cut as it went long?
Ehrlich: There was one major piece in the show we had to cut. We did the best television moments of the year, which ended up as an online thing where people voted on their favorites. But we wound up having to pull that. We didn’t feel it was essential. There were other things we didn’t want to cut.
TV Guide Magazine: During the five “In Memoriam” tributes, I’m surprised you didn’t run any clips of folks like James Gandolfini, Jean Stapleton or Cory Monteith. How come?
Ehrlich: That was a very conscious decision. I felt it was more important to focus in on the faces of the people that were talking about them, because of their personal relationships, and allow them to speak. We’ve all seen clips of All in the Family or Tony Soprano. What we haven’t seen is Edie Falco or Robin Williams or Michael J. Fox talking about people they really loved.
TV Guide Magazine: You took some heat from fans of people who weren’t singled out for a special tribute, including Larry Hagman and Jack Klugman. Who did you hear from?
Ehrlich: We didn’t get any direct contact. I know there was vocal reaction from Jack Klugman’s kid. Honestly, I would have loved to do more. But there’s only so much time you have. And I thought we devoted the proper amount of time to those five pieces and then to the “In Memoriam” segment.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you taken aback by the number of surprise winners this year? Did that cause you to do anything different as the show progressed?
Ehrlich: They were very surprising. There was no clear winner, except perhaps for Behind the Candelabra. On the series side it was really mixed. Modern Family was kind of predictable. But at one point I thought it might not happen. But the show is pretty well locked-in. When that envelope opens, that’s when I find out the winner.
TV Guide Magazine: Critique your own show. Anything you would have done differently?
Ehrlich: I’m not my own harshest critic. I leave that to others. Frankly, I thought Neil Patrick Harris was brilliant — I was thrilled with his number in the middle of the show. I thought the whole idea of bringing the choreography competition to the show and turning it into a reality and a variety segment was fun. The thing that makes me most proud after a Grammy show is hearing from folks who say, “you make me proud tonight to be a part of this industry.” I have at least 10 emails saying that about the Emmys. Then I’ve done my job. I think the Emmy show this year was funny, touching, humorous, emotional, dramatic, and I think it elevated television. You couldn’t watch this show and not think at the end of it that there’s meaning in what we do. I’m not saying others are going to find that, but that’s what I felt.