Emmys Behind the Scenes: ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ Co-Head Writer Molly McNearney on What Went Right and What Didn’t (EXCLUSIVE)

The producers of this year’s 72nd Emmy Awards promised some unexpected moments, and it didn’t take long for that to come true. That is, if you classify “almost burning down the Staples Center” as unexpected.

While announcing the very first Emmy on Sunday night with presenter Jennifer Aniston, host Jimmy Kimmel sprayed the envelope with Lysol, and then set it on fire to jokingly sterilize it. Aniston was there with a fire extinguisher — but unlike in rehearsals, the stubborn fire wouldn’t go out. By the third time the flames reappeared, neither Aniston nor Kimmel noticed — until the stage manager alerted them.

“That was very scary, by the way,” said “Jimmy Kimmel Live” co-head writer Molly McNearney, who was backstage at the Staples Center on Sunday, and spoke to Variety after the telecast to share the behind the scenes tales of how the night went. “Not a great time to be lighting things on fire in California. That was not the way it was supposed to go.”

McNearney credited Aniston for “impeccable timing” in keeping the extinguisher going. “That extinguisher was supposed to extinguish the first time and it didn’t,” she said. “I have to tell you that I loved watching it from the sideline, I was there knowing that neither of those two, Jen or Jimmy, had any idea that fire was crawling up that third time was pretty exciting for us.”

But McNearney, who is married to Kimmel, said this is where her relationship with the Emmy host came in handy: Knowing that Kimmel relishes live, unpredictable moments like this, she said she held back producers who were ready to leap on stage.

“I may have grabbed some arms to hold them back,” she said. “Which is kind of crazy, ‘let my husband burn!’ But I didn’t want people rushing out. I knew that they would figure it out. I knew they would get that fire out. And of course they did. And I didn’t want to ruin it. America doesn’t want to see us, they want to see those two.”

Despite being charred on the outside, the first envelope of the night still survived that trashcan inferno — and McNearney still has it. “It was very black, but we’re going to send it to Catherine O’Hara as a congratulatory gift. It survived, and you can still see her name on there!”

McNearney shared a few more behind-the-scenes takes from Sunday’s show:

That opening, where it looked like Kimmel was delivering his monologue to an actual audience, took weeks to prepare and choreograph.

Some viewers were quite confused when the Emmy Awards opened, and it looked like Kimmel was cracking jokes to a roomful of celebrities, like any other year. It wasn’t until we saw Kimmel in the audience, while simultaneously on stage, that the host revealed the truth: He was actually in an empty Staples Center.

“It’s a huge challenge to do a show like this without an audience,” McNearney said. “Any host feeds off of the energy and the laughter from the crowd. And we were going in with a deficit of not having that. I gotta tell you, just going into Staples Center was kind of depressing, even though it was necessary for the safety of everybody. But we still wanted to have that feeling of a live show and with audience reaction. We didn’t want to do 10 minutes of Jimmy standing there with crickets. So we thought it’d be funny to kind of pull one over on the home viewer to think, ‘oh, wait, are people there? Are they not there?’ And then do the turn that Jimmy is sadly all by himself.”

Producers spent the last month pulling clips for the best audience reaction shots, and then figuring out how to pull the best audio to really make it seem like the crowd was reacting to Kimmel’s jokes in real time.

“Jimmy had the idea that he should be a cutaway at the end, and he’s in the audience himself,” she said. “They’ve been working on that for weeks now. And pulling all those clips and making sure it sounded right. Even Jimmy was like, ‘wait, typically when I deliver a joke, it takes one second. And then people laugh.’ So he paid such close attention to the detail of the timing on the applause. He was like, people don’t clap immediately, you can feel the roll of a joke over a crowd. And so thankfully, we had some great editors that helped make that sound realistic.”

The crew handing out Emmy trophies in Hazmat suits worked better than expected, as producers figured out strategically how to place them near as many nominees as possible.

“I don’t know how the hell they pulled that off,” McNearney said. “It was important to us that people got to hold the statue. They have this big night. And we didn’t want to just say we’re going to drop in the mail for you months from now. So we had all these Emmys, delivered by people in Hazmat suits, standing by, and they were outside all of those nominees’ homes or hotel rooms. And then one minute before, they learned if they had the winning Emmy on them, and then brought it into the room and delivered it to the winner. But every nominee had someone in a Hazmat suit stalking their house. Those wonderful, hardworking people in Hazmat suits had no idea they were at the winner’s house or not until right before it was announced.”

Some presenters, including David Letterman and frontline workers, were pre-taped — but they were filmed reading all of the nominees’ names, so that production could air the correct winner once it was revealed.

“Letterman was such an incredible addition to the show,” she said. “As you know, Jimmy loves David Letterman and for him to not only be part of the show but to present the same category that Jimmy was nominated in, I think that that would be enough for Jimmy forever. That was pre taped in New York but then he we had him shoot every winner. At game time, we didn’t know, the booth put up him announcing the winner.”

Yes, after the infamous “Moonlight”/”La La Land” Oscars debacle of 2017, Kimmel was a little nervous that a wrong button might be pushed.

“After our experience at the Oscars, we’d be hesitant about any envelope being correct,” McNearney says. “But there were so many unknowns in the show and the fact that these producers pulled off getting those Emmys to all the right people at the right time. And that the magic box actually opened and worked twice was quite a feat. They should be very proud of themselves because I can’t believe they pulled it off.”

The death on Friday of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave the producers pause, as they figured out how to acknowledge the tragic passing.

“Losing Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Friday before was weighing on all of us,” McNearney said. We thought, how do we deal with this, she’s not a television star. She’s an American icon, but we wanted to acknowledge her in some way and pay our respects but then also, keep her separate from us petty television people. So that was really kind of the only unexpected moment.”

That was the real Stanley Cup, which Kimmel and the producers thought would be fun to have to taunt Canada, in case “Schitt’s Creek” won big.

And boy, did “Schitt’s Creek” win big. “There’s only one Stanley Cup,” McNearney said. “We had to get the Stanley Cup. We did that in advance because we were looking at the first part of the show and we thought ,you know if ‘Schitt’s Creek’ wins a couple of these, we need to kind of rub it in, that they’ll never have the Stanley Cup. I’m not a huge hockey fan. That was certainly not my idea. That was Jimmy’s idea, he thought, ‘if Canada’s going to take all our awards, let’s flaunt the award we know they all really want — which is the Stanley Cup.’ So we had it on standby. And then it was tricky for us, when do we bring up the Stanley Cup? Are they gonna win this one or the next one? It was a gamble. Because if they hadn’t won best comedy, then we would have just had a sad Stanley Cup in the wings that would have never brought out on camera.”

The alpaca joke was the brainchild of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” co-head writer Danny Ricker.

“We all fell in love with the alpaca,” McNearney said. “That was great. And Randall Park, I love his delivery on it. Typically with these award shows you have banter between two people, but we didn’t have a lot of that because of social distancing and all the COVID restrictions. So we got a little creative and we brought in the alpaca.”

Speaking of in-studio guests like Park, the testing was strict before people were allowed in.

“Everyone was very distant, everyone had to be tested,” McNearney said. “We had two tips up our noses every day and tonight everyone that was there had to be tested negative. And then we all not only had masks on, we had face shields on. None of us could breathe and it was a delight. I have to tell you, it is so incredibly challenging communicating with people with two masks on your face. And it’s live, and you’re trying to yell things at each other. When you cannot see someone’s mouth moving it is impossible. So we may have messed up words because we couldn’t hear them from each other.”

Even little things, like grabbing a pen to jot a joke down, wasn’t easy on a COVID protocol set.

“I remember at one point I’m needing a pen. Someone said, you have to get a sanitized one,” she said. “And I had to wait to get a sanitized pen so I can write notes. We couldn’t have snacks in the writers’ room. It wasn’t COVID friendly. It was like the most stripped-down production I’ve ever been a part of. It was like a ghost town. There were very few people backstage. And the celebrities that did show up had to be scraped down and tested and had a plastic shield over them. It was pretty sad, actually. We did the best that we could.”

The Emmys also pulled off an impromptu mini-“Friends” reunion without paying them $1 million each.

“Those women have been in a pod for a long time,” McNearney said of Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow. “And they’ve been testing every day. We asked Jennifer Aniston to be a part of it. She said, ‘you know, Courteney and Lisa are going to be coming over and we’d love to all be a part of it.’ And we were very excited about that. And then [Jason] Bateman, his wife is one of the producers on ‘The Morning Show,’ and she was over there, so Bateman was over with his wife.”

Because of COVID protocols, Kimmel’s on-site staff was just 25% of what it would normally be.

“I only saw the eyeballs of people for several days, like I didn’t see anyone’s mouth,” McNearney said. “Everyone was completely covered. Jimmy was the only guy without a mask on. And we were all distanced depart. And it was very, very challenging to pull off that show, without having the proximity to one another physically. Everything was over email and texts, and our writers are all in their living rooms, texting in jokes. And that’s not an easy thing for anyone to do. I think they did a really great job. And I’m still just in awe that they got all those cameras set up in all those homes, And that people were willing to let us into their homes. I think that’s pretty incredible.”

The producers opted to go with minimal pre-taped packages because of the restrictions, and a desire to go live. (A few comedy bits, like the one above with Anthony Carrigan, were live.) But with a few exceptions, there was nothing easier about this year’s show.

“Other than the fact that I’m not gonna be hungover,” McNearney quipped. “It was easy to not be in an uncomfortable dress and high heels and running around. That was the only thing that was easier. Every part of it was more challenging than usual because of the restrictions and limits we had. And typically, we would shoot a big cold open and big pre-tape and would put a lot of big comedy bits in. But first of all, tonally it didn’t quite go right for the year. But it also was just nearly impossible to pull off.”

There’s no rest for the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” crew, who go immediately back to work, as the show returns tonight from its studio.
As Kimmel and McNearney took the summer off, they took their family on a road trip. “It was really nice. We spent a lot of time with our kids — maybe too much. We took an RV to Idaho and Jackson Hole and had all this quiet wonderful being in nature and now we’re back with face shields on and back in the studio,” she said. “Who knows how that’s going to go but we’re going to try it.”

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