Emmy Executive Producers on How They’re Prepping for Awards-Show Surprises

Geoff Berkshire

With more than a dozen Emmy Award ceremonies under his belt, Don Mischer knows how to roll with the punches on TV’s biggest night. Along with fellow executive producers Charlie Haykel and Juliane Hare, Mischer has been deep in prep for this year’s kudos for more than a month. One thing they know for sure: Jimmy Kimmel returns as host. Beyond that, Mischer and Haykel tell Variety, they have to be ready for anything — including the possibility that the roller-coaster presidential election could throw them a last-minute curveball.

This will be Jimmy Kimmel’s second time hosting. Is it easier to work with someone you’ve worked with before?

Mischer: I think that’s right. The last time was four years ago, and he did a great job. What we learned the first time is Jimmy is not one of these people who comes in two or three days ahead of time and writes a monologue and reads things we write for them. He thinks about everything. He’s really been focused on this whole show for a couple of months now. We talk on the weekends when he has time to think about it. He’s really dedicated and committed to doing something great. He’s had four years more experience.

Haykel: No matter how much you’ve done, a show like this is its own animal; there’s a learning curve. Having gone through it once, he really knows what to expect and he can focus his energy and creativity on what works in this environment.

What are some of Kimmel’s specific strengths compared with other hosts?

Mischer: He loves television, and he knows television. When the host comes out in the beginning of the show, you want somebody out there who feels really comfortable and wants to be there. The room loves him a lot — he’s got a lot of friends who obviously visit him on his late-night show. And he’s very current about what’s going on and what’s happening, which is honestly harder and harder to do as there are more and more shows on all these platforms.

How do you handle the range of nominees from very popular shows like “Game of Thrones” to series with smaller viewership or, in the case of digital series, unknown viewership?

Haykel: You take advantage of the popular ones by exploiting the things people know about them. For the really great stuff that maybe not a lot of people know about, it becomes a mission of discovery. You’re introducing the audience to something. Don and I and our partner, Juliane, watch all the nominee clips and give notes. Invariably I will watch a series after every Emmys that I didn’t know about, because I’ve seen the clips. We can get the audience to do the same thing. After all, the Emmys are a three-hour commercial about how great television is.

“we can be irreverent about television and make fun, but there’s got to be a respect for television and the emmys. I really do hope the acceptance speeches don’t become political.”
Don Mischer, executive producer

Mischer: There will be people watching this show who don’t know “House of Cards” and may not even know “Game of Thrones.” What we hope to do in the amount of time we have is to show some of the nominated work. Last year when Jon Hamm won, [we gave the audience] an idea of who he was and the character he played even if they weren’t “Mad Men” fans. It’s one of the
difficulties with the show — in a three-hour period, which is actually two hours and six minutes of program time, we
have 27 awards to give. We have more awards per segment than any other show on television.

The broadcast networks are drawing fewer nominations these days. Do you get any feedback from them about the Emmys showcasing their programming less than they used to?

Mischer: They may feel that way, but nobody has expressed that to us. No network executive calls us up and says, “We’re really unhappy.” They probably do feel that way, but television is a vibrant medium, and it’s in a real period of transition. The way we get television content is so diversified that it’s inevitable that this is going to happen. I think the broadcast networks understand it and they still understand the value of airing the Emmys.

What do you feel is the value to the networks that air the Emmys?

Mischer: For one thing, you get to promote your own shows in bumpers and promos. And it’s not like the traditional networks are shut out [of nominations]. They’re very heavy in comedy, reality, and the variety genres. They’re still represented fairly well.

Do you watch other award shows for entertainment or creative inspiration?

Haykel: I tend to sample a lot of different award shows. You can’t live inside your own head, you have to watch what other people do, because it does inspire you. The group of us who do these big award shows is relatively small; we tend to know each other. We’ll frequently call each other, or we run into each other at parties and talk about, “How did you pull that off?”

Mischer: Occasionally we run into them after and say, “What the hell happened?” [Laughs.] When I’m watching other award shows, and it’s especially true when I’m attending, I’m jubilant that I have no responsibility for the show at all. I can enjoy myself and not worry about a thing —  the timing, playing people off, any of it.

This year the Tonys happened the same weekend as the mass shooting in Orlando, while the Oscars had to deal with the controversy over a lack of racial diversity. What are your thoughts on handling events and controversies like those?

Mischer: As a producer you’re dealt a hand of cards. Producers obviously never get to choose nominees or have any influence whatsoever, just like we don’t know who’s going to win until the envelope is opened up. The diversity problem that the Motion Picture Academy has had is not a function of the Academy; it’s a function of the entire system and the industry.

It’s got to be corrected at that level. Fortunately, in television we have a much broader infusion of talent, from gender diversity to racial diversity. Last year we were really pleased with not just the nominees, but the winners. When Viola Davis got up and quoted Harriet Tubman, we had no idea that was coming. It was the way she reacted, and it was really wonderful.

Haykel: As far as the Tonys, you have to address it head-on. You can’t shy away from it. Orlando was an incredible tragedy; that’s a little more difficult to deal with. Then you get an acceptance speech like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s that gives you goosebumps. He was able to make such a poignant speech, and still celebrate the theater and all it stands for. I would even say the way they opened the Espys was very powerful this year and unexpected — to have [Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade] standing on the stage, what they said [about social justice], and how they said it was so eloquent and profound.

Mischer: I really felt that the Tony Awards was a very healing show for the people who watched it. There’s something comforting about connecting through a medium like television in a live event, and sharing our grief and concern. The first time I ever realized it was when John Kennedy was shot. He was shot on a Friday in Dallas, and that weekend I looked at television as coming of age. Television really did help us as a nation grieve together; we felt camaraderie with our fellow Americans as we watched.

The Emmys will be the last major awards show before the election. Do you want to address that or steer clear?

Mischer: I hope the show is about television and what’s going on in television. We can be irreverent about television and make fun, but there’s got to be a respect for television and the Emmys. I really do hope the acceptance speeches don’t become political in nature. A celebration of television excellence would be a preferable thing to take away from the Emmys, as opposed to a political debate or a political bashing on stage. That’s just what I hope. There have been Emmys in the past when things turned political, and once that door is opened, people start to follow suit. It can change the tone and direction of the entire show if it happens.

With this election in particular it feels like there’s no way to predict what might happen that week or weekend.

Haykel: [laughs] Who knows what could happen? It’s very true.

Do you have any indication from Jimmy Kimmel as to whether he’s working on political jokes?

Mischer: He’s working on his material; we just had a meeting with him this morning. We haven’t seen a lot of it. My personal opinion is he will not go the political route. I think he’s got so much good material with things that have happened during the television season that I don’t think he’ll move in that direction very much.

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