I caught up with Emmys producers Reggie Hudlin and Ian Stewart (of Done+Dusted) to give me the latest on how this Sunday’s show is shaping up, and they’re promising a party. Cedric the Entertainer, music by the inventive Reggie Watts, and MC Lyte as the show’s announcer. But they’re also mixing up the expected order of the show (with an acknowledgement that the Oscars ran into a bit of trouble trying to do the same thing), and bringing more elements like music into the mix. Here’s our chat:
AWARDS HQ: How are you guys describing this year’s show?
REGGIE HUDLIN: You know it’s a celebration. When we first sat down with Cedric, we were like, ‘what do you want this to be?’ And that was the first word out of his mouth. We couldn’t have agreed more, because man, did TV get us through some tough times? Yes it did. Let’s be frank, this is the best TV in the history of the medium. It’s been an amazing year. There’s a lot to celebrate.
IAN STEWART: But also I think for all of us, the industry, celebrate the fact that we can actually get back together. In a fairly controlled way but actually in a together way. We know what’s going to happen. Our hardest job will be trying to keep people in their seats or get them back in their seats during commercials. Because everyone’s gonna go, ‘oh my god, Mike, I haven’t seen you for so long!’ So we’re certainly certainly bringing that party celebration to it.
AWARDS HQ: With those tables, I assume there’ll be some some food, some drink as well.
HUDLIN: Oh yeah, a little drinky drink, a little snacky snack!
STEWART: I’ve said it before but, when we all go out to dinner we don’t line up in rows, and look forward. We sit around a table and we laugh, and we tell terrible jokes and we have to laugh at our own terrible jokes. It’s just the way you want to really consume being entertained.
AWARDS HQ: It’s sort of making the best out of the situation. Obviously with only about 500 people in the tent, you’re able to do that. How you were able to pivot to that, once it became apparent that it was going to be a limited audience?
HUDLIN: The truth is, Ian and I have separately always wanted to do a show with tables and not in theatrical seating. So for us, this was a complete lemonade situation, like, great! That’s our approach to these shows, how do we reinvent, how do we do what we’ve always wanted to do, how do we make people go, ‘Oh, I haven’t quite seen that before!’ We think that this environment creates a party environment, which makes the audience happy, which makes the viewer happy.
STEWART: As we sort of slowly take these steps out of the worst of the pandemic, it just gets a little easier and a little easier. Obviously we work this out with the LA County Health Department, that goes without saying. So we’re under their protocols. But look at the Grammys or the Oscars. They were sort of back together but they weren’t able to be back together. Here they can, everyone’s vaccinated, everyone’s negative tested. You don’t have to leave your seats, you don’t have to let the next nominees come to use your seat. You get to sit down and sit through a show. That’s a magical further, big stride out of what we’ve all been through.
AWARDS HQ: You’ve got “The Crown” stars dialing in from their remote location, I understand there’s a couple other shows that will be remote that you’re going to be able to dip in and out of.
STEWART: We all thought at the beginning, are people going to want to come? Actually, it was like the Willy Wonka golden ticket. Because it’s limited even by the nominees, you’ve never seen them come back so fast, saying, ‘we’re in.’ We of course offered the remote thing. Some people don’t feel comfortable and we don’t want anyone feel comfortable so of course you can come remote. Some can’t be here, the reason ‘The Crown’ people are not here is because they’re in London, and they can’t come here. So, the remote option was there, but quite frankly, we set up quite a big remote system and then sort of dismantled it because there just aren’t that many people coming in by remote. Everyone seems to feel incredibly comfortable and feel like this is a safe space.
HUDLIN: The folks in ‘The Crown,’ we don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, but they got really inspired by what the ‘Schitt’s Creek’ people did last year. They threw a great party, which was great because, then we get to go to their party. Which normally we don’t get invited to, but now the viewers get to hang out with them. We’re looking forward to that, you get to see a lot of different parties over the course of the night.
AWARDS HQ: What does having this smaller room also allow you to do? I know it’s a quicker jump to the stage, so that will save some time.
STEWART: You’re right, by the way, you can jump up a lot a lot faster. You don’t have to walk through the whole of the theater, that is true. But actually the major advantage for us is because you’re in the vibe of being in an entertaining space, and we got Reggie Watts spinning his tunes. Once we kick off, which is hopefully going to be one hell of a kick off, we’re not going to stop. That’s another thing. So, you’ve been to a thousand of these things yourself Mike, but they sort of get going, then they stop for the break, and then they get going and they stop again. And it’s hard to maintain any sort of emotional fun or party through that. But we’re not going to do that, we’re just going to keep on going. So it’s seamless. From the moment we drop that first beat to the moment Ced says goodbye, it’s going to be more in, I don’t think cabaret is the word, but that environment.
AWARDS HQ: So what might we get to see?
HUDLIN: Everyone gets to be in the same room and they’ve maybe been in their production bubble, but now the ‘WandaVision’ people get to hang out with the cast of ‘The Boys’ and worlds collide. Because everyone’s a fan of everyone else. But they actually get to be together for the first time. We’re going to keep the cameras floating around so the audience will get to see peaks of that action,
STEWART: We are going to have things that you can follow along at home, and actually watch what’s going on when the cameras aren’t on. So there’s going to be some opportunities for people at home to play along with us during the night and do some fun things on the side.
AWARDS HQ: And I’ve seen you guys hint at the opening number and more pre-tape. Anything more you can sort of say about some of the some of those elements?
HUDLIN: Cedric is so talented. I’ve worked with him many times over the years and there’s a reason why he’s called ‘The Entertainer.’ He’s a certified King of Comedy. What we really want to do in the course of the show is feature all the things he can do. We’ll have him tell jokes, there’ll be some music, there’ll be some drama. We’re going to feature all the cool stuff he can do. We’ve been in the music studio. We’ve got the surprising things.
STEWART: Another thing that Reggie and I looked at so many times is, there’s a traditional pattern to the way that every award shows starts, and what happens and the editorial beats to that. Often you’re about 16, 17 minutes in before you go, ‘Oh, they’re going to give out an award on an award show.’ So we’re going to mess with that format a little bit as well. Let’s get to the awards as well. As Reggie says, ‘we’re going to start with the finale.’ And then, quickly give out some awards to some very deserving people.
AWARDS HQ: The Oscars this year mixed up the order of the final winners, because they assumed they’d end with a touching win for Chadwick Boseman. But that didn’t happen, and it ended up being awkward, since winner Anthony Hopkins wasn’t even there. How much can you mess with you know the anticipation for some of those major categories?
HUDLIN: You’re building a story arc, you want to hold people’s interest but you’ve got to have a build. What’s great about the Emmys is that you’ve got so many great categories. Dramas and comedies and variety shows and limited series, all of which the audiences are deeply invested in. We want to make sure that throughout the night, you’re getting a taste of your favorite shows, whatever those might be. So we think if you’re a fan of TV there’ll be something for you to watch the whole show.
STEWART: You’re alluding to something about the traditional way that the awards and the pattern they’ve given out. If somebody can guess the pattern of awards for Sunday night, I’ll give them $1000. There will be some surprises in there.
AWARDS HQ: It does seem like damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right, because I know the Oscar folks were trying to do something different and unique and it didn’t quite work out the way they had hoped.
STEWART: There’s a possibility we open with an award that somebody is not able to pick up. And then you’re like, Well, as you say you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We don’t know what’s going to happen. You just have to try and set it up as best you can and hope that you get lucky. The point about the Oscars, without going into it because it’s actually pretty bloody sad, but that award was of course, not like anybody expected it to be. And I felt very sorry for them as producers, quite frankly.
HUDLIN: It was a tough spot. Because I had such a personal relationship with Chadwick, I had an expectation and I was bummed out. And, obviously, Anthony Hopkins was caught off guard and, so it was unfortunate for all parties. And the producers of the show are friends of mine. But God bless them for that level of ambition. All of us who have been producing shows during COVID, we’ve been taking this as an opportunity to shake up the award show format and try some things. And we’ve all learned from each other. You see, oh, so and so did that and that worked, and I’m going to steal that. Or uh-oh, I’m not going to do that. There’s a community amongst us, and we all learn from each other.
STEWART: Last year’s Emmys was really well received, it was a very different type of show. But we didn’t get together and go, ‘Okay, let’s do the same as last year but a little bit worse.’ You always try to move forward and quite frankly sometimes you fall on your face, but if you fall on your face, at least you’re moving forward.
AWARDS HQ: One of our biggest Emmy stories last year was our piece on the people handing out Emmy statues in the hazmat suits. Did you ponder what this year’s version of that might be?
HUDLIN: That way lies madness. When you’re lucky enough, you sit around and have an idea, we crack each other up, and then you do it and then it becomes a thing. Well you can’t manufacturer a thing. It doesn’t work that way. So that’s why we don’t focus on, how do we replicate the exact same rhythms that we did last year? It’s more like, no, we’re gonna make a different show based on where we are in popular culture right now. We try to just be in the moment, that’s the Miles Davis rule, jazz is the music that we are called upon to play in any given day. So, we’re going to try to make a show that celebrates where the medium of television is right now.
AWARDS HQ: On a tragic note, the death of Michael K. Williams so close to the ceremony, how might that impact the show or the In Memoriam?
HUDLIN: What a tragic loss of such a gigantic talent, who had such an amazing body of work already, but clearly had decades of brilliance ahead of him. Any time you do these shows, In Memoriam is such an important part of these shows. It’s our chance to say final goodbyes to people. Our job is to honor Michael, and everyone, this year and I have to say, as we were putting together In Memoriam, we’ve had a lot of unbelievable losses this year. So many titans have fallen this year. So we’re trying to do our best to honor everybody who has done amazing work that we’ve all benefited from.
STEWART: As a producer you’re just caught between a rock and a hard place because of course he’s nominated for that, and if he wins it would be an amazing moment. But also it’s not his award. It’s all the nominees’ award and they have been recognized as well. And to overshadow them in that category is also unfair. I don’t think he would have wanted that. I mean, if he wins, it will be an amazing moment, if someone else wins, it will be an amazing moment for them. So it’s it’s a tricky thing, as Reggie said, all we can do is try and be agnostic and try and treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve for everything they’ve given for the industry.
AWARDS HQ: You have Jon Batiste and Leon Bridges performing during the In Memoriam, which sounds amazing.
HUDLIN: That was a really fortunate break, In Memoriam is very sensitive moment, so find the right artists the right song. We’re all fans of both Jon Batiste and Leon Bridges, and then we found out they’re best friends. And they’d love to work together! Just hearing what they have planned, it’s beautiful, so perfect, sensitive and delicate for the moment. We feel very fortunate to have artists of that caliber performing on our stage.
STEWART: Sometimes you just all the stars align, because we actually had that thought, without knowing of their closeness. It’s the hardest thing to get right in the whole show, because the sentiment has to be absolutely perfect. And to have all those stars aligned, we’re thrilled.
AWARDS HQ: What was the toughest nut to crack and pull off this year?
HUDLIN: Well, you know, we’ll know if we pulled everything off on Monday. Honestly, every day, there’s this wave of panic that goes through us. What are we gonna do about that problem? And then we solve it, we pat ourselves on the back. But, no time for that, here’s another challenge. Every day that’s what we’re doing, we’re just defusing bombs.
STEWART: And just that multi hyphenate that Cedric is, one thing to crack is to give him a chance to show all the things that he can do. He can act, he can sing, comedy goes without saying. Trying to try to thread that through in a narrative is important to us as well. I hope we’ve got the nuance right, you can tell us on Sunday.
AWARDS HQ: Do you have a special announcer?
HUDLIN: MC Lyte, who I love. I loved her as a hip hop artist, and once she started doing announcing, I was like, ‘Can I use her every time?’ Her voice has a perfect texture. It’s empathetic, it’s sincere, it has authority. She is extraordinary.
STEWART: Having live music in the venue is really challenging, especially for a big band of any sort, due to the COVID regulations. The fact that they have to blow instruments and they have to sing. So flipping that around and bringing in Reggie Watts, that was a wonderful way to come out of this as well. I think he’s really going to bring something to it. He’s infectious, that foot’s just going to stop to happen.
AWARDS HQ: I hope I hear some beatboxing and some sound effects from him as well.
HUDLIN: Oh yeah, and that’s what we’re excited about, he’s an artist with a capital ‘A.’ He brings groove, and elevates the proceedings. He’s the perfect spirit of the production.
AWARDS HQ: So, give me a teaser, maybe maybe something that will make sense when I watch the show on Sunday but right now, we’ll just go over my head.
STEWART: Okay, I’ll give you one. Do you drink?
AWARDS HQ: Yep!
STEWART: Yes! So do I. So, at some stage in your life, probably there was 1:12 a.m. You sang along, when maybe you had one one too many, and you sang along to a song. So you’ll be able to sing along to the beginning of our show.
HUDLIN: Nice, well played.