It seems like Jimmy Kimmel’s annual roast has been a highlight of the upfronts forever. It’s been around for a while — Kimmel has been insulting networks, executives and ad buyers alike for the past 12 years. But it is not the longest upfront tradition, not by a long stretch.
In 1996, in his first upfront at CBS as president of entertainment, Leslie Moonves, ever the showman, gathered journalists the morning of the network upfront presentation for a breakfast where he revealed the fall schedule. It became an annual thing, and 19 upfronts later, it still is going strong. Some things have changed — Moonves runs CBS Corp. now, and the magnet board has been replaced by a computer. But the schedule unveiling ceremony and the menu — bagels and lox — have remained the same, and Moonves is still there every year to kick things off.
A year earlier, in 1995, the Endeavor agency was less than 2 months old. Co-founders Ari Emanuel and Rick Rosen went to the upfronts to see clients — Rosen staying with his uncle, Emanuel with friends. People took them out to dinner the first two nights but on the third, they were on their own. With no money, their options were very limited. Rosen had a Peter Luger credit card, so they decided to go the Brooklyn steakhouse for dinner where they were joined by fellow Endeavor co-founder David Greenblatt, Dean Valentine, then president of Walt Disney TV, and attorney Jim Jackoway. From five, the dinner party grew to 10 the following year and soon became a tradition. It never expanded too much — 135 attended this year’s 20th anniversary dinner — but that is by design. The organizers keep the event exclusive — open only to top-level network and studio executives as well as clients with new shows. That exclusivity has made the Endeavor — now WME Peter Luger dinner — one of the hottest tickets during upfronts.
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Going back even further, to the early 1990s (some pinpoint the year as 1994), then-NBC SVP Primetime Series Jamie Tarses decided to throw a karaoke party on Sunday, the night before the NBC upfront presentation. Organized with the help of her assistant (now Amblin TV co-head Justin Falvey), the party was held late Sunday night at a karaoke place in Koreatown, attended by fellow NBC executives like Karey Burke, Flody Suarez and Steve McPherson. “It was a bunch of young executives who wanted to party and have a good time,” Tarses said. Among the songs performed that night — Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” The karaoke night quickly became a yearly tradition, with the casts of Friends and ER making appearances. It continued until Tarses left the executive ranks with her departure from ABC in the summer of 1999.
Four years later, another young executive, Marcus Wiley, then at Regency TV, relaunched an upfront karaoke tradition. There are invitations sent out every year but they’re not needed — the place and time are the same every May: midnight on the Sunday of the upfronts, following the UTA party, at MK Karaoke on 32st Street. Die-hard regulars include UTA’s David Park, executives/producers Suzanna Makkos, Terence Carter, Samie and Justin Falvey and David Janollari as well as SNL alum Chris Parnell. “I think people come back year after year for the non-partisan camaraderie, lobster buffet and five-part harmony. Only one of those are true,” Wiley quipped. Producers and talent who have stopped by include Shonda Rhimes (who was accompanied by ABC’s Channing Dungey and Nne Ebong this year), Bryan Burk, Mindy Kaling, Zooey Deschanel, Damon Wayans Jr. and Will Arnett.
Surprisingly, Tarses didn’t know about the new karaoke night when I asked her about it, and Wiley didn’t know there had been another karaoke tradition before. The current party mixes longtime attendees with new faces joining every year. Maybe one of them will start a new upfront tradition.