“I know everyone will get crazy when I say this, but this will probably be the lowest-rated Emmys of all time,” he told me when I hopped on the phone with the star who is also serving as an Executive Producer of the ceremony marking television’s biggest night of the year. “I would bet almost anything on it. Of course it will.”
“Lowest rated?” Really? That would mean it would have to do worse than last year’s Emmys, which holds that dishonor. But I argued a coronavirus pandemic-challenged Emmys just might be the best thing that could ever happen to it, even if the logistics of having 140 cameras stationed at the nominees’ homes turns into a bit of a nightmare. People love watching trainwrecks, right? With Kimmel at the helm and all the nominees coming from their homes or other remote locales however, and no red carpet or anyone in the audience at Staples Center which will be like the control center at NASA and where the host will be stationed, this has the potential to really shake things up and turn around the dwindling ratings of awards shows in general. At the very least, it’s definitely going to be different.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t still going to be a lot of people watching,” he said. “I mean, television is the lowest rated it has been. You look at some of the ratings you see in prime time now, I mean, people would be jumping out of buildings if you got ratings like this 10 years ago.
“I just think there is so much competition. There are so many other things to watch. There’s so much great stuff on TV. I don’t think it has anything to do with anything other than that, and I mean, really, if you think about it, these shows were our only choice, and you know, somebody decided to stop doing it, but out of courtesy they used to not have football games on opposite the Emmys, you know, as just industry courtesy, and that stopped, what, like, 5 or 6 years ago? To me, it’s never about the ratings, because if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re screwed. For me, it’s just try to make it as good a show as possible from beginning to end. Try to keep the audience with you, and you know, if all that works, it’s great, and if it doesn’t, what are you going to do? Fewer people are watching network television. It’s as simple as that.”
Kimmel was clearly ABC’s go-to guy for the MC job. He has hosted the Emmys twice before in 2012 and 2016 when it was ABC’s turn out of the four broadcast networks who rotate airing the ceremony. He actually signed on for this year well before it was known the pandemic would significantly change the landscape of live television, and in this case the Emmys. It has turned into a unique challenge he wasn’t expecting. “Believe me, I’m not up for any challenge. If there’s a challenge, I would prefer to go take a nap, but I agreed to host the Emmys in, like, I don’t know, November of last year. So, you know, I got into this before the pandemic, and so things changed significantly from when I said yes, but I figured since I said yes, I had to stick with it. It’s going to be a more complicated job than it usually is,” he said in what has to be the understatement of the year.
He also explained how he has taken on the mantle of a producer as well.
“My agent Baby Doll Dixon knows how I operate, and I am always an executive producer, whether I get the credit or not, on these award shows. I am very involved in every aspect because I want to make sure it goes right, and so he said, ‘You know what? You’re going to be doing this anyway. We should give you an executive producer credit,’ and ABC said, ‘Yeah, fine,’ and the other producers were nice enough to share that credit with me. So, you know, I do a lot of stuff beyond hosting. I’m helping to book the show and I get into the details of the broadcast, for sure.”
Since this is uncharted territory, some of those details are as big a mystery to the producers and Kimmel as they are to those who will be tuning in. I told him I have spoken to a number of nominees who also don’t seem to have a clue as to actually what it will be like for them coming from their own environments rather than being there in person for a more traditional awards show. Hugh Jackman told me he will have a hidden bar nearby, and I don’t think he was kidding.
“I can imagine we’re going to have even more nominees watching this thing fully baked on marijuana edibles. … Since I don’t need them to laugh, it’s fine. I guess it’s going to be some combination of the Emmys and Big Brother because we don’t know for sure how it’s going to work, and I was actually hoping when you said you’d spoken to them that you got some kind of inclination as to what they are going to wear, how they are going to answer. My hope is that they are surrounded by their families so that we have genuine emotion and excitement when they win, and that’s what I’m hoping, because we’re certainly not going to have that in the empty Staples Center. I don’t know, maybe I’m going to screw it up. You know, the thing about it is you only get one shot at it. It’s not like a nightly talk show where you do something, and you continually make adjustments. You kind of have to get it right the first time, but I think the key for me is to forget about the fact that I’m in a giant room and you know, that I’m not going to have to project to the back of the room. That I’m just, in this case, literally talking to people in their homes, and keep it intimate even though we are in this gargantuan venue.”
The producers aren’t being helped out by the Television Academy in letting them know the names in those envelopes in advance, something Kimmel knows full well as a veteran of these shows including twice as Oscar host, the first time in 2017 when the infamous snafu happened and La La Land was named as the wrong Best Picture winner by presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. “Well, if you saw the Oscars, you know that I don’t get the winners in advance,” he laughed. “They’re very careful about that, and none of the executive producers know who’s going to win. That would save me a huge amount of work if I knew who was going to win each category, but no one is interested in saving me a huge amount of work. I think you just have to be creative, and I know that sounds generic and the opposite of creative, but I think you have to look at how award shows are typically done and then figure out what the home version of those shows are, and what the home version of those conventions, award show conventions, are,” he says.
“For instance, one of the things we see in award shows is two stars who maybe know each other, who maybe don’t, standing in front of the teleprompter trading lines. I mean, that’s going to be particularly ridiculous in front of no one, and so you have a choice. You can either skip that or have fun with the fact that it’s ridiculous, and I always kind of lean towards having fun with the fact that things are ridiculous. I think there are a lot of traditional award show tropes that we can make fun of in this kind of Zoom capacity that we’re doing with this one.”
There will be a limited number of presenters, some coming to the Staples Center where Kimmel will be, some who won’t. It is all being kept very small due to health reasons. He points out the good news is that those people who complain about having to wear high heels for five hours won’t have that complaint this time. Take that Billy Porter!
Kimmel’s dance with Emmy is actually being preceded by a weeklong marathon he has nothing to do with. There are five, count ’em, five nights of Creative Arts Emmys being handed out beginning nightly tonight on Emmys.com through Thursday, and then on FXX on Saturday. For ABC’s broadcast on Sunday the number of actual awards being aired are 23, down from the usual 27 categories. The big difference between Kimmel’s Emmy show and those others is that winners being announced on Sunday, not actually knowing if they have won or not, do not have to record an acceptance speech in advance acting as if it were live. That however is what the producers of the Creative Arts ceremonies required from nominees with a deadline of August 21 (the day voting actually started) to turn in their speeches. That is also what the Daytime Emmys did when it aired in June on CBS. It felt canned and was rather deadly to watch. Kimmel says it was never considered for the Primetime Emmy show.
“I was against that idea immediately when it was brought up. I think that’s the wrong way to do this, and that’s not how we’re going to do it. I don’t think anybody wanted to do it, but it was definitely something that we considered,” he said of discussions in the early phase of how to attack this most unusual Emmys.
As for hosting, Kimmel is very adamant that these shows need one. He says that is evidenced by the past two hostless Oscar shows. In fact I pointed out he may be the last sole host ever of an Academy Awards show. “They started by getting rid of the host, and now we got rid of the audience,” he laughed. “I think not having a host is a ridiculous idea, and I don’t think it worked, and I think they did a lot of patting themselves on the back afterwards, but the reason that the ratings for the show were stronger is because the show was shorter. [Editor’s note: The 2020 Oscars on February 7 were the lowest-rated in history after a bump up in 2019.] So it had nothing to do with the host, and I suspect that everyone will figure that out, and we will have hosts for a long time, and occasionally somebody will say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do it without a host’, and they’ll pretend that it was a conscious decision, when the reality is that all the people they asked said ‘no.’ So, to me, an award show without a host is like a radio station without a disc jockey. You know, you need that voice, it’s better that way. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but it’s like going to a restaurant without a waiter.”
Kimmel is not only host and executive producer of this year’s Emmy show, he is also a multiple nominee. He has received his ninth nomination (no wins) for his nightly talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! and has 15 career nominations overall. This year his show is also up in the Short Form Variety category for his “Quarantine Minilogues”, and Kimmel is once again in the running for Outstanding Variety Special (Live) for the second of his and Norman Lear’s Live In Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times. He won his first-ever Emmy in that category last year for the first of those specials in which he partnered with Lear on an idea the talk host actually came up with himself. Ironically it beat the Oscars, and is up against them again this year.
Kimmel also took the summer off from Jimmy Kimmel Live! where guest hosts filled in. The night after the Emmys he will not only return to the show but also to the studio. He had been doing the shows from home since March when the lockdown began. “I have three summers off. It was part of my contract negotiation. I was just feeling a little rundown, and like, two and a half years ago, I indicated to ABC that I needed a break, and they came up with this idea. They said, “What if you had the summers off, and we put guest hosts in that spot?” and I said, “Really, you would do that?’ And they said, “yes,” and I said, “Well, all right. Well, then I’ll sign up for another three years,” he said, adding that he has just realized he has to get into the mode of talk show host again.
“It’s funny because, you know, I’ve been thinking so much about the Emmys today…well, actually, last night, I had the thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, what am I going to do on my show that next night?’ I do have to figure something out, and so I’ve started trying to figure out what I’m going to do, but the news changes so drastically and frequently, I’ve learned that there’s not much point to making a plan.” He said he has had moments when he missed being able to comment on what is happening in the world.
“Some nights, yes. Sometimes things happen, and just can’t believe they happened, and you feel like you have a great angle, and you know, when I have something funny in mind, I love to share it. I mean, sometimes I think of things in the middle of the night, and then I will make noise to wake my wife up. I will tell her a joke at 3 o’clock in the morning and it usually gets almost no response, but I can’t help it. You know, when you have something good, you want to share it, and that’s the fun part of the job, and the not-fun part of the job is when you stop and go, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a maniac in the White House.’ Nothing I say seems to impact that.”