Late-Night Laughs: ‘Conan’s Jeff Ross On TBS Show’s Future; ‘Full Frontal’ Head Writers On Navigating A Manic News Cycle


Jeff Ross, executive producer of TBSConan, is no stranger to the late-night business, having worked with Conan O’Brien since 1993. He has seen more than most in the late-night trenches, having been showrunner of NBC’s The Tonight Show during the Jay Leno fiasco in 2010.

Conan has been on the WarnerMedia-owned network for 10 years and was retooled into a half-hour format in 2019. The host and Ross, who oversee a booming digital business and podcast factory via Team Coco, now are considering what the future holds.

Ross told Deadline that he’s questioned the future of the genre and believes late-night shows are now “kind of dinosaurs in the business.”

Last year, TBS announced that it had struck a deal with O’Brien and Ross to renew the show through 2022. “I think we are, in the not so distant future, looking at doing something different or a different version of it or different way to get it out there,” he admitted. “Our deal with Turner, or WarnerMedia, isn’t up for another couple of years. We know that we’re going to be doing something different on a different type of platform. Because, I mean, TBS and these linear cable networks, especially, are just like death. You know there’s no circulation, so you can’t do it forever. And he’s ready for a change. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on between the podcast and the show and the digital business.”

Team Coco produces nine podcasts including Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Literally with Rob Lowe and A Total Switch Show with Lea Thompson and Zoey Deutch and is making four-stand up specials featuring comedians including Chris Redd and Moses Storm for HBO Max.

O’Brien himself has admitted that there are a number of aspects about podcasts are more fun than doing a talk show. He recently told Silicon Valley event TechCrunch Disrupt that he prefers the long-form nature of the conversations. “I think it’s a mistake to think of it as, ‘Will you stop doing the show, and only do the podcast? Or will you retire and then quietly work on your letters in a shack?’ I love to create things. I have a lot of energy. I love to try and make people laugh,” he said. “If I’m making podcasts, it doesn’t prohibit me from also maybe do maybe doing something, it doesn’t have to necessarily be for Turner, it could be for anybody.”

O’Brien has been shooting his TBS show for the past three months at L.A. comedy club Largo. He was, in fact, the first late-night host to stop shooting his show out of his house. Ross said that the former Simpsons writer is having fun with it – as evidenced by a recent Christmas-themed episode (below).

He admitted that the safety of his staff is paramount ,and where the pair are in their careers means there is less pressure to get right back into the studio. He said he wasn’t sure that he wants to put his 123-person staff through the move rather than the 12 to 14 that they have making the show at Largo. “For us to do it when it’s our show and our money, we’d have to get into a very big negotiation to try to figure out how to pay for that and how to do it,” Ross said. “Frankly, Conan and I, I don’t know that we’re that comfortable with putting big groups of people together right now if we can avoid it.”

Team Coco owns more of their show than some of the other network late-night shows and having worked in late-night together for close to 30 years, the pair feel less pressure from above.

“The other guys haven’t been doing it quite as long as us, and they feel the pressure to have to do it the conventional way, as we did for a long time, and we don’t anymore. … We’ve lived this for 20-something years,” he said.

Ross added that all staff are being paid, no one has been laid off and they’re “good” until at least the end of the year. “We’re going to start planning for 2021 — whether we go back or don’t go, I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, we’re not sure.”

Largo is also important for O’Brien, who has a long history with the comedy club where he started his improv career in the 1980s. Given the fact that comedy clubs in general likely won’t seeing paying customers return properly until there’s a vaccine, it’s a real shot in the arm for the venue, and it’s nice to see O’Brien put his money to help somewhere that helped him.

Although the show shoots earlier than it previously did – doing interviews at 11:30 a.m. and finishing around 2 p.m., Ross added: “It’s forcing the writers and the creative team to sort of flex new muscles. It’s adversity and with adversity comes opportunity.”

Conan, which is on hiatus until October 26, has had a pretty good recent run. He recently secured an interview with former First Lady Michelle Obama on the show and his DIY episode (above), put together by the creative pursuits of members of the audience, was a viral hit.

“The way we’re doing it now is actually kind of fun,” he said.

Clips of the Week: Jimmy Kimmel Takes on ‘The Bachelorette’ 

It’s been a slightly quiet week for the late-night shows with Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon, O’Brien and Samantha Bee all on hiatus.

Jimmy Kimmel, fresh from his summer break, persevered. The host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! had a slightly bizarre interview with deer-in-the-headlights reality star Clare Crawley. The star of The Bachelorette, who as Kimmel said had been “swabbed, sanitized and seduced by 31 eligible bachelors,” evidently wasn’t sure what she could say about the bizarre season of the ABC show, and Kimmel didn’t buy some of her claims. It was somewhat refreshing.

Elsewhere, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah took on Donald Trump’s wild Osama bin Laden body-double conspiracy theory and suggested that Twitter could use a man like Trump in the future.

Finally, it waallegedly s the 100th episode for Showtime’s Desus & Mero, with the latter joking that they can quit now and go into syndication and collect checks for the rest of their lives like Jerry Seinfeld.

Rising Stars: ‘Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’ Head Writers Kristen Bartlett & Mike Drucker

Deadline is shining a spotlight on some of the most exciting writers to rise up on the late-night beat. Who are the scribes that will go on to run shows, host, perform and create the the hottest comedies on TV and film?

This week’s focus is on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s co-head writers Kristen Bartlett and Mike Drucker.

Kristen Bartlett
Bartlett Kristen Bartlett

Bartlett and Drucker became head writers of the TBS late-night show in February, mere weeks before the global pandemic hit and Bee was forced to shoot the show in the woods of her backyard.

The pair have navigated more than 20 episodes of Full Frontal by working from home (rather than on their brand-new head writer couches). They also face the challenge of putting together a weekly show during a time when the news cycle is utterly ruthless.

Drucker admits that it’s hard and that they look for underlying causes and trends to pin their show to rather than try to keep up with the news. “We ask, ‘what’s behind this story? What do we have that’s not necessarily the topical portion but the thing that’s affecting or causing the topical portion?’ So we try to take sort of a slightly different view to make sure that we’re not completely behind the times by the time we air.”

Bartlett said that they enjoy the topicality of it but that a draft on Saturday can be very different to what ends up getting shot on Wednesday. “We have it planned, and then I take a nap … and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died,” she adds.

The pair say they share a sense of humor, a “silly darkness.” “We have a lot of overlap with sense of humor, which has made working together great,” Drucker said. “It’s just like I’ll make a reference to a video game and Kristin might reference like Love Island and we’ll learn about each other. It’s still the same sort of silly as a style.”

They’re both also trying to make former Daily Show correspondent Bee laugh. “Sam is always the funniest person in the room, so it’s very sad not being in a room with her right now,” said Bartlett. “Sometimes on Friday night when we’re punching up the show before she reads it, we will add in jokes that we think will never make air just to make her laugh as she’s reading them. And we’ve had some success with jokes that we think were too edgy or too ridiculous or too crazy for her to ever be on the show, and she says she’s fine with them.”

Bee has been a vocal campaigner on women’s rights and she has backed this up by paying Bartlett and Drucker the same, something that hasn’t always happened on late-night shows. Said Bartlett: “As a woman, I definitely appreciate it. I know that I leveled up because of Mike. I’ve definitely been in a scenario where I was paid less than male writers on my level, so it definitely means a lot. What we agreed, when we heard we got the job, is that we wouldn’t agree to sign unless we both got the exact same contract.”

Mike Drucker
Drucker Mike Drucker

Both Bartlett and Drucker had experience in late-night before working on Full Frontal, albeit in slightly different forms. Bartlett, who got her start at UCB, was a staff writer for two seasons of Saturday Night Live and was on the NBC show around the 2016 election.

“It was crazy but also very productive, and I felt like that was an incredible place to be during that time,” she said. “You produce everything that you’re writing, and I think that is an incredible thing because you end up working with really talented people who make incredible sets and who do music. You end up working with people who can bring your stupid ideas to light.”

She admitted that SNL is an “intense” schedule. “I’m so thankful that I’ve gotten to see the two different worlds in terms of the room and how that works, but, yeah, SNL is a great grad school for writing and comedy.”

Drucker also worked briefly at SNL, albeit as a researcher and submitting jokes for “Weekend Update.” It also helped him get his first late-night writing job. “I was lucky enough that Seth Meyers kind of took me under his wing for a while and he gave me my first writing gigs,” he said.

Drucker then worked on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show with Fallon. “I really liked the job,” he said. “It’s definitely a very stressful job and, as a monologue writer, you’re waking up at 5, 6 in the morning to like write 100 jokes about the news.”

Outside of Full Frontal, Bartlett recently sold a development with ABC. She is writing Big Wishes, a half-hour single -camera comedy that follows a charity that fulfils the dreams of dying adults. She is polishing the script and working with director James Griffiths, 2 Dope Queens co-creator Phoebe Robinson and ABC Signature on the project.

“I think that both of those jobs have made each other easier,” she added. “I don’t go crazy worrying about either one because I’m too busy to think about it.”

Bartlett halso as appeared onscreen in series such as Hulu’s Difficult People, something that she’d be keen to do again. “I’m happy to be on TV anytime anybody lets me. My perfect world is not having to write the show and getting to like be in things that my friends are writing,” she joked.

Drucker, meanwhile, has no on-screen ambitions but would like to create a kids horror show. “There’s always like this weird dream in the back of my mind to sell a children’s show,” he said. “I’ve got stuff I want to do but I really, really love being in late night.”

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