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EMMY COUNTDOWN

Words to Give By, and Other Surprises

Television * Presenters changing lines? No-shows? Executive producer Don Mischer tries to be ready for anything. Even host Garry Shandling.

September 04, 2000|WILLIAM KECK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Late last week, script pages (or "sides" as they are affectionately known in production offices) were messengered to James Gandolfini, Sela Ward, Michael J. Fox and the other 40-plusactors who will be releasing 27 "winged women" during Sunday's 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. The dialogue: nothing too heady. Basically the "witty" banter we've come to expect from these Hollywood-pats-its-own-back events: ("Gee Ray, I just love you on 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' . . ." "Thanks, Edie. And I'm quite a fan of your powerful performance on 'The Sopranos.' . . .")

Mercifully, much of this repartee will never make it on air--cut due to time constraints or rewritten by the presenters themselves, who often consult with their own shows' writers to come up with something--anything--better than what they've been handed.

This year's executive producer, Don Mischer, has no objections to the annual rewrite ritual--as long as the changes are natural and funny. In fact the award-winning veteran producer of "The Kennedy Center Honors," the 1996 opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games and five previous Emmy-casts, has come to anticipate the unexpected from his presenters. His only stipulation: All script changes must be in his hands by Wednesday--Thursday at the absolute latest.

Ten days before show time, Mischer and host Garry Shandling find themselves with an open window to chat. A pre-taped comedy skit featuring a Shandling interlude with "X-Filer" David Duchovny in the men's bathroom of the Shrine Auditorium (no doubt the latest chapter in the Duchovny-Shandling "love story" launched on Shandling's HBO series, "The Larry Sanders Show") wrapped earlier than expected. And an opening bit Mischer had planned to shoot later that afternoon at Staples Center (a Shandling parody of President Clinton's dramatic corridor walk preceding his speech at the Democratic National Convention) has been cut. "We decided it's getting old and it's already been done by Leno," explains Mischer, who's thrilled to have Shandling on board this year after previous offers were systematically rejected.

Shandling and Mischer's relationship dates to the late '80s when the longtime pals were seated next to one another on a red-eye flight from New York to Los Angeles. As their plane descended into LAX, Shandling invited Mischer to direct a segment of Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Mischer ended up directing several episodes, receiving a CableACE Award nomination for his work.

"Don's a rock," says Shandling. "Whenever I'm floundering and not sure what's best, I can turn to him. I wish he was a woman."

As the big day approaches, Mischer will forgo morning workouts and dinners with his family to select clip packages, refine the set, finalize seating arrangements, obtain musical clearances for a possible musical number and juggle last-minute requests from presenters.

But even after all this planning, some catastrophes cannot be anticipated. There was the year scheduled presenter and nominee Jessica Tandy passed away the morning of the Emmys. Initial panic ended with one of the evening's most poignant and enduring moments. "John Lithgow was sitting in the audience, and I knew he'd worked with Jessica," remembers Mischer. "He came up, said some very nice words and it turned out to be a beautiful moment. Moments like that make the show. Like when ['The Practice's' best supporting actress winner] Camryn Manheim got up two years ago and said, 'This is for fat girls everywhere.' That's what people will be talking about around the water coolers come Monday morning."

This year, if any presenters fail to attend, Mischer will do what he always does--comb the aisles for famous faces willing to step up to bat. But what if, God forbid, an anvil should fall on Shandling's head as he's spooning his Sunday-morning Froot Loops? (Hey, it could happen.) "Oh man," says Mischer, laughing uncomfortably. "If Garry could open his lips--I don't care where he would be, I'd get a camera there and let him do it from a bed."

Fortunately for Mischer, Shandling has no intention of missing his date with Emmy. But just to be on the safe side, Shandling says he's banking on his own insurance policy: "In the next few days I plan on visiting every religious leader in Los Angeles."

Shandling's commitment to the program has surprised the not easily surprised Mischer. Since mid-July, the men have been meeting at least three times a week in the producer's Beverly Hills office to discuss possible comedic bits. Today, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, Shandling supervises set construction on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium. The following morning, Shandling planned to spend the day in an editing room putting his touch on a 90-second comedy routine that may never appear in the show.

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