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Crazy like a Fox: 11 comics take over

The challenge: 11 egos, 11 teams of writers and 11 agendas complicate a single awards show.

September 22, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

They wanted edge to go with their brand, humor in lieu of a master of ceremonies, so the Emmy host network, Fox, booked 11 comics.

The lineup -- Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Darrell Hammond, Garry Shandling, Bernie Mac, Martin Short, George Lopez, Wanda Sykes, Brad Garrett, Dennis Miller and Ellen DeGeneres -- meant that this year, the Emmy show was a kind of multiheaded beast.

Logistically, this presented challenges. The comics weren't just being handed prepared scripts -- they had their own writing teams, their own ideas, their own egos. Their own laughs to get and their own agendas -- in the case of Wanda Sykes and Fox, to promote her new Fox series, "Wanda at Large."

Short arrived at the Shrine Auditorium on Sunday with a crosstown escort. This was evidently not a bit. He had a Sunday matinee performance of "The Producers" at the Pantages Theater and about 50 minutes to get offstage, change and appear in his seat at the Emmys, where he was a nominee, a presenter and a performer (in a musical comedy number, "Here's to the Losers," with David Letterman's "Late Show" bandleader and sidekick Paul Shaffer).

Emmy producer Don Mischer, helming his eighth broadcast, had to worry about content redundancy. With topical humorists Miller, DeGeneres and Stewart, to name three on the bill, how many California recall jokes would be too many? And would a joke in rehearsals Friday and Saturday still be in a comic's act come Emmy time?

"It's hard to nail guys down," Mischer had said as Emmy day neared. "We're going to be into this weekend with less script than we ever have had before."

He planned to frontload the show with comedy, knowing that, as the broadcast wore on, laughs would be tougher to get.

On Friday, as rehearsal unfolded, Mischer received Lopez's script and timed it. Lopez, star of the ABC sitcom "The George Lopez Show," was set to deliver two minutes of stand-up. Mischer chuckled at a particular riff about how reality shows needed to be more inclusive toward the Latino community. "Instead of 'Who Wants to Marry My Dad,' let's start with 'Where Is My Dad,' " went one of the lines.

"The more successful the comedy, the longer the show" will be, Mischer said. Stewart's segment about the excesses of broadcast news was funny but, Mischer was concerned, perhaps too long. And the producer still didn't exactly know what he would be getting from Shandling, who tends to rewrite his stuff up to the last minute.

As it happened, Stewart's segment drew huge laughs from the audience Sunday with a clip package featuring, among other things, cable's Fox News Channel's broadcasting, in the early weeks of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, bombs exploding to musical accompaniment.

And Stewart was onstage two more times, taking home Emmys for the series he hosts, "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

Viewers may not have recognized him, but Hammond, the "Saturday Night Live" cast member known for his impressions, was the guy in the Arnold Schwarzenegger get-up.

Key to doing Schwarzenegger's voice, Hammond said before rehearsal Friday, is moving beyond the actor-politician's oft-mimicked accent or a famous line from "The Terminator" movies. Hammond had just arrived from Toronto, where he is shooting a movie starring the Olsen twins. He was getting a little agitated, perhaps because he was due onstage shortly and his two writers from "SNL" had yet to arrive.

While most of the comics on the Emmys essentially did one-offs, Hammond planned several appearances on the broadcast, in a variety of guises. He would come out first as Schwarzenegger, later as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Some time between now and tomorrow, I'm going to have to learn to do Rumsfeld again," Hammond said.

But it was the Schwarzenegger bit that preoccupied Hammond Friday. Standing on the presenters' red carpet in back of the Shrine Auditorium, Hammond put down his satchel and retrieved a cigarette and a notebook with pages of Arnold-speak, from a recent appearance on "Larry King Live" that Hammond had taped off television. Two other comic-presenters, Short and Shaffer, arrived for rehearsal in a limousine, and Hammond dumped his cigarette on the ground to greet them. Short gave him a hug and mock Hollywood greeting (you're wonderful, etc.) and headed into the auditorium to run through a musical comedy number with Shaffer, the Letterman sidekick with the perpetual grin. Hammond, meanwhile, continued to wait, with increasing agitation. His agents were here, but where were the writers?

They showed finally and huddled in a green room, and Sunday night, Hammond did his many voices of Schwarzenegger, his Rumsfeld. His Arnold killed. His Rumsfeld fell flat.

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