Summer 2018

Breaking Comedy

Late-night talk shows are responding to a constantly shifting news cycle, and directors must think on their feet

By Ann Farmer

Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC)

One day in early May, a news story broke just a couple of hours before the taping of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. In a further shakeup to President Trump's legal team, Ty Cobb, it was revealed, was retiring as a top White House attorney. Not an earth-shattering development, but a telling one. And if the production wanted to use it, they needed to jump on it. "By Monday, Ty Cobb will be forgotten," says the show's director, Jim Hoskinson, of that moment on Wednesday, May 2.

So by 5:30 p.m., when the live-audience taping began, the news item had garnered a small wedge of Colbert's opening monologue. Since Cobb is further distinguished by his unabashed, twirly handlebar mustache, his facial hair, in particular, received the Colbert treatment in the form of graphic puns comparing him to "Sheriff of Butterscotch Junction," "Mr. Monopoly's brother" and "Dumbledore if Hogwarts had been in Montana," joked Colbert. It also prompted one somewhat elaborate prank.

"The idea was to get a prop that we would raise to the rafters," says Hoskinson, referring to a giant, white, lookalike mustache that was conceived and constructed as quickly as possible. Hoskinson then had it attached to a festive-looking hot air balloon and cables. At the conclusion of Colbert's monologue, he directed his crew to hoist it upward from the stage while Colbert saluted it. "This was a risk," says Hoskinson, noting that they only had about two hours to pull it off, "which obviously is not ideal."

For a lot of late-breaking news items that pop up close to show time, "it's now or never" to incorporate them into the proceedings, says The Late Show With Stephen Colbert director Jim Hoskinson. (Photos: Scott Kowalchik/CBS)

But due to the erratic political goings-on and routine breaking news out of the White House, the directors of the late-night talk shows are regularly scrambling to incorporate last-minute changes to their rundowns. At the same time, they must maintain their show's look and tone as crisp, seamless and high-spirited as ever.

Andy Fisher, who directs Jimmy Kimmel Live!, can hardly remember his show pre-Trump, "It's so vastly changed," he says. Whereas they might have been talking about the Kardashians or American Idol, now, he says: "There's going to be politics every single day. Trump is always going to be part of the story. How can we have a different take on him?"

Neither is Late Night With Seth Meyers going to miss a chance to put its stamp on a news flash. "It just makes everything a little more hectic for longer," says the show's director, Alex Vietmeier, who is responsible for keeping the show timely and therefore, has to concern himself with any delays affecting the studio audience. Those attendees, who stand in line before getting loaded into the studio, can get restless and bored if they continue to wait while scripts are updated. And if they aren't laughing and enjoying the show, it can potentially dampen the TV viewers' reaction. "We work hard to make sure the audience has the best experience possible," says Vietmeier.

Tim Mancinelli (top, in powder-blue shirt), director of The Late Late Show With James Corden, says "when you shoot 360, you're always trying to avoid all the cameras." (Photos: Terence Patrick/CBS)

One thing these directors can count on, though, is the program's format. These late-night talk shows still hew to the classic late-night structure: The host enters to rousing applause and proceeds to riff through a topical monologue. Comedy bits and guest interviews follow. A comedian or musical guest usually closes the show.

"You think it's going to be the same every time. But every guest is different," says Vietmeier. "They will bring different stories. They'll bring different energies. Every music performance is different." Part of the pleasure of directing late night is also trying out new production elements—whether it's lights or set pieces or new camera configurations. "There's always something different that you have to wrap your head around and try to bring to life," he says.

In addition, every late-night host presents a different style and shtick with which to respond. Conan O'Brien, for instance, thrives on spontaneity, whether it's goofing with the audience or veering off-course because something else caught his eye.

And he never stops to reshoot. "If it flops or breaks, he'll run with it," says his director, Billy Bollotino. "So in that sense, I've always got to be on my toes. Because once he's out on the stage, he's in the zone, and basically, it's my job to stay one step ahead of him."

A recent show, for example, included an amusing taped piece of cats giving the high-five. Only sometimes the segment producers inserted distinctly phony-looking puppet paws instead of real cats. Bollotino says, "As we were screening the piece, I said, 'I know he's going to want to have fun with this because it was so over-the-top cheesy looking.'" Sure enough, O'Brien called for a replay and Bollotino was able to cut to it immediately.

Directors never want to blow a punchline. "The most important thing for me is to be right with Seth's pacing," says Vietmeier, referring, in particular, to Meyers' monologue, which is heavy on the graphics. Almost every joke is accompanied by a still or taped piece. It's up to Vietmeier to precisely time when they appear. "A hard hit is when it gets the best reaction," he says. "If it's too early, it blows the joke. If it's too late, the audience is waiting and they don't know if it was funny or not because it took too long."

As he does for every show, Vietmeier was getting ready one afternoon to run a rehearsal with a smaller live audience two hours ahead of the real taping. This way, Meyers and the writers can get a better read on the day's jokes. French President Emmanuel Macron had been visiting the White House all week and seemingly bonding with President Trump. So among the gags were several about Macron and Trump holding hands and Trump brushing Macron's dandruff away.

Late Night With Seth Meyers director Alex Vietmeier, top left, says the Trump factor "makes everything a little more hectic for longer." (Photos: Lloyd Bishop/NBC)

"Change, change, change," said Vietmeier from his seat in the control room to his crew, as he cut from one graphic to the next. He concentrated on Meyers' face in the monitor while keeping an ear pricked to the audience's reaction. "You don't want to move before the audience is ready to listen." He also remained on guard for when Meyers might break from script and start ad-libbing. "I'll see a half-smile," says Vietmeier, which alerts him that Meyers is likely going into extemporaneous mode.

Bollotino has similarly learned to take cues from O'Brien's eyes. "And if I see them dart one way or the other, I know he's looking at something and it's up to me to tell my camera guys, 'What's he looking at? Let's get a shot of it.'" Since O'Brien is also notorious for mugging to the camera, Bollotino adds, "I always have his close-up waiting."

All of the directors spend part of their morning and afternoon blocking and rehearsing the comedy bits that follow the monologue and whatever act is concluding the program. But Tim Mancinelli, the director of The Late Late Show With James Corden, in particular, has to wrap his arms around some hugely ambitious elements. Corden has carved out a singular late-night niche centered on song-and-dance showbiz numbers—many of which, like Carpool Karaoke (segment director Glenn Clements), wherein Corden cruises around Hollywood crooning with stars like Elton John, have an extended shelf life on YouTube. "We are really doing a full variety show on a daily basis," says Mancinelli.

"One of the hardest is Roll Call," he says, when Corden and a guest actor (Julia Roberts, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks have all participated) act out approximately 20 snippets from that actor's greatest film hits, complete with costume, prop and background changes. Another recurring segment, Drop the Mic, is dramatically lit and staged like a rap battle taking place in a pro wrestling rink, surrounded on all sides by cheering audience members.

"We shoot pretty much 360 on that stage," says Mancinelli, who is constantly devising new camera angles. "We'll shoot under the bleachers and in the control room and in reverse." All of which is tricky. "When you shoot 360," he explains, "you're always trying to avoid all the cameras."

Another challenge is the guest sequence. Corden, unlike the other hosts, brings all of his guests onstage at once and seats them on a curved sofa so they can easily engage in a buoyant four-way conversation. Mancinelli not only has to adjust his cameras for each person's different depth-of-field plane, he needs ample coverage for any editing that might be required before the show airs. "I have to shoot so that we can edit," explains Mancinelli. "We have more people now that we have to cut around."

Billy Bollotino, who directs Conan, says once host Conan O'Brien is out onstage, "he's in the zone, and basically, it's my job to stay one step ahead of him." (Photos: (Top) Chris Millard/Team Coco; (Bottom) Meghan Sinclair/Conaco, LLC for TBS)

Having a read on the upcoming guests can make a difference. Whenever Don Rickles made an appearance on Kimmel's show, for instance, Fisher would add extra cameras because he knew Rickles would likely start poking fun at audience members and Fisher wanted to be able to instantly swing a camera around.

Similarly, when Colbert recently brought on Michael Avenatti, the self-assured lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, Hoskinson had a good idea of how it would play out. "I assumed Avenatti would be assertive," says Hoskinson. "Guests can be deferential to the hosts on these shows. I assumed Avenatti would be perfectly happy to take a question and run with it. So I was prepared for him to talk more than a normal guest. Other than that," Hoskinson adds, "I just follow the action."

Part of the charm of late-night talk TV is conveying an ease and devil-may-care attitude. As important as it is to prepare for the comedy bits, none of the directors likes to overdo it. "You don't want to over-rehearse or stage things where it doesn't feel like it has any energy to it," says Fisher. His favorite Kimmel moments, in fact, are when the show feels unplanned or lapses into a state of controlled chaos, like the time Bryan Cranston took a shower onstage and then jumped on a Vespa scooter to leave, only it had to be pushed out by a prop guy. "It may not go perfectly but it has that live feel," he says.

Then there was the night Matt Damon took over as host, tying Kimmel to a chair onstage and gagging him. Fisher was nominated for an Emmy for his direction of that particularly ambitious episode, which was produced like most shows: "All of it was done day of," says Fisher.

The late Robin Williams, one of many big-name actors appearing that night, was scheduled to do a comedic monologue before a commercial break. So he asked Fisher how to transition to it. "I said, '[Kimmel's] tied to a chair. You could give him a lap dance.' And he just stared at me. I didn't know Robin well enough to know what that meant—his look," says Fisher. But sure enough, Williams followed through on his suggestion and Nicole Kidman was also inspired to give Kimmel a lap dance. "And it was really funny," says Fisher. "Sometimes you just say something that pops into your head and it becomes part of the show."

Unlike most people, animals don't always take direction. Bollotino once had to direct a zebra. (It was actually a small horse painted with stripes.) Only it refused to come out onstage during the rehearsal. He says, "We finally had to pull the plug and rewrite the script."

Andrew Fisher, who directs Jimmy Kimmel Live!, says he doesn't want to "over-rehearse or stage things where it doesn't feel like it has any energy to it." (Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC)

He had more success with plastic baby dolls in a recent Conan sketch in honor of the newest British royal baby. Using dolls dressed in red capes and gold crowns, Bollotino shot one doll flying onstage in a jet pack. Another doll was shot through a cannon into a basinet. (It didn't land there during the live show. But Bollotino, ever-prepared, had a clean clip to replay from rehearsal.) Another doll drove onstage in an electric toy car pulling another on skis while they circled O'Brien. Bollotino says, "My camera guys and myself had to figure out how to shoot this without getting in the way and tripping over ourselves."

Most people tune into late-night talk shows for a good laugh. And if it's at the expense of a politician, all the better it seems these days. "We are super-attuned to the news," says Hoskinson, describing a recent show that had begun taping when it was announced that Trump was going to have an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The writers immediately went to work, managing to slip something about it into Colbert's monologue while he was onstage. "We then performed stuff that was basically rip and read," recalls Hoskinson. "I think we are pioneering a new category called breaking comedy."

And, again, on the day they produced the episode featuring Ty Cobb's resignation, everybody was charging full steam ahead. Hoskinson basically had to race from the stage—where the crew was attaching the giant mustache prop to cables—to the control room to start taping. He didn't even have time to mark his script with cues as he normally does.

"We've got a bit involving Ty Cobb," said Hoskinson, as he eased into his chair, "which might be a bit unrehearsed. But it won't be on the news tomorrow. It's now or never."

As Colbert came to the conclusion of his monologue and the moment arrived for the hot air balloon to rise, toting its handlebar mustache cargo, a soundtrack of circus music swelled and Colbert began his salute. The audience was relishing it. The basket climbed almost to the dome ceiling when one of the pulleys suddenly jumped track and it came to a standstill. Hoskinson, quickly reacting, told his crew, "Stay on 4. Dissolve."

"It just died there," explained Hoskinson later. But no one seemed too bothered by it. "Collectively," he says, "we roll with the punches."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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