Emmys Producers on the ‘Friends’ Dilemma, Mama Doris and the Show That Really Almost Wasn’t

All it took was a scan of social media or a few afterparty conversations on Monday night to learn that the 75th Primetime Emmys, delayed four months by the Hollywood strikes, were worth the wait.

The three-hour Fox telecast, which went over well with critics, was polished, moved at a nice clip, featured talent from decades of TV and, in contrast to the monologue drama at the Golden Globes just eight days earlier, saw host Anthony Anderson lauded for his efficient and warm navigation of what is so often a thankless job.

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“Anthony was undeniably the host with the most,” said Allison Wallach, Fox Entertainment’s president of unscripted programming. “Those cast reunions and mind-blowing sets were beyond compare and the winner speeches were filled with heart and humor … and on time, thanks to the watchful and hilarious Mama Doris.”

Executive producers Jesse Collins and Jeannae Rouzan-Clay hopped on Zoom on Tuesday morning, after, by their estimation, maybe four hours of sleep, to rehash the show that almost wasn’t, reveal the reunion stars who couldn’t make it, explain how they navigated a particularly stacked In Memoriam segment — no, the cast of Friends was never invited — and examine how an awards show managed to end literally one second ahead of schedule.

How different was this show from the one that you were putting together tentatively for four months ago?

Collins This was pretty close to the original idea. Obviously it morphed and evolved, because we were stalled for such a long time, but we always wanted to approach it in the way that we did. But at one point, we weren’t even sure if this was going to happen at all. The [SAG-AFTRA] strike came to an end within days of the deadline, actually.

There was a deadline to potentially cancel the show?

Collins We had a date — and if there was still a strike after that date, there just wasn’t going to be a show. It got close.

These set re-creations, and the cast reunions that accompanied them, really anchored the night, thematically and aesthetically. How’d they come together?

Collins We always wanted to do reunions, but we knew we wanted to do them in a different way. We’ve seen cast reunions. They walk out and it’s great, but we wanted to try wherever we could to do something different and take you back to those environments.

Rouzan-Clay Drew Findley, who’s an amazing screens producer, helped to bring those sets to life and make them feel 3D. We got actual furniture in some cases. For Martin, that was the actual couch from the reunion. There were some real set pieces on the All in the Family set. And, if you were paying attention, there were Easter eggs throughout all of them — pictures on the mantels and walls of people who had passed.

Collins The director, Alex Rudzinski, really also helped shape them by how he shot them. If you look at the I Love Lucy bit, he shot it how they did back then. The Sopranos was single-camera. American Horror Story was very moody and he really got [the camera] in there. Martin and Cheers were shot just like a traditional multicam. It was also about re-creating the feeling.

Were there folks you tried to get who couldn’t make it? I heard that Connie Britton was on the call sheet for the American Horror Story bit.

Collins Connie couldn’t get in because she was on a job somewhere the weather wouldn’t allow her to make it. Woody Harrelson couldn’t make Cheers because he’s in a play [Ulster American in London]. So there were a few people where there were just logistical challenges. But we were lucky to get so many people who were willing to participate.

Talk to me about the In Memoriam. There were a lot of people to cover and some — Matthew Perry, Norman Lear, Andre Braugher — were very fresh.

Collins There were lots of ideas on how to bring that together. Once we had Charlie [Puth] and The War and Treaty doing the theme, we knew that that was a great base, and then it just became about recognizing 44 people. Yes, Norman Lear and Matthew Perry, you have to give some special attention to, but you don’t want anyone to feel slighted. Everybody’s contribution was significant, and this is their moment inside this package. So the hardest part was really trying to find a balance. We always wanted to do something with All in the Family, and that wound up being the perfect setup: starting with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers onstage and having Matthew Perry be the last picture.

Was there any ovation to get the Friends cast?

Rouzan-Clay It’s still very fresh for them.

Collins We had talked about it early on — but I can imagine, from their side, they’re mourning someone who was still very close to them. I can’t speak for them, but we all have to respect that they were their own family. It was probably just a little too soon.

In terms of bits, what landed better than expected — and was there anything that didn’t land as well as you thought it was going to?

Collins I think Anthony might have gotten a little pitchy during the second verse of “Good Times.” (Laughs.)

Rouzan-Clay I am sad he didn’t dance. We were hoping to get a two-step somewhere in that open.

Collins We rehearsed everything and it all ended up how we wanted it to be. Some were really driving at comedy — like Tracee Ellis Ross and Natasha Lyonne doing I love Lucy. Some were driving at, “We’re here, in case you don’t know it, and this is how awesome we are.” That to me is like a Grey’s Anatomy and acknowledging the length of time it’s been on television by having original castmembers there.

Mama Doris is a national treasure, but you also don’t want to play off Jennifer Coolidge. How did that moment play behind the scenes for you?

Rouzan-Clay We did pre-warn everyone that it was 45 seconds! (Laughs.)

Collins We just tried to do it in fun. Mama Doris was very sweet about it, and Jennifer played into it and she definitely finished her speech. She got to say the last part, which was really important. We definitely weren’t going to stop her from finishing. We were really just trying to help it along a little bit. It’s not just that people tend to ignore the playoff music, I feel like it can come off cold. Instead of music coming out of nowhere, we wanted Mama Doris to be like, “OK, baby, you’ve thanked everybody.”

Rouzan-Clay It’s how mothers are. You can be stern and loving at the same time.

Collins If you notice, she never went to the stage. It wasn’t like Sandman from The Apollo. But I do feel like people really thought about what they were going to say in their speeches and they were all great. I’ll never know if it was because they didn’t want to deal with Mama Doris. (Laughs.)

And nobody really got political.

Collins Right? Yeah. Look, obviously someone could have. We didn’t go political with the show. We tried to really stay in the vein of celebrating television.

Mama Doris also kept things tight. I looked at my watch and there were like 20 minutes left in the show and only three awards to go. Did anything have to drag a little longer at the end — like that conveyor belt of chocolates?

Collins At one point we were nine minutes under. That was about maybe midway through, and then we just started letting things expand. By the time we got to the I Love Lucy bit, I think we were a minute under. We wound up being 22 seconds over in the end.

Rouzan-Clay With the delay, Jesse, we actually went off the air at 7:59:59.

Collins Really? Those 22 seconds have really been bothering me, even though that is Emmitt Smith’s number.

Before I let you go, I have to know if you were aware of how many standing ovations you were going to get … because there were a lot.

Rouzan-Clay It was great though, right? To see so much support and energy from that audience. We were pleasantly surprised. We were hoping to see the audience really support people like Christina Applegate and Carol Burnett, but you never know.

Collins Taryn Hurd, who was our producer and booked the talent, she called it. She looked at the rundown and she named every single one of them.

Rouzan-Clay Because, just to be clear, that played into our over-under, too! The standing ovations definitely were causing some spread on the time, but it was worth it.

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