Emmys 2012: TV's Funniest Late Night Writers Share Their Best Jokes (and the Ones That Got Away)
This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As the late-night field has grown increasingly crowded, the question remains: Can any of these shows unseat nine-time Emmy winner The Daily Show With Jon Stewart? Working heavily in Stewart and cable siblings Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher's favor is another election year offering delicious fodder, from Mitt Romney's wealth to Rick Santorum's sweater vests. Still, others -- including network series -- had razor-sharp offerings: Newly minted Emmy host Jimmy Kimmel hit it (really) big with an Oscar special featuring a surprisingly funny Oprah Winfrey and a bevy of A-listers in his trailer for Movie: The Movie, and NBC's Jimmy Fallon earned buzzy accolades for musical collaborations with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and President Obama. Heck, even Bravo's Andy Cohen and Kathy Griffin have worked their way into an Emmy conversation still dominated by veterans (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien). As Emmy voters consider their options in an odd race that pits talk shows against sketch series, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with head writers about what killed, what almost didn't air and their favorite targets.
THIS YEAR'S GIFT TO COMEDY WRITERS
Bill Maher, Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO): "We've had a lot of gifts with this election. There was the long primary fight, and one candidate was funnier than the next. It's funny because people kept asking if we were worried about comedy dying after Obama was elected, and the answer is not at all. As you can see, the Republicans have a very deep douchebag bench."
Tom Brunelle, Chelsea Lately (E!): "Pretty much all of the Republican nominees were great. Do you know how sad we were when Herman Cain dropped out? We even thought about pitching in and trying to fund his campaign so that he could keep going. He's wonderful: He makes pizzas; he sings; now he's a radio DJ. And Mitt Romney. I mean, that name alone is ridiculous. Mitt? I guess if you have $250 million in your portfolio, you can be named whatever you want."
Jonathan Morano, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (CBS): "Any election is a gift to comedy writers. Unfortunately, this election is one I'd like to regift because it's not really that funny."
Molly McNearney, Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC): "The GOP candidates. The election has served us well over here. But we're not afraid to reach into the gutter for the tanning mom, either."
LATE NIGHT'S EASIEST TARGET
A.D. Miles, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (NBC): "Probably Rick Perry. I think he secretly ran his campaign as a monologue premise."
Morano: "God bless them, the Kardashians. Everyone loves a good Kardashian joke. It's not like they've been placed there for us to take swings at. They put themselves out there, which is why they're fair game."
Maher: "Mitt Romney. For selfish purposes, I should have given him the $1 million because nothing could be better than Thurston Howell running for president. He can't help himself but start every sentence with, 'As an obscenely wealthy person …' He's going to f--- up the country, and what could be funnier than that?"
LATE NIGHT'S TOUGHEST TARGET
Jack Coen, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (NBC): "Obama and Romney. You can only do so many 'Mitt Romney is so rich' jokes. It's going to be tough unless they stumble, and Romney definitely has that ability, like misspelling 'America' and making the mistake of being such a kiss-ass at times: 'The trees in Michigan are the perfect height.' So I have hope there. But Obama is so slick and good, he's hard to make fun of."
THE BEST JOKE WE DID THIS YEAR
Gary Greenberg, Jimmy Kimmel Live!: "The bit with Oprah that we did for the Oscar show. Just the fact that she was willing to go that far and step outside of herself enough to punch someone in the face, steal a car and get naked in a tub full of bubbles with Jimmy there. We loved it."
McNearney: "Oprah was the best sport we've ever had here. She gave us the entire day -- and what is that worth, $4 million or something?"
Miles: "How about a combo of the best jokes we told this year? Newt Gingrich was upset because he left his McRib in Mitt Romney's car elevator on his way up to Larry King's 183rd birthday party, and now the elevator wouldn't work. 'What's work?' said the Kardashians."
Coen: "When Mark Zuckerberg got married, we did a joke that the couple tied the knot in a lovely ceremony where Mark promised never to poke another woman as long as he lived. But the last big story that really made life easy was Charlie Sheen."
THE JOKE WE ALMOST DIDN'T TELL (BUT DID)
Mike Sweeney, Conan (TBS): "We rehearsed a bit introducing a character named The Nog Hog. As you might guess, it involved a 600-pound live sow in the studio, drinking eggnog out of a large bowl. Conan was horrified and accused the writers of trying to pad out the rehearsal. Some of the writers muttered, 'It's so dumb, it's funny.' Conan immediately took the challenge. On the next show, he asked fans to vote on our website whether they wanted to watch something on television titled 'The Nog Hog.' More than 70 percent of voters responded 'yes.' So Conan went back on the air and said, 'Trust me, I've seen The Nog Hog sketch, and I'm doing you all a favor by not airing it -- unless 90 percent of you demand to see it.' Unfortunately for the writers, the voting shifted, and four weeks after it was first rehearsed, The Nog Hog made its debut -- to thudding silence. It's the last time our show picked comedy by the democratic method."
Coen: "When Jay celebrated 20 years with NBC, we did this joke: 'Today is our anniversary. Twenty years ago today we did our very first show, and in that time we've seen a lot of stars come and go from the program -- including me.' We almost didn't do it because we didn't want to stir that pot again about Jay leaving and coming back, but we also felt a need to cop to that fact that we're not saying Jay hosted The Tonight Show for 20 years, we're saying he was with NBC for 20 years."
Maher: "I did one about Newt Gingrich. He had left his first wife while she had cancer, and then he left his second wife who had multiple sclerosis. I said, 'I think the better question is, "Why, when Newt Gingrich f---s people, do they get very, very sick?" ' Did I think of not telling that one? No, I don't listen to those voices anymore. Remember, I've been thrown off TV before. My feeling is, they can't hurt me anymore. I'm playing with house money."
THE JOKE WE WANTED TO TELL (BUT COULDN'T)
Greenberg: "In the spring, there was a news piece that said that marijuana was kosher for Passover. And we wanted to do a bit where we interviewed a rabbi who was clearly stoned. Broadcast standards would not let us do that one. Would have been funny."
-- Additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie and Lesley Goldberg.