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Producer power

From late-night to Emmy night, Jeff Ross is Conan O'Brien's right-hand man.

Jeff Ross showed his value to Conan O'Brien for about the 6 millionth time last month as the two sat side by side onstage during NBC's Emmy presentation at the Television Critics Assn.'s annual summer press tour inPasadena. O'Brien, the host of Sunday's 58th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, was being pressed during the question-and-answer period by a critic who thought the lanky redhead was suggesting that nobody watching the Emmys actually cares who wins.

"No, no," interrupted Ross, O'Brien's executive producer on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and a co-producer on this year's Emmy telecast. "I think what Conan meant was ..."

For the past 13 years, Ross has jumped in to guide O'Brien through such potentially shaky situations. Like a caring professor, he offers guidance when appropriate, corrects missteps when necessary and is by O'Brien's side for all big tests.

Thus far, the pair has passed every one with flying colors. As a result, Ross, who honed his producing skills under Lorne Michaels on the influential 1988-94 sketch-comedy show "The Kids in the Hall," and O'Brien, a former comedy writer who has climbed his way up the late-night ladder after replacing David Letterman at NBC in 1993, will take their act to the biggest stage of all after Jay Leno retires in 2009.

"That's the idea; that's the plan," says Ross, as if attempting to remind himself that he truly is set to become the next executive producer of "The Tonight Show." "I would have never thought that I would wind up doing that, but life takes its strange twists and turns."

It's an odd concept that anything could twist or turn for a man whose job has kept him in the same studio at New York's Rockefeller Center for more than 2,300 hours of shows over 13 seasons. But try and tell that to Ross, who is juggling a five-night-a-week talker, preparing the Emmy telecast and partnering with O'Brien on their own shingle, Conaco Prods. (Their first series is the upcoming NBC midseason entry "Andy Barker, P.I.," starring Andy Richter, O'Brien's "Late Night" sidekick from 1993-2000.)

"People always ask: 'How do you do it every day? How do you do the hours?'" Ross says. "It's like anything else: You get up in the morning and you go to work, and you have this job, and you get into the rhythm of doing it.

"The harder thing for me these days is the weeks we're not doing ('Late Night') because you're used to this adrenaline thing where every day at 5:30 (p.m.) the audience is in there, and you have to do the show," he adds. "It's an interesting dynamic that's hard to understand, and I didn't understand it until I was doing it for a year -- and then (I realized), 'Oh, this is how it works.'"

Ross' latest adrenaline fix is the Emmys. He lurked in the corners in 2002, when O'Brien hosted the telecast for the first time, as "sort of an uncredited person, just helping Conan with his stuff." O'Brien was praised for his efforts -- his brand of edgy but accessible humor is a good fit for the sometimes by-the-numbers awards-show format -- and NBC wanted him back this year.

And when you get O'Brien, you get Ross. The assignment has meant plenty of extra hours for Ross in the writers' room at "Late Night," making that show's title even more appropriate than usual.

"It's a little bit hard to do the show every night and have to worry about this, and the hours have been a little long lately," Ross says. "It's OK, but it's no good for the golf game."

Ross plans to use the experience culled from his work producing variety shows, as well as his deep knowledge of O'Brien's qualities, to tackle his latest task Sunday.

"It's not unlike when we started the late-night show," Ross says. "The idea is not to reinvent the wheel; the idea is to use it to your advantage. We're not coming in here wanting to do this crazy, outrageous stuff -- we just want it to be funny."