NBC's 'Toast to 2016' Producers Talk Avoiding "Heavier Topics," Going "All in on Fun"

Hoda Kotb (left )and Kathie Lee Gifford at the 'Toast to 2016' taping

"It's a New Year's Eve show, so it's not a complete review of everything that happened in 2016," Liz Cole says of the two-hour, star-studded year-in-review special. "People on New Year's Eve, they're probably watching the show when they're getting ready or in a festive mood, and we really tried to stay in that mood ourselves."

How do you put on a fun New Year's Eve celebration looking back at a year filled with divisive political rhetoric and numerous, surprising deaths of beloved celebrities? By keeping it light.

NBC's annual year-in-review primetime special is back, and this year the Toast to 2016 crew went "all in on the fun."

"Each year we've resolved to get more and more into the spirit of the night," executive producer Liz Cole tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think we're really in the sweet spot of that this year. At the end of the screening, I said, 'I don't think I've laughed this much all year.'"

That approach led Cole and her team to stay away from some of the year's "heavier topics."

"It's a New Year's Eve show, so it's not a complete review of everything that happened in 2016," she says. "People on New Year's Eve, they're probably watching the show when they're getting ready or in a festive mood, and we really tried to stay in that mood ourselves."

So while there's some political content in the two-hour program, once again emceed by Today co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, there's not "a whole lot," according to Cole, and what is featured is of a lighter tone, in keeping with what's not "a serious program."

"To give you a sense of the tone, one of the representatives of politics this year is Ken Bone and his red sweater, so that's kind of the sweet spot of where we're at this year," senior broadcast producer Adam Gorfain adds.

Beyond that, the look at some of the year's most talked-about topics will include coverage of the Chicago Cubs' long-awaited World Series victory, Hamilton fever, dabbing, cupping, prank videos and the mannequin challenge phenomenon. There's even a mannequin challenge on the special, which Gifford and Kotb said was particularly worth watching.

"If you are going to watch the special, just watch for that," Kotb says of the segment, which only took two takes to capture.

Gifford teases, "It has a surprise ending."

The Summer Olympics also makes the cut, with athletes like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky looking back on some of the fun moments from the 2016 Games, such as when Biles met her crush Zac Efron.

The Efron encounter was one of Kotb's favorite Olympic moments, recalling how "the Final Five exploded" and "turned into giggly girls."

In addition to the athletes, the special features several other stars, many from the NBCUniversal family, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Buble, Dana Carvey, Jaimie Alexander, Chrissy Metz, Howie Mandel, Harry Connick Jr., Melissa Rivers, Ana Gasteyer, Wanda Sykes, Maria Menounos, Brad Goreski, Taylor Kinney, Frankie Grande, Lisa Lampanelli, Carson Kressley, David Alan Grier, Andrew Rannells, Loni Love, Lester Holt, Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Tamron Hall and Dylan Dreyer.

"We really have a diverse group of people who are spot-on and clever and fun and really came to play," Gorfain says of this year's guests, some of whom will be using a Magic 8 Ball to make predictions about 2017.

As for what Gifford and Kotb are looking forward to, they both name-checked Nashville on CMT, with Gifford noting that they have a "little cameo." Kotb also is excited about the return of This Is Us, "because it is too good," she says.

"And music — anything that Bruno Mars happens to spit out in his bathroom when he is bored," she adds. "I will take that, too."

Gifford, meanwhile, is looking forward to catching up on pop culture after a news-centric 2016.

"This past year I was a news junkie, as so many people were," she says. "So it is going to be fun, now that it is all behind us, just to enjoy so much of the artistic endeavors I missed over the past year."

A Toast to 2016 airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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