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Getting tapped to host the Emmys, long a coveted milestone for any comic, can feel a bit like drawing the short straw these days. With live viewership in a free fall and COVID-19 safeguards still making traditional celebrations untenable, awards shows are hot potatoes — and it’s the host left holding the tuber when the ratings and reviews come in.
Cedric the Entertainer, who will host the 2021 Emmys telecast Sept. 19 on CBS, says that’s all the more reason to rise to the occasion. “The attitude you’ve got to take with anything these days is that people have unlimited choices for what to do with their time,” says the veteran stand-up and star of CBS’ sitcom The Neighborhood. “So if you do turn on the Emmys, I have to make it so that you’re not going to want to change the channel.”
Speaking over the phone Sept. 1, the 57-year-old Original Kings of Comedy star opened up about his new approach to joke-writing amid cancel culture, taking on a leadership role in the comedy community and why he has no plans to go too far off-script on television’s biggest night.
What is the worst-case scenario for you: getting called out for playing it too safe or potentially crossing a line and upsetting people?
Nowadays, it’s crossing the line, right? It’s not bad if you’re the news for a couple of days, but you don’t want to be the guy that ruins the night or someone’s moment. At the same time, you’ve got to be yourself. As comedians, we’re up on a tightrope trying to make sure people are entertained. But, again, we’re living in a hypersensitive society. You don’t know where that line is sometimes. It moves from day to day.
In terms of that tightrope, you’re just getting back to live stand-up shows — and you’re returning to an entirely different climate. How do you approach material when the stakes of pissing people off are so high?
It’s almost like an English paper. You have your joke, then you look at the words and think about how you can transform them. Should I say “yo mama” or “a mama?” It’s about making sure the joke lands in a way that you say what you wanted to say — but you don’t necessarily direct it at anybody specifically. Or, if you do have to say something specifically, be even more specific. Make it about one person, so it’s not a general joke. You have to be careful that you’re not making general statements or a whole group of people can jump on Twitter and turn your life upside down.
These past 18 months have been transformative on a few levels. How are you approaching your career and what you want to say after, I would imagine, a fair amount of forced introspection?
I noticed, with the platforms that I have, this idea of leadership — a lot of people come to me to try to get things done. I don’t know when I became this kind of OG godfather, especially when it comes to Black comedians, but I want to evoke change. I want things to happen in this business. And I do have a voice, so I will use it to see if I can make a change. I used to just see myself as the artist who’d perform and peace out.
What’s one way that you feel you’ve leveraged your leadership role?
On The Neighborhood, I’m an executive producer. I’m making sure the show has a voice, making sure the episodes aren’t limiting and putting us in a box. We can talk about the subjects that we want to. I can do it with a TV show, and I can do it in life. That’s probably the greatest thing that I learned about myself in the last year.
Did you notice yourself drifting toward elder-statesman status?
It’s one of those things that kind of happens. It happens in our families. You look up and you find yourself in this patriarchal role. Everybody calls you for advice. Now I’m starting to feel like that in the industry. I’ve had so many comedians who need to negotiate contracts call me saying, “What should I do?” That’s great.
For a long time, people in Hollywood were reluctant to share information. And that’s one roadblock to parity, on several fronts, that at least seems to be getting easier to navigate.
It’s so true. You have to investigate, get the information. You find out the disparities in our industry when you call someone. The industry hasn’t changed much. I mean, someone just told me that I’m only the second solo African American host of the Emmys. That’s ridiculous. Out of all these years, it’s been Bryant Gumbel and me.
Awards show ratings keep hitting new lows. Obviously, that’s not your problem, but how does that pressure for this show to perform trickle down?
You know that there are people who’ll at least give the show a chance because it’s an opportunity to see stars. It’s about keeping them. I said that to the producers right away, “Let’s get rid of the ‘We’re behind the velvet rope and you’re not’ approach.” Let’s grab viewers and bring them back there with us like they’re at the party. That’s how I’m looking at it. If we capture that, people will be like, “Yo, that was a fun night.”
This idea of burning down the velvet rope has gained a lot of momentum these past few years.
Oh, Mikey, you will have the coalition for velvet ropes going crazy. They’ll have velvet ropes all around your house.
I welcome it. OK, I’m going to let you go, but we’re speaking almost two weeks out from the show. At what point do you like to have your material solidified?
I like to know exactly what I want to do about a week out. That keeps me comfortable. And I know that I always have the ability to improv in the moment — but if you get too far off the road map, then you’re like Waze, bro. You’re going to end up in somebody’s backyard.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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