As confusion enveloped the Oscars stage on Sunday night, and it became apparent that a mistake had been made in announcing the Best Picture winner, host Jimmy Kimmel’s writers felt another tinge of panic.
“My immediate reaction, when Warren came out and said ‘I read the wrong card,’ was ‘oh my God, Jimmy is going to be blamed for this,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” head writer Molly McNearney said. “Everyone right now thinks Jimmy Kimmel is playing a prank on the Oscars. And this is not good.”
Added her fellow head writer Danny Ricker: “I had to convince my mom that it wasn’t fake!”
Jimmy Kimmel Live
As they prepped for Monday’s all-new edition of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (no rest for the Oscar weary!), McNearney and Ricker took a moment to share with IndieWire some of the evening’s most memorable moments. And there were a bunch – starting with that fateful moment when the world realized that “Moonlight,” not “La La Land,” had won the top Academy Award.
“When the last guy gave his speech, that ‘even though we lost,’ I was very confused,” McNearney said. “And then I thought there was a Kanye moment going on, where someone had rushed up there who wasn’t supposed to be up there. And then when Jimmy appeared, he had nothing.”
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That’s because the Oscars telecast was supposed to end with one final gag at the expense of Kimmel’s longtime faux nemesis, Matt Damon. “Other movies were favored over ‘Manchester by the Sea’ so it was going to be Matt Damon having just lost, and Jimmy rubbing his nose in it,” Ricker said. “That went quickly out the window.”
Kimmel will explain in detail what happened on tonight’s show. “He can tell it better than we could,” Ricker said.
Added McNearney (who is also Kimmel’s wife): “We felt bad because we had our host out there without any material on what was happening. He had to wing it, which is where Jimmy thrives. The more uncomfortable, high pressure the situation, the more Jimmy shines. He took control of the situation and got people back on track. He genuinely felt bad for everyone involved. You don’t want that for anybody.”
Perhaps the biggest gamble of the night had come earlier in the evening, when Kimmel’s producers had identified a Starline Tours bus and secretly coaxed the tourists on board into the Kodak Theatre. That surprise took quite a bit of planning, and no one knew whether they’d be able to pull it off. “We were white-knuckling it through the whole show,” Ricker said.
Co-executive producer Jennifer Sharron spearheaded the bit, along with supervising producer Gary Greenberg.
“The genesis of it came from a writers’ meeting and Jimmy said he wanted to bring some real people into this event, because movies are for real people,” Ricker said. “He was interested in combining those two groups, and Gary had the idea of hijacking a Starline tour bus.”
As a result, Sharron and Greenberg went undercover Sunday: Greenberg was on the bus dressed as a tourist, while Sharron posed as a Starline tour guide assistant.
“They were covertly sending us information on these people, so we knew who Jimmy should talk to, and any interesting information about them,” Ricker said. “So while the Oscars are going, we’re backstage writing jokes as we get texts saying, ‘[These people] are engaged, and they like these celebrities.’ We were rewriting jokes for Jimmy on the air. That came together after the Oscars had started, it was going on in the background.”
The bus riders were told that they were “going on a tour to see Mario Lopez’s condo.” But actually, they were walking right into the Oscars. “We loved the way these celebrities interacted with them,” McNearney said. “One of the goals, particularly this year, was to bring the country together. It was a great moment where you got to see real people interacting with these people perceived as elitist.”
Ricker said the bit paid off when Denzel Washington jumped up and played along with one couple. “I wish there had been a camera on the writers when Denzel ran up because that was like hitting a 3-pointer,” Ricker said. “This bit could have gone disastrously, but she loved Denzel, he happened to be in his seat at that moment and he hopped up and played along.”
The producers, meanwhile, had another big challenge for Sunday: Figuring out how to feed the audience candy. An original idea was quickly scrubbed: “The original pitch was to shower [the audience] with loose Reese’s Pieces and M&Ms,” McNearney said. “But they tested it with balls of paper and they said the balls of paper were hurting people. We can’t do it with candy, it’s going to hurt people.”
Added Ricker: “We also realized people who spent time and money getting ready wouldn’t appreciate getting Goobers in their hair.”
That’s when the idea came along to parachute the treats. However, another challenge emerged, Ricker noted: “We wanted to drop the big movie theater sized boxes of candy but they said, ‘It’s going to kill somebody!'”
Still, Kimmel wanted to feed the audience (something he also did at the Emmys, with the help of his mother, who handed out peanut butter sandwiches). “The whole reason we did that was Jimmy thinks it’s necessary to feed the audience,” Ricker said. “It breeds goodwill and keeps the energy up. It’s become a bit of a trope now, but we were feeding them no matter up. What we wanted is what we got, fun shots of stars eating candy.”
As for Meryl Streep, who received a standing ovation after Kimmel playfully referenced Donald Trump’s characterization of her as “overrated,” the producers originally had something more elaborate in mind.
“We were going to give her a pony for her 20th Academy Award nomination,” McNearney said. “We really wanted to give her a pony on live TV. She was up for it in the beginning, and then I think she got a little nervous about a live animal that she was responsible for holding a leash to for three and a half hours. So we ended up not giving her a pony, and gave her a standing ovation instead.”
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Among things that had to be scrubbed: Jokes about celebrities who didn’t show up. Natalie Portman’s announcement that she wouldn’t attend bummed out McNearney, because she had some choice jokes planned. “We had a lot of great jokes for Natalie Portman being there and being pregnant,” she said. “As delighted as we are for her and her hopefully soon new child, we were bummed she wasn’t there because we had some great jokes.”
Jimmy Kimmel Live
As for the one that fell flat, Ricker admitted that an O.J. Simpson gag that the writers loved didn’t quite work in the room, due to mitigating circumstances: “After the ‘OJ: Made in America’ documentary won, we thought we could use the joke we had written, ‘Congratulations OJ, you get an extra piece of boloney on your sandwich!’ When it won, the writers were excited that he got to do the boloney joke. And then the people who won the Oscar gave a very heart-felt speech, and it was so touching. I think Jimmy felt the situation had changed a little bit and he didn’t want to be inappropriate. But then I think Jimmy got a little nervous.”
Added McNearney: “You could see the dilemma, he’s sitting on this great joke for OJ but the mood in the room changed. If you watch it, you can see what’s going on in his head: ‘I guess I can’t do the OJ joke now!’ And he just does it anyway. And then it fell flat, and he just immediately recovered with a stream of consciousness about the crowd turning on Kimmel… I appreciate that Mel Gibson laughed at that joke.”
Another surprise for Kimmel came a few days before the ceremony. Looking to parody a series of packages that ran all night, featuring stars discussing what films influenced them (such as Seth Rogen and “Back to the Future”), Kimmel taped a gag segment in which he, tongue-in-cheek, lauded Damon’s “We Bought a Zoo.”
“Jimmy and I watched ‘We Bought a Zoo’ the weekend before the Oscars, which we were actually pleasantly surprised at how cute that movie was,” McNearney said. “We really enjoyed it. And we were really bummed while watching it. Just based on the title we were hoping that it would be bad.”
Said Ricker: “We clearly write a lot of Matt Damon jokes on this show and the number one thing that we reference is ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ None of us have seen it, but that’s what we reference because the name is hilarious.”
Damon was shown the clip the day before the Oscar rehearsal, and McNearney said “he was hysterically laughing, because Matt Damon is the world’s best sport. We love him so much. We’re not allowed to say that, but the writers love him so much.”
This year’s Oscarcast departed with past shows by opening with Justin Timberlake, who performed his “Trolls” song “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” McNearney said that was Oscars executive producers Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Todd.
“I know we traditionally do a pre-tape cold open, which we did at the Emmys, but the Oscars feel a little different,” she said. “It feels like the focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the host. Jimmy wanted them to feel like it was their night. He didn’t want to open the show making it all about him with a comedy bit. Starting the show with an Oscar-nominated song that got the crowd up and moving benefited us and kept the focus on the people who were there nominated.”
Now that he’s finally hosted the Oscars, will Kimmel and his team be back next year?
Quipped an exhausted McNearney: “I don’t know — the thought of that makes me want to cry!”