For Emmy nominees in the category of variety, music or comedy program writing, one moment looms large: the annual can-you-top-this packages that introduce the writing staffs on the kudocast.
Past years have included Conan O’Brien driving away a group of Hispanic migrant workers standing in for his writers, and “Real Time With Bill Maher” scribes cavorting in bathroom stalls in homage to Sen. Larry Craig.
Counted on as a comedy highlight of what can be a hit-and-miss broadcast, the creators of these montages thrill to the task but feel the pressure.
“Comedy writers tend to be jaded and hard to please, so … you’re just trying not to embarrass yourself,” says “Saturday Night Live” writer Seth Meyers. “We’re all fans of the other shows, and you want to keep up the quality.”
Indeed, expectations run high, and these packages carry unique challenges.
“Nobody wants to look at this group of writers,” says Justin Stangel, head writer on “Late Show With David Letterman.” “(We’re) locked in (our) office all day, not exposed to sunlight, eating junk food. So instead of putting us on TV, we just try to be funny for a 30-second clip.”
Most staffs begin brainstorming immediately after nomination announcements. While packages are short, there’s much to do — and many limitations.
“You have to read the names of the writers, be funny, and hopefully the payoff has something to do with Dave,” Stangel says. “We produce two to three (ideas). … Dave will give notes, and ultimately, Dave will pick it.”
Producers also have financial considerations. A few years ago, “SNL” flew Chris Kattan, writer Paula Pell and a costumer to L.A. to film Kattan dressed as each writer. Today, that wouldn’t happen.
“Times are different,” says “SNL” alum Tina Fey. “They’d be like, ‘What?! No … here’s a handheld camera. Walk around the office; you’ll think of something.’ ”
Some packages cast celebrities, as when “Late Show” enlisted Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) to whack the entire staff. Others use nonrealistic representations, like the time when “SNL” transformed its writers into Wii avatars.
“It’s a lot to cram into 30 seconds,” Stangel says. “Hopefully … what you come up with is better than what you did last year.”
The anxiety culminates at the telecast, when America sees which package gets the biggest laugh.
“I really want to beat ’60 Minutes,'” Meyers deadpans. “They’re so pretentious. I don’t think they think it’s supposed to be funny.”
Others, like Eric Stangel, Justin’s brother and writing partner, care less for competition than the experience itself.
“We (just) hope to get nominated,” he says, “so we can meet the ‘Real Housewives of New York.’ “