Latenight hosts, producers collaborate

Road to the Emmys 2012: Variety, Music or Comedy

Back in May 2008, when Michael Naidus was elevated to producer for “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” the Scottish funnyman told Variety: “I couldn’t be more pleased for Michael. His years of Machiavellian sneakiness have finally paid off.”

Regular viewers of the show are familiar with Ferguson’s deft use of mock outrage and sarcastic needles directed at Naidus, who operates on the floor just off stage. But few get to glimpse the hours of pre-taping collaboration between those two and others that go into each night’s telecast. Similar relationships exist throughout the latenight talkshow circuit.

“Michael on the floor represents the authority figure,” Ferguson says of Naidus. “He represents the producer, network, FCC, sponsors. He represents the voice of reason. I rail against him, but in reality he’s my friend. He’s been my friend for years.”

Naidus has been with “Late Late Show” for years in various capacities, starting as a publicist.

“For us, everything is about flexibility,” Naidus says. “Anything that he does, we’ll make it OK. Him learning that we will make that happen is the kind of shorthand we live by. There’s nothing we can’t say to each other that can’t be achieved with just a quick look or a gesture.

“If the lights go out, and someone in the audience is getting more attention than the lead guest, then that’s what we go with. Something always happens, and that’s what the show is about tonight.”

Ferguson says his staff of five writers “is probably less than half of anyone else doing this thing.” But aside from a few topical gags for the monologue, most of the show is created on the fly. And, he says, he has little involvement in booking guests.

“I’ll talk to them when they get here,” he says. “I’ll occasionally walk into the booking room and say, ‘Oh, no!’ or ‘Finally, at last!’ If I have an idea for a guest, I have a little juice, so I can help make it happen.”

Like Ferguson and Naidus, Fallon and his producer, Mike Shoemaker, are simpatico when it comes to churning out fresh latenight entertainment. The two worked together at “Saturday Night Live,” and Fallon brought over Shoemaker, who had performed myriad duties for more than 20 years at “SNL,” when he took over hosting duties in March 2009.

“He was the exact first person I thought of,” Fallon says. “I called him, I said, ‘I’m doing this thing, I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know if I can do it without you.'”

Since then, Fallon, Shoemaker and producer Gavin Purcell, along with a crack writing staff, have worked out an operating system that purrs along with minimal snags. They have regular meetings to discuss whom to book, what skits to include and toss around ideas.

“It’s a pretty positive show here,” Fallon says. “We don’t agree on every single thing, but we kind of do. We’re pretty tight. We have discussions, but we always end up with the same decision.”

Because latenight shows aren’t delivering hard news or somber drama, comedic instincts are just as important in the day-to-day processing of shows as administrative skills. Jeff Ross, exec producer of TBS’ “Conan,” has known and worked with O’Brien for more than 20 years and feels their comedy compatibility is essential to creating good work.

“Conan is involved in every aspect of the show,” Ross says. “His comedy instincts are strong as far as how things should be. He probably has the highest batting average of anybody when it comes to creating comedy. Our whole process is pretty quick now, because we’ve been doing it for so long. If you don’t know what he likes by now, you should probably get into another line of work.”

Ferguson has the added benefit of having his show exec produced by Peter Lassally, the “host whisperer” who worked in the same capacity with Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and who was an early champion of Ferguson.

“What makes Peter extraordinary, is not only his skill at producing these shows, but also the way he conducts his business,” he says. “If I have a terrible idea, he’ll never say, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’ He’ll say, ‘Let’s try it.’ But there’s a ‘Let’s try it, that’s a terrible idea,’ or there’s a ‘Let’s try it’ in the sense that he really means it.

“Peter is a remarkable human being. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have stumbled into his world.”

Getting together with people you like and creating something fun every night for millions of viewers? Sounds like the kind of work that might keep talented individuals together for long periods of time.

“At the end of the day, who gets to do this as long as we’ve gotten to do it?” Ross asks. “How lucky are we?”

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