Ken Ehrlich on How Grammys Handled Academy Scandal and Kobe’s Death— and Hugging It Out With Ariana Grande

In a Variety Q&A, the Grammys' producer discusses how the show addressed or alluded to the elephants in the room... and the evolution of memorable performances from Grande, Camila Cabello and Billie Eilish.

Ken Ehrlich Grammys Award Show Producer
Courtesy of Ken Ehrlich

Sudden death, scandal, disenfranchised divas, a moved-up airdate… It’s safe to say that Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich faced a few more difficulties than usual in mounting what his final edition of the telecast he’s been at the helm of for 40 years. Some of these he had a year to try to solve. But then his production team only had about six hours before airtime Sunday to figure out how to handle the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant with the weight it merited.

Ehrlich spoke with Variety Monday about dealing with the Bryant tragedy; how the ongoing Recording Academy imbroglio influenced the tone of the show; getting Ariana Grande on the telecast a year after things went publicly sour between them; how Taylor Swift was only ever penciled in to the lineup; why he chose “I Sing the Body Electric” from “Fame” as the all-star climax; and what went into those highly emotional numbers by Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Demi Lovato and Tanya Tucker.

Was everything that was happening with Deborah Dugan’s battle with the Recording Academy trustees a buzzkill to what you were working on with the show? Did the show ever feel in danger from it?

With the controversy, if you’re going to call it that, at the Academy, I never let that get into our DNA at all. I had one or two meetings with my staff as it was happening and said to them, “Look, there’s stuff out there. It’s not going to be complimentary. It ultimately will spill over to what the show is, even though I don’t think it should. But we can’t be distracted.” This was on top of how little time I had on the show this year [which had its airdate moved up by two weeks due to a domino effect from Oscar and Super Bowl changes]. I couldn’t let it become a distraction, and we never did, even though we were thrown into it in one way or another, because we couldn’t avoid it. The fact of the matter is that until yesterday at 11 (a.m.), we had righted… I don’t want to say righted our ship, but I just felt so good about the show. Ultimately it should speak to some extent for the Academy, but I did my best to in some way separate it so that people would take the show for what the show was, and (leave) whatever was happening at the Academy on its own.

Was there any threat of defections?

I never had an artist call me during this and say, “I’m not doing the show.” I never had an artist come and say to me, “Ken, what should I do?”

What happened with Taylor Swift?

She had called us and said, “I really want to do the show.” Well, she didn’t call me. Who’s kidding who? But one of her representatives called and said, specifically, that she wanted to do the show for me. And then it was not confirmed. So these reports that she pulled out of the show… She was never booked. I had her in a rundown. There was a placeholder if it did confirm. But she was never confirmed. I mean, obviously I would have loved to have had her. And I’m really not at liberty to go into why ultimately she did not confirm — as opposed to pulled out — but I understood her reasoning, let’s just say that.

But nobody else. I didn’t have one call. As I look back at it, I probably had the most cooperative group of artists, artists’ managers and creatives than pretty much we’ve ever had. Everybody was into it. And it made for really interesting television.

Interesting in part because you were following the news of Kobe’s death by hours, and it was clear that had to be addressed on the air.

From 11 to 5 yesterday… how many hours is that? Five, six. (Much of the team had) gone through Whitney together, so we were kind of prepared. Ben Winston (who will produce the show next year, and joined the ranks this year) was very helpful in this, because what we had to do was keep our eye on fixing things that might’ve had to be fixed in the dress. He started the ball rolling. Right after the dress, we went to see Alicia, who was amazing about all of this. She was on her way to do a link on stage in my tunnel underneath, and I pulled her aside and said, “I have some really terrible news for you, but I want you to know that after I tell it to you, I’m going to ask you to keep your focus here, and then we’ll deal with this once we finish with the dress… Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash.” At that point, I didn’t even know it was also members of his family. She visibly blanched and said, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” She did not cry.

Right after the dress, David (Wild, the head writer) and Ben and Garry Hood, my stage manager, went into her dressing room and spent 15-20 minutes giving her a couple of options of what she could do. What we would wound up basically doing was moving her song from our opening act [in which Keys sang about nominees to the tune of Lewis Capaldi’s “Somebody Like You”] to restart the show with that in act two. Act one became Lizzo, Kobe [celebrated in a short speech by Keys], and Gwen (Stefani) and Blake (Shelton, dueting). A lot of people had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen, because the staging changed. But the fact of the matter was that literally between 3:30 and 4:58, we had accomplished that — dealing with a pretty momentous event in a place where Kobe Bryant had lived. The only consequence was that the show ran 12 minutes long. In my original rundown, I had it three or four over, which was acceptable to the network. We probably spread about seven or eight minutes more, which is not bad, considering what had to be done.

How quickly did bringing in Boyz II Men to sing with Alicia in honor of Kobe come to mind?

We were sitting in her dressing room thinking about if there was some music there that we could put there, and she said, “I think I want to think of a couple of titles.” It’s funny: I thought of Boyz II Men, but I didn’t say it. Then just after I left her dressing room  I got a call (from Keys suggesting they do “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”). You know that they were already on the show with Tyler (the Creator). We ran them over really quick from the hotel and put ‘em in her dressing room, and they rehearsed that maybe for six minutes while she was getting dressed, then it went on the air. It’s really amazing what the human condition can do when you’re tested. And we were tested.

The Staples people were really terrific. They lit his jerseys, which was not hard to do, and we cut to that shot a couple of times, and they made jerseys available to a few of the acts that wanted to wear them. I thought we did the right thing.

Did you feel like the overall tone of the show had to become more serious in any way? Or with what had been going on with the Academy, had that already affected it?

At (rehearsal) Saturday, it was not so much even the verbiage, but the tone was different — she was up, and it was “it’s going to be a great night for music.” Even then, though, she was also saying, “We have things to do,” and she referenced what was going on at the Academy. When she went out last night, tonally, I know it had to be different. There’s an acting term, I think: she made the adjustment. She pulled back from joyfulness to a little more thoughtfulness. I’m incredibly proud of her, that she was able to do that. We know she can sing, we know she can play the piano, but she has acted, too, and I think she had to use some of those instincts to get into that.

You’ve said you’re fine not having a host some years, but you had to be glad this was a year with a host. The situation was similar when LL Cool J hosted the year Whitney Houston died the day before the show, and he knew how to manage it.

Absolutely, it would have been very difficult without a host. We probably would had to hunt for someone that could cover that. We actually did reach out, and I’d rather not say to whom, but there were a couple of former Lakers, and actually a current Laker, to see if they were available. But when we’re at Staples, they’re on the road, so it wasn’t going to work.

It was interesting how Alicia alluded to the Academy problems without ever being overt, and with a song that was meant to be light and funny but actually had some sweetness and emotion to it in the context of appreciating the power of music when you realize that everything you take for granted could be taken away or disrupted at any moment.

Well, in all honesty — and I think I want to careful about how I say this — we were already in the… [Pauses.] …not in the barrel. But we were already cognizant of the fact that because of what was going on politically with the Academy, we had to do a little different kind of show. We already had pulled back a little bit because of what was going on. It couldn’t be a normal Grammy show, with what was going on with the Academy and Deborah Dugan. The show itself soared; musically it was exactly what it needed to be. But tonally it (already) needed to be reflective. So when Kobe was killed, we had to take it one step further. In a way, we were halfway there already. She couldn’t come out and say, “Oh my God, we’ve got a great night of music that’s going to be amazing,” like she did last year. There was something hanging over that needed to be dealt with.

Your writer, David Wild, is so fluent with writing comedy for the presenters, it was easy to imagine him putting a red pen through jokes in the script once this all started happening.

[Calling across the room] David, it’s Variety… Did you have to cross out jokes, or are you just not that funny?

Let’s talk individual performances. Shooter Jennings said at the Americana showcase the night before that Tanya Tucker couldn’t keep her appearance because she had bronchitis and had to try to save her voice for the Grammys. Was that a concern for you?

No, I wasn’t aware of it. You’re telling me for the first time. When we rehearsed with her, she sounded great, so I don’t know about bronchitis. She was really good. Brandi Carlile sent me the sweetest note. I think it made her as least as thrilled as last year when she did “The Joke” on the show, getting Tanya on the show to perform.

Lizzo didn’t win that many awards, but nobody will remember that. All people will remember is that she killed at the top of the show and then gave a great speech, about Kobe, for one that she did win.

Well, that’s my mantra to artists who sometimes are, believe it or not, resistant to being on the Grammys because the Academy has not treated them well or whatever. I mean, it should be on my forehead: Nobody remembers who won the Grammy. What they remember is what they saw on the stage. I don’t mean that as a slam against the Academy or what the Grammy means to them. There’s no artist that isn’t introduced by the two words “Grammy winning.” But careers are changed with what people do on stage. Gary Clark (Jr.)’s career was changed last night. H.E.R.’s career was changed last year.

One of the best moments of the show was just the moment when Lizzo’s flute dropped down out of the heavens on that tray.

Yeah. And it didn’t drop down as carefully as it did in rehearsal. Some dancer brushed by it and I thought that the flute was going to go flying.

Billie Eilish has long done two songs acoustically in her show, and it seemed like one of those could be a powerful moment on TV.

We sat in (Interscope CEO) John Janick’s office and we talked about it. I had a little sheet with just two songs on it, “When the Party’s Over” and “Bad Guy.” And then she said, “I’d like to do ‘When the Party’s Over.'” I already had an idea for it. I told her I wanted to cross-light her, with just her and Finn out on the satellite stage with some spots flaring in on her, but the softest light possible. And I wanted whoever was going to introduce her to say at the end of the intro something like, “At the Grammys, we always tell you, ‘Let’s hear it,’ but on this one, please listen,” and to do the shhhhh with your index finger on your lips. I wanted that because I thought that would register — and it did. It’s the quietest moment I’ve ever had on our Grammys show. No question. It wasn’t gimmicky. It was real. I love both of them. They’re both terrific to work with, too. I hope they stay that way.

It’s weird to think that this show might be remembered for its quiet ballads, between Billie, Tanya, Demi Lovato and Camila Cabello. Those were some of the blow-you-away numbers, but I can imagine somebody saying, wait, you’re going to do four songs with just a piano?

Well, you’re not the only person that thought that might happen. As you know, I have this TV committee that I’ve had to work with all these years, and at one point there was some call where it was like, “Ken, isn’t this show going to be sleepy?” And I probably lost my temper, which I can do at times, and came close to telling them what they didn’t want to hear. But I knew what this show was going to be. If you’re looking at the rundown of the show and see the pacing and where I put each of those numbers and how far apart they were, and the fact that that Billie Eilish was followed by f—ing Aerosmith and Run DMC… The show is up and down, purposely. Not that there is any such thing anymore as linear television where people sit there and watch from beginning to end. Obviously some people do, but people are gonna ingest this in chunks, streaming and all the rest of it. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to build a show that you can watch from start to finish. And that’s all about pacing.

They were critical. They really said, “Ken, we think” — “we” think; who thinks, what do you mean? Who thinks that? — “there may be too many down numbers in the show.” There aren’t too many down numbers, because Camila Cabello singing to her father is a lot f—ing different than Demi Lovato opening her heart, which is a lot different than Billie Eilish and her brother sitting there barely getting the notes to register on the meter…

The other side of it is (the finale) “I Sing the Body Electric,” which last night, afterwards, a bunch of them came up to me and said, “We thought you were crazy with that one.” Nobody could see what that was, even though I showed them the video from the movie and said, “I’m going to basically clone that and replace the high school kids with people that you know, for the most part.” I’ve loved that number all my life, and it’s incredibly interdisciplinary in that it’s pop, it’s rock, it’s gospel, some R&B, and it’s classical. If there’s anything that’s been a passion of mine, it’s about bringing people together, and this song definitely does that… and it’s about the importance of music education. When we first rehearsed it full on Saturday morning, it probably got the loudest (cheer). That was not about me (although it was billed as a tribute to Ken Ehrlich), but just about music in general, and the future being bright. This had to be the exclamation point for the show.

Was Camila Cabello immediately open to doing what is her most personal album track, an ode to her father that’s never going to be a single in a million years?

Yeah, she was open to it. But we had a problem when we rehearsed it. She was wearing the shoes she was going to wear on the show and couldn’t walk down that last set of stairs. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school. The creative guy that works with her is a guy named Paul Caslin, and I really like him; he’s very helpful. They were trying to get me to say she could stay on what we call the passerelle level — the middle of three levels —  and not go down the stairs to the deck to finish the song in front of her father. And (they said this) rightfully so; I mean, last time I looked, I was not a woman that wore five inch fields. She doubted that she could do it. I asked her to do it three times, and the third time — and I was thisclose to losing that connection…  The connection meant that she was standing three feet from her father as opposed to 12 feet from her father. And so the last time she made it, and so she did the last verse-chorus standing there right in front of him. When the first shot you saw of him was him crying… it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as wonderful as if she had never came down to him.

I wasn’t nasty (in urging her). When I get these things done — and I don’t always get them done —it’s gentle, and some of (the reaction) is probably, “Wait a minute, I’m looking at this old guy. He probably knows something.” I know she loved that she did it. I like her a lot. I really do. I thought she did a great job last year, opening the show. I thought she did a great job the year before, just standing there and talking about her Cuban background before introducing U2. I think she’s terrific and so bright.

Did you have Camila’s dad there for the rehearsal or a stand-in?

I kept telling them, “I didn’t want him here until the show.” I told the mother: “Nope. Don’t bring him to the building. I want the first time he sees it to be sitting in that chair,” and obviously it worked. I love making people cry, for a good reason.

Speaking of people crying, Demi starting right off crying, and then had to compose herself to restart the song. Was that a tough one to get through in rehearsal, too? 

Rehearsals are never what the actual is. So I think it’s times 10. In rehearsal she kind of got through it, but she was a little tentative. Sometimes I’ll rehearse something three or four times because I think it gets better. With her, I think we ran it once. Maybe twice. But I didn’t want her to do it anymore, because I didn’t want her to get comfortable. I wanted her to feel what the emotion of that room was (in the moment). And you felt it. … I’m not sure I understand the inner workings of any of these people’s minds, but I know that it was important to her to communicate to let people know what she had gone through. I believe that there was just a sheer desire to help other people. We talked about it, and I believe that was there.

And then Ariana finally got to do “7 Rings,” a year after there was some trouble over that. It seems like she got her wish — and you too, assuming you had a wish to still have her on the show.

Absolutely. We were very evenly matched, and we had a couple of really sweet moments. There were a couple of things when she put it on stage. She was on a lift, and started the number up in the air, and never connected with the orchestra before she went into the bedroom. She said, “Ken, what do you think of this?” And I said this, as I am wont to do: “I don’t like it.” I said, “What’s the purpose of you being up in that lift? You’re not connecting.” “Well, what should I do?” “I think the first part of that song belongs in front of the orchestra. And then do whatever you’re going to do in the bedroom.”

Then she was finishing downstage, but the song didn’t really have a finish. I said to her, “You’re telling a story here, but not finishing the story.” She said, “What should I do?” I mean, she really did. I said, ”Why don’t you get back into bed and do something with the ring.” And that’s exactly what she did. And just that little lighthearted “I’m not taking myself that seriously” bit at the end of the (performance) endeared her to the audience. That’s all. So we did get along, and because she was so open, and because we got past what was really a communications error, we now are old pals.

It didn’t feel like either of you was tip-toe-ing around the other as you talked about fine-tuning it?

Not at all; it was pretty direct. I went down to the Forum to see her one night, and we talked for a little while and we hugged each other and we said, “Let’s get past this. There’s no reason for this to happen. Let’s work on doing a great number on the Grammys.” That was it. No drama.