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Westminster grad Rob Kutner piles up Emmys, writes for ‘Conan’

Rob-kutnerWestminster Schools grad Rob Kutner has won five Emmy Awards, so many he actually had one to give to his mom Jeanney, who lives in Sandy Springs.

“Now she finally has something to talk to guests about that doesn’t involve the dog,” a yellow Labrador Retriever named Che, Kutner wrote in an email interview earlier this week.

Kutner is not a household name outside his own household. He didn’t win his Emmys starring in a big TV drama or sitcom. Rather, he was a writer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Now, Kutner writes monologue jokes and throws out sketch ideas for Conan O’Brien on his new TBS show “Conan.”

“I bring in a little of the political awareness and topicality I gleaned from my ‘Daily Show’ experience, plus a still-annoying-after-38-years penchant for wordplay and silliness,” he wrote. “If all else fails, I bring Cinnabon.”

Kutner, who is married with a two-year-old daughter and lives in what he calls the “slums of Beverly Hills,” joined ‘The Tonight Show” in 2009. Given that show’s storied history, he figured he had job security.

Instead, seven months in, NBC tried to force O’Brien to 12:05 a.m. and move Jay Leno back to 11:35 p.m. after Leno’s 10 p.m. experiment failed. O’Brien walked instead. “That week was a veritable Six Flags Scream Machine (see, local reference?) of emotions,” Kutner wrote. “We didn’t really know exactly when the last show was going to end, so we felt like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff before he looks down.”

Kutner spent eight months unemployed. Even after Conan nabbed the gig with Atlanta-based TBS, Kutner was unsure if he’d get a job there. Only in August did he get the call.  “Just when you think you’re out of Atlanta,” he cracked, “they pull you back in!”

His take on the Conan/Leno mess: “NBC rolled the dice on retaining a young audience [by dropping Leno for O'Brien] only to find the young’uns aren’t even watching TV on TV anymore! Our fan base, as we learned, is incredibly Webbed-up, and it’s hard for the antiquated ratings metrics to capture that.”

Compared to the “Tonight Show,” he thinks “Conan” is “a loosier-goosier sense of anything goes, which is fun. We don’t feel like there’s a venerated TV institution we have to somehow honor.” NBC also owns the old “intellectual property,” “so we’ve had to to reinvent all new things to do.”

Among his favorite jokes he contributed: placing the show, then O’Brien, on Craigslist right before O’Brien’s stint on ”The Tonight Show” ended. Then last month on the new show, he created a skit in which a Transportation Security Administration airport screener demonstrated in his own uniquely personal way how to stuff a turkey. (see below)

Kutner, who also wrote a facetious book about life after an apocalypse in 2008, shows up on occasion as a skit participant. For instance, he’s on the left in this mistletoe missile bit:

The story above will run in the print edition, Monday, January 3. Here are a few extra bits of info I couldn’t fit in:

Q: What synagogue did you attend? How orthodox were you? What was it like being Jewish in the South in the 1980s?

A: We attended first The Temple (Reform), then Ahavath Achim (Conservative) – bacon cheeseburgers to zero in 60 seconds. Ironically, going to Westminster made me more Jewishly observant, as the “casual evangelical” air there in the 80s pressured me to look more deeply into my traditions as well. As for being Jewish in Atlanta in the 80s, it honestly wasn’t a huge issue. I do remember as a little kid hearing my great-grandmother’s house had been owned by a KKK “Grand Dragon” … and being crushed the day I learned it had nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons.

Q: When did you know you were funny? How did it manifest itself? Were you a class clown?

A: From as early as I can remember, I thought things were hilarious that no one else did. Everyone else thought I was somewhere between “incomprehensible” and “annoying.” Then I was introduced to sweet, sweet Ritalin. I settled into my studies a bit, but also occupied much of Junior High drawing crude “Far Side”-like cartoons and making spoof videos with my friends. I’m still awaiting my MacArthur Genius Grant for those.

Q: How did you land a job with Dennis Miller and what was that like? (And what year was that)

A: A college friend working for HBO’s “Dennis Miller Live” referred me for an opening as a Writers’ Assistant, and I pitched and pitched until Dennis took notice and, when there was an opening, promoted me. I became a writer there in 2002 — and 8 months later it was cancelled. I assume it was because my comedy was getting “too close to the truth.”

Q: How about the Daily Show? What were some of your most notable sketches you wrote? (Also, what year did you join Stewart)

A: A Dennis Miller colleague introduced me to the Daily Show folks in 2002, and I applied in the usual fashion. Some of my favorite pieces included a Larry Wilmore segment on “Is America Ready for a Black President?” (to which we’ve since learned the answer is “no”), and a Lewis Black rant on various Congressmen’s hamhanded attempts to use the Web (hint: if you’re boring in person, a crappy camera and lighting isn’t going to improve that).

On TV

“Conan,” TBS, Mondays through Thursdays, 11 p.m.

Join my Facebook fan page and Twitter.

By Rodney Ho, rho@ajc.com, AJCRadioTV blog

10 comments Add your comment

pcBobby

January 3rd, 2011
11:37 am

Very nice inspiring story — good work, Rodney.

Bill Orvis White

January 3rd, 2011
11:41 am

This just goes to show that there’s another secular progressive fool contributing to Hollyweird’s debauchery and Godlessness. This man sounds like he abandoned the Hebrews in favor of creating filth that our naive kids end up consuming. It sounds like he needs to join the Israeli military to protect the Jewish holy land which I fully support.

Amen,
Bill

Krysta Knapp Carhart

January 3rd, 2011
4:09 pm

Mr. White,
As a follower of Jesus and a friend of Rob’s for over 20 years, I have to point out that you’ve really judged him wrongly. Apart from helping you feel superior for a few minutes, I cannot fathom how your comment is helpful. It neither glorifies God nor communicates the love of Jesus.

As followers of Christ, we would do well to heed the words of Jesus, who told us to remove the planks from our own eyes before attempting to remove the speck from our brothers’.

Marian Exall

January 3rd, 2011
4:45 pm

As a former law school buddy of Rob’s mom Jeanney (we were “mature” students), now happily relocated to the Pacific Northwest, I can only hope that Rob doesn’t have to move back to Atlanta to accomodate his new gig on TBS’ Conan. I took Mr. White’s comment as a spoof, until I read the oh-so-serious rejoinder from Ms. Carhart. Now I remember why I wanted to leave the South! Can a sense of humor that doesn’t revolve around the porch collapsing and crushing eight dogs survive there?

I remember Rob making canon ball jumps into his mother’s pool and soaking our Constitutional Law notes. His irreverence can only have increased. Congratulations, Rob! (And send my best to your mother.)

Nancy Bartlett

January 3rd, 2011
6:53 pm

If Rob does come back to Atlanta he will have no shortage of material. Hello, Jeanney.

Rodney Ho

January 3rd, 2011
6:54 pm

Rob was making a reference about coming back to Atlanta in a sense that TBS is based in Atlanta. Conan shoots in Los Angeles so Rob isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. (But yes, he visits Atlanta because of family.)

Deborah Harris

January 4th, 2011
9:45 am

Rob’s keen observances of the world, combined with his sophisticated wit, offer all of us a welcome reprieve from the grim new of the day. He speaks well for his generation’s ability to find perspective and humor in the face of adversity. Plus, he’s home grown here in Atlanta! We should all be grateful that one of our own has stepped up to the national stage with lightness and laughter to nurture our souls!

Jeanney Kutner

January 6th, 2011
5:07 pm

Hi Marian, Nancy, and Deb! Thanks for writing in. I hope pou are aware that Rob got his real start mimicking Ferguson with mock dialogue. As you can imagine, I am traveling to L.A. quite a bit these days.

James Lamplugh

January 6th, 2011
9:02 pm

I went to (secondary) school with Rob, and I have to say it doesn’t seem like he’s changed that much. He seems to be every bit as funny and as creative with his sense of humor. I’m proud of my old friend’s achievements. And I say that as a “co-star” in at least one of his less sensitive but rudely funny school age video masterpieces. Hello also to Jeanney, who I haven’t seen in about 20 years and if any of you see Rob anytime soon, tell him Jim says hi.

Jeanney Kutner

January 7th, 2011
6:52 pm

Hi Jim! Hi Christa!
Jim, were you in the video Ill-Will Games? Did you perform in the synchronized torture event?
Hope you’re doing well. I do manage to see Rob, as often as I can.