Westminster 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).
“Conan,” TBS, Mondays through Thursdays, 11 p.m.
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog