When Emmys have Jimmys, we can expect fun

The Emmy awards are at their best when someone who really savors TV -- Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Neil Patrick Harris -- is in charge. Now it's Kimmel's turn, at 8 p.m. today (Sunday, Sept. 23). Here's the story I sent to papers:


This is Emmy week, a time to savor
what's good on TV. That means a Jimmy should host.

Two years ago, it was Jimmy Fallon, a
big TV fan. On Sunday, it's Jimmy Kimmel, with similar tastes.

Both were born in Brooklyn, a few years
apart. (Kimmel is 44, Fallon is 38.) Both spent their childhood in
front of a TV, especially talk shows and situation comedies. “'Late
Night With David Letterman'” is my all-time favorite show …. 'The
Honeymooners,' is one of my favorites,” Kimmel said.

He watched the great sitcoms (“Cheers,”
“Taxi”) and the others. “You look back at 'Welcome Back,
Kotter' and go, how was I laughing at this?'”

And that gives him the Jimmy-esque
skills for his current work. “I did not study in high school or
college,” Kimmel said. “And that's why I know so much about
television. I watch a lot of shows.”

That qualifies him to interview people
late-night. (This year, Kimmel and Fallon have Emmy nominations for
best variety series; Letterman and Jay Leno don't.) It also suits him
for other duties, from “American Idol” commentary to hosting the
American Music Awards and the Emmys.

“I do make an effort,” Kimmel said,
“and I use only my own writers.”

On Emmy night, he wants to be around
for quick quips or commentary – which is the approach the producer
prefers. “We have 26 awards to present,” Don Mischer said, “which
is a lot …. We have about 21 minutes … for all the other things.”
That's often where the fun comes in, he said, as “Jimmy weaves
himself in and out, … bringing people on or making comments about
somebody who just won.”

The awards are split into four main
sections, each with its own clips package:

– DRAMA: Often, Mischer granted,
cable has dominated. “It's hard (to compete with) a show on cable
that might have a much higher budget, no commercial breaks, freedom
to use whatever language.”

This year, five of the six nominated
dramas are on cable – two on HBO, two on AMC, plus Showtime's
“Homeland.” Breaking the dominance is PBS' “Downton Abbey”;
after switching from a mini-series to a series, it found itself with
16 nominations, including best drama.

The reaction of the “Abbey” people?
“'Overwhelmed' is an understatement ….We have a word in England,
which is 'gobsmacked,'” said Hugh Bonneville.

There are nominations for six “Abbey”
actors, some well-known (Bonneville, Maggie Smith).and most not. “I
was just screaming on the phone and jumping up and down,” Joanne
Froggatt, who plays mild-mannered maid Anna Smith Bates, said of news
of her nomination.

– Comedy: This is one area the
networks still win.

HBO has half the series nominees –
“Girls,” “Veep” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – but the
network sitcoms (“Modern Family,” “30 Rock,” “Big Bang
Theory”) tend to win. The networks have seven of the 13 nominees
for best actor or actress – and 11 of the 12 supporting nominees,
including all six “Modern Family” adults.

– Movies and mini-series: When
networks dropped out of the movie business, cable took over.

Now it has five of the six nominations
for best movie or miniseries, plus 17 of the 21 for actors. PBS has
the rest, led by one of the “Sherlock” films.

That still drew complaints: Two
nominees – “Luther” and “Sherlock” – were considered
series in England, critics said. And “American Horror”? “It's
not a mini-series, let's be honest,” Kimmel said.

– Reality shows. Bravo's “Top Chef”
finally won last year, ending an eight-year streak in the
reality-competition field for “Amazing Race.”

A bigger question is whether this
category really deserves an equal spot. Mischer says yes. “It's
part of the diversity that is television today …. When you look at
the options we have, it's mind-boggling.”

– Emmy, 8-11 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC;
red-carpet preview at 7.

– E has a red-carpet preview from
6-8 p.m., plus an Emmy preview at 5.



Funny lives become a (sometimes) funny TV show

OK, you may know that I'm not big on the opening episode of "Partners" (8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24, on CBS).

Still, I'm very big on the people who created it. They're funny guys who are basing this on their own lives, so maybe it will get better. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Max Mutchnick and David Kohan kept
turning out new comedies.

Most were funny; one (“Will &
Grace”) was a classic. None, perhaps, were as interesting as their

Finally, Mutchnick says, network and
studio executives insisted: “They said, 'Get to work and start to
develop a buddy-buddy comedy with a gay guy and a straight guy who
are best friends.'”

The result is “Partners,” with a
relationship like their own. “We've been friends since we were 14
years old,”said Kohan, 48. “At a certain point, you realize
you're in a marriage.”

Or something like one. “We're more
like brothers,” said Mutchnick, almost 47. “We've had lunch
together for 22 years …. Our families are now very intertwined and
our daughters are best friends.”

They finish each other's sentences,
David Wild wrote in “The Showrunners” (1999, HarperCollins).
“They really do everything together,” Eric McCormack, then a
“Will & Grace” star, told Wild. “In fact, they dress alike,
which gets really annoying.”

They met in the Beverly Hills High
School theater program, where Kohan was a star – he beat out
Nicolas Cage to be Riff in “West Side Story” – and Mutchnick
wasn't. “I only played the character of Baby John,” Mutchnick
claimed. “It didn't matter what the musical was, I was always Baby

They soon had a connection, Kohan said.
“One of my closest friends was his romantic girlfriend.”

That changed from romance to a
Will-and-Grace type friendship, he said, with some rocky times in
btween. “I was the Kissinger of that relationship, doing shuttle

Indeed, Kohan was the one Mutchnick
told he's gay. Here was an “iconic straight high school
personality,” Mutchnick said. “And for some reason, I decided to
pick Dave as the guy I would tell when I came to terms with this. And
David was fantastic.

“I think every gay man should have a
straight man in his life. And I was lucky enough that I was able to
create a life and a great career with him, too.”

Early life was tougher for Mutchnick,
who was 6 when his father died. His mom, however, was a Paramount
executive. “I grew up on the sound stages of 'Happy Days' (and)
'Blansky's Beauties' and that's really where I got the bug for all

It was easier for Kohan, whose dad has
continued to write deed into his 70s. Buz Kohan has13 Emmys for
variety specials and “The Carol Burnett Show”; Jenji Kohan,
David's sister, created “Weeds.”

There was a rough time when Kohan's
marriage fell apart during the first year of “Will & Grace.”
And recent shows – including “(Bleep) My Dad Says” – haven't
done as well as the early ones. “Boston Common” and “Good
Morning, Miami” each had two seasons; “Will & Grace” had

So maybe they needed to get personal
again. CBS executives, Mutchnick said, “came to us and said, 'We
think it's time for you guys to write the thing that we've always
wanted you to write.'”

That's “Partners,” about two
architects. David Krumholtz plays someone a little like Kohan, with
Sophia Bush as his girlfriend; Michael Urie plays someone a lot like

“I'm self-obsessed,” Mutchnick
grants. In real life, he's married to a lawyer; in “Partners,”
Urie is dating a handsome nurse (Brandon Roush, star of the 2006
“Superman Returns”), but tells everyone he's a doctor. TV becomes
like life, but (maybe) funnier.

– “Partners,” 8:30 p.m. Mondays,
CBS; debuts Sept. 24


Cheyenne sings his way from small-town musical to big-city glitz

Trust me on this: Cheyenne Jackson is a terrific singer and a fun story-teller.

Viewers will get a tiny sampling of him Friday. He was the first voice in the opening-night concert at the lush Smith Center in Las Vegas; that night is now a two-hour PBS special (9 p.m. Sept. 21).

This summer, however, he gave TV writers a full concert, showing off a great range in octaves (four) and genres. Then he sat down and fielded questions, even admitting that "Annie" was his first Broadway album. "I (thought) I would be the first boy to play that role."

Chances are, he's too old (37) or tall (6-foot-3) for it now, but I do believe he could master the music. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Nothing about Cheyenne Jackson's life
seems to fit expectations.

He's an American Indian – but not a
Cheyenne. “I was named after a TV show,” he said.

He grew up in a tiny town, then sang in
some of America's fanciest spots. That has included Carnegie Hall,
Broadway (five musicals and a play) and now opening night of the
Smith Center.

That's the $470 million Las Vegas spot
that stuffed its opener with stars – Jennifer Hudson, Carole King,
Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, etc. – and made it a PBS special.
It does everything big.

“We took our team to the greatest
concert halls and opera houses around the world,” said Myron
Martin, the center's CEO. “We went to the Paris Opera House … and
La Scala and Carnegie Hall.”

Then those high-tone influences were
brought to a town better known for showgirls, magicians and animal
acts. Producer Michael Stevens says he kept turning down the chance
to do the opening-night special, partly because of “that oxymoron –
'performing arts center, Las Vegas.'”

Then he relented: Stevens and his dad
(George Stevens Jr.) added the sort of classy touches they bring to
the Kennedy Center Honors. Alongside the pop stars (Pat Monahan of
Train, John Fogerty) they had violinist Joshua Bell, trumpeter Arturo
Sandoval and soloists fro the American Ballet Theatre; they also had
what Stevens calls “a company of six of Broadway's best and

That includes Jackson, who sang the
night's first notes. “I had to open the show with 'Something's
Coming' from 'West Side Story,'” he said. “And (Martin) said,
'You are the first person to ever sing on this stage.' No pressure.”

Hey, it was a long way from growing up
alongside the Idaho border.

That was Newport, Wash., now with 2,100
people, then with fewer. “There wasn't a lot to do in my little
home town,” Jackson said. “It (was) 1200 people, one blinking red

Fortunately, there were music
influences from:

– His father, with Cherokee roots.
“We'd always go to the pow-wows and I love it.”

– His mother's passion as a
self-taught singer. “My mom was always listening to everything from
Linda Ronstadt (on). She taught me to sing harmony when I was 2 or

– A high school teacher. “She would
take the kids on field trips and stuff to Spokane …. I couldn't
believe my eyes when I saw (a 'Les Miserables' tour). I realized ….
you can do that for living.”

That was his sophomore year, when “Bye
Bye Birdie” was the school musical. “Everybody assumed I would
play Conrad Birdie, the Elvis part, but I thought I wanted to play
Albert, because he was the funny guy …. I said my first line and
people laughed and I thought, 'Oh yeah!'”

He would get his chance for an
Elvis-type part, 15 years later. By then, Jackson was a big
(6-foot-3) guy with leading-man looks and a four-octave voice. After
chorus and standby work in two musicals, he starred on Broadway in
“All Shook Up,” singing more than a dozen Presley songs.
“Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie came and they said I did a great
job …. It's kind of a blur now.”

More Broadway followed, with “Xanadu”
and “Finian's Rainbow” and, coming up, “The Performers.” That
last one isn't a musical, but Jackson still gets plenty of other
chances to sing – including at a classy affair in the middle of Las

– “From Dust to Dreams: Opening
Night at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts,” 9 p.m. Friday.

– Part of PBS' Friday arts emphasis.
Coming next is a 50th-anniversary look at the Van Cliburn piano
competition (Sept. 28) and then a “Sound Tracks” magazine-style
special (Oct. 5)



Suddenly, war became close and personal

Some of TV's best non-fiction moments have come from "American Experience" and/or the Burns boys, Ric and Ken. Now Ric Burns has a superb new "Experience" documentary Tuesday (Sept.18); here's the story I sent to papers:


It was going to be a quick fight, a
skirmish between neighbors. Abraham Lincoln accepted 30-day
enlistments to fight the uprising in the South.

And then the Civil War kept growing,
leaving unidentified bodies scattered in the countryside. There was,
filmmaker Ric Burns said,a “complete lack of preparation that
either side had for death tolls and casualties on this scale.”

It was all in front of people. Many saw
the bodies; others saw a compelling photo exhibit by Mathew Brady.
“There was a quite realistic access to the horrors of war,” said
author Drew Gilpin Faust.

That became the core of her book (“This
Republic of Suffering”) and now of Burns' PBS documentary, “Death
and the Civil War.”

Certainly, Burns has viewed the subject
before. He worked with his brother Ken on the 1990 “The Civil War,”
which won Emmys, a Peabody and more.

But PBS' “American Experience”
asked him to do a film based on the book by Faust, who is president
of Harvard. He was soon startled by the details.

“It's as if no one was in charge,”
Burns said. “It's as if no one had any idea – which, indeed, they
didn't – that war was going to be fought on this scale ….

“There was no ambulance corps until
1864 in the Union Army. There was no system organized for burying the
dead. There was no system for notifying next of kin.”

Almost half the dead were never
identified, Faust said. Years after the war, people kept thinking
their loved one might wander back.

On one level, this brought
extraordinary volunteer efforts. A patent clerk, Clara Barton, filled
a wagon with medical supplies and took them to the front lines; after
the war, she started the Missing Soldiers Office, imploring the
government to do more.

On another, it changed government
itself. The federal structure started to become directly involved.

“It became a huge national project,”
Faust said, “and the origins of the American national cemetery
system; 303,000 Union soldiers were found and reburied in the years
following the Civil War.”

All of this is told through photos,
letters and artifacts, many of which Faust had already found for her
book. “Imagine if your good fortune is that you have the president
of Harvard as your chief research assistant and also unpaid,” Burns

At the Museum of the Confederacy, she
showed him the letter James Robert Montgomery wrote in his final
hours to his father. “You can see the blood splattered on the
page,” Burns said.

It was a personal and permanent
reminder of the impact of death and the Civil War.

– “Death and the Civil War,”
under the “American Experience” banner

– 8-10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, PBS
(check local listings)

Broadway passion burns bright

Imagine "American Idol" on steroids -- more finalists (60), more talent, more pure passion.

That's "Broadway or Bust," a fascinating, three-week documentary series, Sundays on PBS. The first hour has already aired, but you can watch it on the PBS Web site; here's the story I sent to papers:


For a while there, a classic American
art form seemed to be fading.

Radio stations didn't play Broadway's
songs; TV didn't celebrate its performers “Broadway stars are no
longer quite as prominent as film, television (and) reality-show
stars,” said Mason Alexander, 17.

But now there seems to be a
counter-force, a wave of fresh talent. That's clear in “Broadway or
Bust,” a PBS documentary series following 60 teens in a week of New
York performance and competition.

“Everybody can sing, everybody can
dance, everybody can act,” Brittany Dankwa, 17, said of the others.
“(You think,) 'Man, look at all this talent! Where do I fit in?'”

Where does this surge come from? Some
people credit TV and movies, but that may be too easy. “A lot of us
caught the musical-theater bug before 'Glee' came out,” said
Elizabeth Romero, 18.

“Glee” arrived in 2009, the
“Hairspray” movie in 2007, “High School Musical” in 2006. For
some kids, at least, those had a big impact.

“'Glee' is one of the reasons I ended
up moving to California,” Alexander said.

Like Kurt on “Glee,” he was a
musical buff who felt like an outsider. “I couldn't express my art.
(I wanted to) continue working on my passion (for) musical theater
without fear of bullying.”

Since moving from North Carolina, he's
landed a few cable-TV roles (under his Screen Actors Guild name of
Mason Alexander Park), recorded a jazz album and won a regional
competition to propel him to this intense week. Some of the others
arrived with very different stories.

Sabaa Sharma comes from a family of
doctors and engineers; Dankwa comes from an opposite background.
“I've been homeless,” she said. “I've had times when I didn't
have food to eat.”

That was in 10th and 11th
grade, as she and her mother slept in a car or with friends. But
she's had a goal from the time she did “Once on This Island” at a
high school in East Point, Ga.

“The kids there were so
inspirational,” Dankwa said. “It's like one big family …. I
wanted to feel at home in the theater.”

In the competition, teens' choices
often reflected their lives. Dankwa sang of determination with, “And
I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Alexander did “I Am What I Am”;
Romero did “Disneyland.”

“I've always been a shy person and
quiet,” Romero said. None of that comes across immediately; she's
tall (5-foot-8), strong-voiced, articulate. But in suburban Los
Angeles, she had her own version of a retreat. “I went to
Disneyland all the time,” she said. “It was my little escape.”

She took dance classes, did children's
theater, then found a magnet school for performers. Such things may
be a key reason for the talent surge: Baby-boomers keep giving their
kids new arts programs.

Joshua Grosso, a Colombian native, did
close to a dozen plays and musicals at a prep school in Florida. He
finished second at the regionals in Tampa Bay, but advanced when the
winner couldn't go.

In New York, he said, “Our director
(said), 'No matter what happens, you are all winners.'

“And I'm in the back going, 'Well,
technically, funny story ...'”

He was feeling like an underdog, Grosso
said. “These 59 other amazing people open their mouths and (I'm)
like David going up against Goliath.”

Or maybe not. Grosso, who learned
Italian from his father's grandmother, sang a “Light in the Piazza”
song in that language during rehearsals. Students and teachers
applauded; it was, he grants, a week to remember. “How many kids …
get to say we have debuted on Broadway?”

– “Broadway or Bust,” 8 p.m.
Sundays on most PBS stations (check local listings), Sept. 9-23.

– If you missed the opener,the full
episode is at www.pbs.org/broadwayorbust;
the others will be there after they air.