Rihanna and Tom Cruise Jokes You Didn’t Hear, the Lady Gaga Saga and Whether Jimmy Kimmel Will Return (EXCLUSIVE)

As he was lifted into the Dolby Theater rafters five minutes before the Oscars were set to begin, Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue still wasn’t locked. It couldn’t be: Several of his gags would involve pop superstar Rihanna — but it all depended on whether she’d be in her seat.

“We had two versions of the monologue,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” executive producer (and Kimmel’s wife) Molly McNearney told Variety on Monday afternoon. “One if Rihanna was in her seat, one if she was not in her seat. One if Rihanna had her baby on her lap, which she wanted to do. And one if her baby was not on her lap. A lot of our jokes were kind of at the mercy of people being in their seats.”

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Kimmel opened the Oscars by jumping down on stage in a parachute. “As they were pulling Jimmy up on that harness for the open, we’re shouting up to him, ‘Rihanna is not in her seat! We’re going to adjust the prompter!’” McNearney said.

So goes the fast-paced nature of preparing for a live awards event. In the case of the Oscars, a lot went down in the final days that forced some last-minute switcheroos. Kimmel, for example, had planned to spend a good chunk of his Oscars monologue riffing on how Tom Cruise had helped save the movies thanks to “Top Gun Maverick.” But when Cruise decided to bow out of this year’s event, most of those gags ended up on the cutting room floor.

“Jimmy loves Tom. Tom had just been on the show the week before,” McNearney said. “And they talked about seeing each other and Jimmy was excited to tell him that we got real Navy pilots to do the flyover at the top of the Oscars. Jimmy was really disappointed he didn’t come.”

Insiders had hinted that Cruise pulled out because he had caught wind that Judd Apatow — who had made a series of brutal jokes at Cruise’s expense at the DGA Awards — was helping with Kimmel’s monologue. But that wasn’t actually the case, and McNearney hopes that’s not the reason Cruise didn’t come.

“Jimmy tends to send his monologue to a group of people he trusts, comedy writers and comedians,” McNearney said. “They don’t help with the monologue. They just tell him like that joke’s working, that joke’s not working. No, Judd was not writing or doing anything for the monologue.”

Would that “L. Ron Hubba Hubba” joke have been used if Cruise were in the room? “No. We had about a three minute chunk of the monologue dedicated to Tom Cruise, honoring him and his role in reviving the movie industry. We were so disappointed when we learned a few days before the Oscars that he wouldn’t be there. Jimmy loves him and really wanted to celebrate him.”

Kimmel has earned strong positive marks for this year’s monologue, and it helped set the stage for what was a celebratory, emotionally charged evening. And, as McNearney noted, it helped that there were more popular films in the mix this year including “Top Gun Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

“You do have to cut jokes on movies that you don’t think the home audience has seen,” she said. “We had a lot more jokes about ‘Tár,’ we had some about ‘To Leslie,’ we had jokes about all the movies, but it’s a real balance of making jokes about what that room has seen and what the home audience has seen. Thankfully, we had a ‘Top Gun’/ ‘Avatar’ year with the blockbuster movies. It’s really hard because jokes that would do really well with industry people, people at home don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to try to please both audiences at the same time, which is a balancing act for sure.”

One thing Kimmel decided to do when he took the gig was not focus on big pre-taped packages or flashy stunts. “We’ve put a ton of time and energy into these big produced bits, whether they be live, like we did with the movie theater break-in or the Hollywood tour bus that surprised people and brought them in. We’ve also done bigger pre-taped things like we’ve done with Matt Damon. We discovered that those are a ton of work and without a lot of payoff. So, we decided to stick with some simplicity, jokes and focus on the people in the room.

“I think it went well, but it was risky for us,” she added. “Because we tend to lean on these bigger produced bits. But we just broke it down to the jokes. And we wrote, I think, 17 rounds of jokes. I mean, we have stacks and stacks of jokes that will never be seen.”

Here are a few more behind-the-scenes tidbits about this year’s Oscars telecast, via McNearney and Rob Mills, Walt Disney TV exec VP of unscripted and alternative entertainment:

THE OSCARS® - The 95th Oscars® will air live from the Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on ABC and broadcast outlets worldwide on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT. (ABC)

Rihanna backstage at the 95th Oscars.

Jimmy Kimmel checked and double checked how to pronounce Rihanna’s name. Viewers used to hearing “Rihanna” with a soft “a” were confused when Kimmel said her name with an “anna” that rhymes with “banana.” But it turns out many of us have been pronouncing it wrong (and there are plenty of videos online explaining this).

“Jimmy is obsessed with pronouncing people’s names correctly,” McNearney said. “There is a guy at the show whose job is to find the pronunciations. We always find video of the person saying their own name on camera. And that is the way you pronounce Rihanna. There’s a whole interview with her about it. Jimmy said, ‘I want to call her the way the name that she calls herself.’ And that’s how she says it in Barbados. It felt funny to people. Now America knows how to pronounce her name, although they won’t. They’ll just assume Jimmy fucked up but no, he did not!”

Pedro Pascal at the Oscars

Pedro Pascal at the Oscars

Michael B. Jordan, Pedro Pascal, Michelle Yeoh, Steven Spielberg and Andrew Garfield were informed moments before air that they’d be singled out as part of Kimmel’s “security team.” “I went up to Michelle, Michael, Pedro, Andrew, Steven Spielberg, and we told them minutes before the show started, ‘you’re going to be on camera, Jimmy’s going to refer to you as part of his security team. If you could just show some kind of physical support or give him a fist bump,’” McNearney said. “They were all game and they were very supportive.” Garfield was asked if he’d do a Spider-Man web sling, but “he made his own choice. Which I think was even better,” she added.

THE OSCARS® - The 95th Oscars® will air live from the Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on ABC and broadcast outlets worldwide on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT. (ABC) ELIZABETH BANKS

Elizabeth Banks and Cocaine Bear at the Oscars

There was someone inside that Cocaine Bear suit that you might recognize — but Kimmel’s saving that reveal for his show. “Elizabeth Banks wrote that whole thing,” McNearney said of the bit. “She’s great. She has perfect comedic timing.”

Lady Gaga Oscars Performance

Lady Gaga at the Oscars

Lady Gaga was finally, officially confirmed to perform on Friday. “Thursday afternoon, we started hearing rumblings,” Mills said. “And then she rehearsed on Friday with the other musical performer nominees… There wasn’t much of a Gaga saga as it seemed. She’s in the middle of shooting a very high-profile movie right now [the next ‘Joker’]. So, it is kind of hard to just drop everything and come perform at the Oscars, especially when you’re an icon like Lady Gaga. You sometimes assume that people are going to show up and perform. And I think we kind of did. Then we made peace with the fact that it’s probably not going to work out scheduling wise. The irony, though, is she didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and committed a day or two before the show, otherwise I don’t know that she would have done something as stripped down as that. It was really memorable.”

Kimmel and his writers decided not to go harder with slap jokes because they felt it was Chris Rock’s story to tell. “We didn’t want to make this year all about last year,” McNearney said. “I cannot tell you how many Will Smith jokes we had that then we got rid of. We think that only the best for that room made it. There were certainly some that went harder, but we didn’t think that was our place to do that. That should be Chris Rock, not us.

“But we really liked the idea of making fun of the reaction to it last year,” she added. “I think we’re all still in a bit of shock of how that went down and how after watching that violence everyone had to then sit through an acceptance speech.”

The Oscars are actually produced three times. “We do a full dress rehearsal Saturday night, then a full rehearsal Sunday morning at 10 o’clock,” McNearney said. “We watched that whole show three times, and yet it didn’t feel stale to us the third time. It was a testament to the way [Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner] produced it. It moved much quicker than I thought.”

Malala Yousafzai, Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain didn’t know they’d be singled out on the broadcast. “Malala was an excellent sport,” McNearney said. “We ran into her at the Vanity Fair party. She couldn’t have been nicer, more gracious. She was worried, ‘I hope my answer was okay.’ Well, we thought her answer was amazing.”

Pedro Pascal’s appearance as a presenter wasn’t timed to go up against the season finale of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” But the timing of that hit series’ finale did concern ABC: “We had two things that worried me last night,” Mills said. “One was Daylight Savings, which usually people are then outside longer at night. Ratings will go down on the first night of Daylight Savings. And then ‘The Last of Us’ was interesting. It felt like HBO was saying ‘We’re not scared of the Oscars.’ Our ratings are up. I think we’ve proven that the Oscars are still the defining event in entertainment TV during the season. And who knows, maybe next year, they might drop it early or wait a week.”

THE OSCARS® - The 95th Oscars® will air live from the Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on ABC and broadcast outlets worldwide on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT. (ABC)

Jimmy Kimmel and “RRR” dancers (ABC)

Kimmel is now the frontrunner to host the Oscars again next year. “There is whispering about that,” McNearney said. “We’d like to take a vacation first and then come back. Jimmy has gotten such positive feedback from the network and from the Academy and from Billy Crystal, who texted him. He’s capable of doing it as long as he wants to. I just don’t know if we have enough electrolytes and coffee.

“It is a grueling, hard job,” said McNearney. “Jimmy fixates like you wouldn’t believe on every single joke, on every moment. Rounds and rounds and rounds of jokes, rewriting that monologue multiple times, he has several stress dreams. He wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks the prompter went out.”

Oh, and by the way, this year the teleprompter did indeed go out. Kimmel had to ad-lib when introducing the editing award. “I knew it, because he totally went off script,” McNearney said. “He came out talking about the importance of editing anytime you read a text from your dad. I was like, what’s happening? Within three seconds, one of our writers, said the prompter’s out. I could just see it in his face. And he came back, he’s like, ‘I just did all that without prompter!’”

Mills knows viewers who tuned in for live chaos like last year’s slap might have been disappointed. “I’m sorry there really was not anything crazy,” he said. “All the envelopes were correct, no one slapped anyone, there was no egregiously bad dance number. We’ve come such a long way from Rob Lowe and Snow White to ‘Naatu Naatu.’ There really was nothing but good stuff.”

McNearney said she went into this year’s Oscars nervous about the fact that the return of eight awards and performances from all five song nominees might slow the show down.

“I thought, ‘oh, no, we’re going to have a host attached to the longest, lowest-rated Oscars in history,’” she said. “And I was so pleasantly surprised at how much heart was in the show. From the minute Jimmy hit that stage, that crowd was so incredibly warm and welcoming and loving… The audience to me made the show. The speeches were so beautiful. I was crying for people. I had no idea who they are, but I’m crying. The unsung hero of that show was the people in the seats.”

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