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Oscars Team Tells All: Getting John Cena Naked, Jimmy Kimmel’s Trump Joke and Why Al Pacino Skipped the Best Picture Nominees (EXCLUSIVE)

Just minutes before the Oscars were set to begin, the show’s producers realized they had a problem: Some of the year’s key A-listers and nominees weren’t inside the Dolby Theatre just yet. The perfect storm of traffic delays, pro-Palestine protests, the first day of daylight saving time and an earlier start time had contributed to the last-minute crunch.

“We were definitely stressed out, because we had to have certain celebrities in their seats,” Oscars producer Molly McNearney — also an EP on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” — tells Variety on Monday morning. “We talk to people in the monologue. And in order to for that to pay off, you want to see their reactions. We were still waiting on five or six people to get into their seats. It was definitely chaotic to get them all in quickly. So we pushed by five minutes, which didn’t feel like too much.”

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Among the names mentioned in host Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue were Lily Gladstone, Ryan Gosling, Cillian Murphy, Margot Robbie, Robert Downey Jr. and Martin Scorsese — so it was key that they be in their seats when the show began.

“Once we realized that maybe half those people were not there, we started saying OK, we’re definitely going to delay this a little bit,” says Rob Mills, the exec VP of unscripted and alternative entertainment at Walt Disney Television, who was busy with the team producing the live red carpet show at the time. “This is at 6:54 east coast time.”

In a rapid-fire text message chain, the producers kept each other informed on who had just arrived and were racing to the doors. “Jimmy couldn’t go on until Margot [Robbie] and Ryan [Gosling] were in their seats. And I think they literally were at 7:04 and 30 seconds,” Mills says. “It was literally landing an airplane and not knowing if the landing gear is going to open. It was crazy.”

In the meantime, the red carpet telecast was able to vamp a bit longer — and then the network put in a long commercial break to fill the time (leading to plenty of puzzled viewers on social media). “It was great for our ad inventory, and our promos — hopefully everyone knew that ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is coming back!” Mills quips.

Opening the show, Kimmel noted that the Oscars were already five minutes behind — and the producers braced to go overtime. But then a funny thing happened: Instead, as the telecast progressed, it was actually starting to run ahead of schedule. In the end, Kimmel even had to vamp for a few minutes — more on that in a moment.

“I honestly have tried to do that math in my head nine times and it’s still not making sense to me,” McNearney says of the extra time. “Leading up to the show, my biggest concern was time. I thought for sure we were going to be over, with 23 awards, five songs, an In Memoriam, and the five ‘fab fives’ [which is what she calls the acting presentations, where five past winners paid tribute to this year’s five nominees]. So, I really was preparing the whole time that we were going to be way over.”

But with two winners absent — live action short winner Wes Anderson and animation feature winner Hayao Miyazaki — and other winners keeping their speeches brief, the show began to run ahead of schedule. Still, “I don’t know how the hell [it happened], you never get extra time,” McNearney says. “Jimmy loved having a little extra time, and I think it worked in his favor.”

And then, about 10 minutes before the show ended, one of Kimmel’s writers ran over and showed him something Donald Trump had just posted on Truth Social, ranting about the “boring” show. Kimmel decided to read the former President’s review verbatim — and McNearney (who, by the way, is also Kimmel’s wife) admits she tried to talk him out of it.

“I will tell you, I’m really not proud of this, but I tried to talk Jimmy out of reading that,” she says. “I feel like my instincts are usually right, but I was totally off on that. I said, ‘Please don’t read this.’ And he asked why. I said, ‘I don’t want to give Trump airtime in the Oscars. This is the one time we don’t have to talk about him. We talk about him every night… This night is not about him and it’s not about politics. My second thought was just the risk, like the show was going well! I just wanted to make sure it ended well, and I didn’t want it to end on a sour note.”

McNearney adds, “But he had a glimmer in his eye, and he said, ‘I got this.’ He really did. This is where he shines.”

Kimmel huddled with his writers, and he came up with the retort: “Isn’t it past your jail time?” It killed in the room, and McNearney notes that Kimmel’s instinct was right. “I will tell you, I’m never going to win an argument in my household again!” she says.

Here are more behind-the-scenes tidbits about this year’s Oscars:

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Frank Micelotta)
JOHN CENA
John Cena at the 96th Oscars (Disney/Frank Micelotta)

John Cena’s “nude” appearance went through an intense standards and practices process.

As a tribute to the 1974 Oscars streaker, John Cena walked onstage nude — sort of. His private parts were strategically covered so as not to run afoul of FCC standards. But the producers got away with a lot more than the network’s legal team wanted.

“There was a lot of reticence of not just a fine from the FCC, but potential complaints,” Mills says. At first, the S&P team said it had to be blatantly clear that Cena was not naked. But then, the producers worked with the network to determine what they could get away with.

“I’m going to educate you a little here,” Mills says. “A bulge cannot be showing, and you can’t show crack. It was also, ’What happens if he drops that card?’ So, we made sure that, for all intents and purposes, he looked like a Ken doll up front. His crack was covered in the back and then the envelope was Velcro-ed on there so it wouldn’t fall. But beyond that, he was naked.”

McNearney says the producers wanted to keep the Cena bit a surprise, so they rehearsed it on a closed set. She also says the back-and-forth with the network’s standards and practices was intense.

“They were sweating,” she says of the S&P execs. “I think at the end we all got to a spot where we were comfortable, S&P was comfortable, and it didn’t compromise the comedy a bit. I was very thankful that we didn’t have to send him out there in tighty whities, which I’m sure legal would have preferred.”

As for people debating whether Cena was nude, “That’s what I wanted!” McNearney says. “Maybe it’s not what [S&P] wanted. That’s definitely what I want!”

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Frank Micelotta) AL PACINO
Al Pacino at the 96th Oscars (Disney/Frank Micelotta)

Al Pacino wasn’t supposed to recap the best picture nominees before announcing the winner, so we weren’t nearly in danger of another ‘envelopegate’ as it seemed.

When Pacino came out and immediately went to open the envelope to reveal the best picture winner, viewers were concerned. But McNearney said his presentation was always supposed to be fast.

“It was a creative decision we made because we were very worried that the show was going to be long,” McNearney says. “By the time you get to the end of the show, you’ve seen all ten best picture clip packages. People just want to hear who wins, and they’re pretty ready for the show to be over. At least that’s what we anticipated. So, we did not give him a clip package. We did not give him nominations to read. I apologize if our decision to not have to read through all those nominations put him in a tough spot.”

Of course, it’s on Pacino for opening the envelope in a bit of a confusing way: “Here it comes,” he said. “And my eyes see… ‘Oppenheimer.’”

Says McNearney: “That made it a little confusing. But listen, that’s the excitement of live television. You never know you’re going to get exactly!”

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Frank Micelotta)
RYAN GOSLING, SLASH
Ryan Gosling and Slash at the 96th Oscars (Disney/Frank Micelotta)

The “I’m Just Ken” number has actually been in the works for months.

The story behind how “I’m Just Ken” actually deserves its own piece — which you can read here on Variety.

“One of the privileges of this job is getting to see all the rehearsals, so I saw that number four or five times, which was incredible,” Mills says of Gosling’s barn-burning power ballad performance. “You could just see in every rehearsal and everything that this was a moment he never wanted to miss.”

Messi the dog’s clapping was pre-taped after he got a little too excitable in rehearsals.

Another highlight of the evening was the very meme-able moment when Messi from “Anatomy of a Fall” was seen clapping along with the audience. Of course, those were fake paws, as handled by a puppeteer. But that segment was actually pre-taped, in order to make sure the gag worked.

“We realized pretty quickly after the nominations brunch and the of frenzy online about this dog that we should have him at the Oscars,” McNearney says. “Hours before the show, we brought him in and he barked a lot in the dress rehearsal. It wasn’t his fault, I think he was confused by a signal that a camera guy was giving. He thought it was the barking command.”

Nevertheless, after that rehearsal, the producers didn’t want to risk a barking moment on the live telecast. “So we pre-taped him clapping, and then of course we pre-taped him peeing on that Matt Damon star [on the Walk of Fame],” McNearney says. “It was just a beautiful moment in television.”

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Stewart Cook)
MARY STEENBURGEN, LUPITA NYONGÕO, JAMIE LEE CURTIS, RITA MORENO, REGINA KING
Mary Steenburgen, Lupita Nyongo, Jamie Lee Curtis, Rita Moreno and Regina King present the Supporting Actress Award at the 96th Oscars (Disney/Stewart Cook)

The decision to bring back the ‘Fab Five’ concept — in which five previous winners paid tribute to this year’s five nominees in the acting categories — was a nod to a similar idea in 2009.

It was producers Raj Kapoor and Katy Mullan who were eager to revive the format. “I was fully on board with it because I remember loving it,” McNearney says. “Our only hesitation was length and not using clips. But you also don’t want to be too clip-heavy in a show. It starts to become a little over overwhelming. We wanted them to feel personal, and we let most of those presenters write their own copy because we wanted it to feel intimate, and we wanted it to feel like a friend speaking on your behalf. I think they succeeded at that.”

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Frank Micelotta)
MATTEO BOCELLI, ANDREA BOCELLI
Matteo Bocelli and Andrea Bocelli perform the “In Memoriam” segment at the 96th Oscars (Disney/Frank Micelotta)

Complaints about the ‘In Memoriam’ segment are duly noted.

After some viewers griped that they had a hard time seeing the names and photos of people who had died over the past year — particularly at the end, when a screenful of names were included at once — Mills says he took the criticism to heart.

“I have to say, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but the effort was great. And it was done beautifully,” he says. “But that feedback is totally merited. We’ll look at it, and certainly what it does tell you is how much that part of the show means to people. I think it’s important for us to listen to it. What I loved was going back to the clips with the sound ups. Hearing Ryan O’Neal say, ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry,’ and hearing Tina Turner and hearing Alan Arkin. I think that’s the superpower of the Oscars In Memoriam, and I think we’ll probably lean into that more next year.”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: Guillermo Rodriguez speaks during the 96th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Guillermo Rodriguez at the 96th Oscars (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The audience tequila break was indeed sponsored by Don Julio, and it was vetted over a long period of time.

“It was not something that was thought of two days ago,” Mills says of the toast, starring “Jimmy Kimmel Live” sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez. “It was really just making sure nobody felt coerced into doing it, making sure no minors had access to it. But beyond that, it was actually relatively easy. Everybody really mobilized and made sure that it could work.”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: (L-R) Jonathan Glazer accepts the Best International Feature Film award for "The Zone of Interest" onstage during the 96th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Jonathan Glazer accepts the Best International Feature Film award at the 96th Oscars (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Even though “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer’s acceptance speech about Gaza created a bit of a firestorm online, it didn’t faze the producers or network.

“This is a man who won for what Spielberg said was probably the most impactful Holocaust drama since his own 30 years ago,” Mills says. “Unfortunately, there are things going on in the world now that mirror that. And I think he took the opportunity to speak to that.”

A Mel Brooks “Blazing Saddles” anniversary tribute and a “Steel Magnolias” reunion were among the ideas that ultimately didn’t make it on to the show.

“We really wanted Mel Brooks,” McNearney says. “And I’ll just say I wanted ‘Steel Magnolias’ really badly.”

THE OSCARS - The 96th Oscars held on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby¨ Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (Disney/Greg Williams)
JIMMY KIMMEL
Jimmy Kimmel at the 96th Oscars. (Disney/Greg Williams)

Will Jimmy Kimmel return for a fifth time next year? It’s too soon to tell.

“I mean, I will certainly beg him to do it,” Mills says. “If he wants to sign a lifetime contract, I would love that. I really hope he comes back. Jimmy has just got this down. He’s got the playbook perfected. But Jimmy also puts in 365 days of work for three and a half hours. So, I certainly understand if he doesn’t want to do it. But I am going to pray like hell that he does.”

As for McNearney, she’s now too busy prepping tonight’s episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to even think about next year.

“This is just a really bad day to ask,” she says. “Ask me in a month or two after I’ve had a little bit of vitamin D maybe. But I absolutely loved it. I do not take this for granted that I get these opportunities. It is a ton of work. The people I get to work with are relentlessly hard-working. You have to kind of not see your children for a while. I’m not sure I have it in me again. I would obviously be honored to do it. But I honestly don’t know. I feel like we’ve done a great job. We had four good ones and maybe let someone else try it now.”

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