An Interview With Kurt Decker: Camera 1 At The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Part 1
Kurt Decker was a cameraman at Late Night with Conan O’Brien for thirteen years and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for its entire run. Starting Monday, February 17th, he’ll be behind Camera 1 at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Kurt has worked at NBC for over two decades, but has had a passion for capturing moments through a lens all his life. Born and raised in upstate New York, he began taking photographs with his father’s camera when he was eight years old. “He didn’t get the camera back ’til I was fifteen when I finally bought a camera.”
It wasn’t long before he found a mentor in a photographer for the local and regional newspapers. “He took me under his wing and showed me everything about photography. It was an amazing experience.” Soon Kurt’s photos of sporting events were being published in the same newspapers as his role model. In 1986 a photo of President Reagan coming off Marine One at Stewart Air Force Base was picked up by the Associated Press.
While in high school, VCRs and video cameras were becoming mainstream, and Kurt’s camera skills allowed him to make an easy transition to video. At the same time his older brother, Ken, was majoring in video production in college. “Basically, what he was learning in school he was teaching me.”
In 1988, Kurt and Ken opened a video production business together. Almost immediately, however, Ken got a job in New York City. Kurt ran their business by himself for a while, but couldn’t resist following his brother to The Big Apple. “He was doing a regular gig in the in-house video department of Macy’s. He got another gig, but one day found himself double booked and asked me if I wanted to step in. Once I got into the city, at that point I was 20, I loved it.” Kurt moved to New York City, sold his company and never looked back.
Ben: In 1990 you began working for NBC. How did that happen?
Kurt: My brother was working over at NBC. I got a call from somebody over there who wanted me to come over and do some work for local news. Once I got in there, and they realized that I was actually a camera operator and that I had experience, they threw me on a camera pretty much right away.
I did local news. I did some Saturday Night Live. I did Donahue. I did Late Night with David Letterman. When I say I did these shows, sometimes I was a utility, sometimes I was doing camera. I shot some remotes for SNL too. On Letterman I was a utility and a boom push.
Utility is the support team that helps the camera guys move around the studio, as well as helping out the technical director, video and audio. On our show there’s a lot that they have to do. Anytime there’s monitors that have to be set up, prompter monitors or monitors for talent, or the video game systems or extra cameras, they set up all that. They set up the cameras and check everything is working properly. They fax check everything with the technical director. They’re a very integral part of the show.
Then Dateline came along. The OJ trial happened and I did the entire OJ trial in the studio with Jack Ford. When the show opened a new studio I was on the original crew, but I could tell right away I was not a news guy.
Ben: I would imagine working in news can maybe get depressing after a while.
Kurt: It can be. If you go to the news, and it’s all depressing, it sets the mood and can affect everybody the same way. I’m not saying that the people are depressing, but it’s a depressing kind of atmosphere sometimes. Entertainment is fun and happy, and people are fun and happy.
In 1995 Conan had just gotten a new director, Liz Plonka. I went up and introduced myself to her. I was 25. I was by far a kid at that point compared to the other camera operators. I had quite a bit of experience behind me, and I said to her, “I would love to work for you. I’d love to come up and work on Late Night with Conan O’Brien sometime in any capacity.”
At the time they had five cameras and four cameramen. Camera 4 was an unmanned camera on a wide shot at home base (the host’s desk). Camera 2 would walk over to camera 4, frame it up and lock off Camera 4, and then go back to Camera 2. Liz pitched to the show that she needed to add a fifth operator. So I’d sometimes come up from Dateline. Sometimes they’d just bring me in if I wasn’t already working and I would be Camera 4. I worked with her for years there. She’s a fantastic director. She actually now directs The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
I was filling in more and more regularly on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and really wanted to do entertainment full time. I went to Atlanta for the Olympics in 1996 for news. That was a great experience – going on the road. After the Olympics they added me as the regular fifth camera operator to Late Night, so I became full-time on that show in ’96. I just loved it. A high-end entertainment show, where you have great celebrities, great comedy and great music, with amazing production value and really creative people. Just to be part of that is exhilarating in so many ways.
I was Camera 4 for probably two years. Three of the four operators that were on that show were older guys that were getting ready to retire. One by one they did. When Camera 1 opened up Liz asked me to take it. It was a big deal for me to be asked and I jumped at the opportunity.
Ben: Where is Camera 1 on the set, and what shots are you responsible for during the show?
Kurt: My very first shot is a medium shot of Questlove at the very top of the show as Jimmy comes out of the curtain. They have Jimmy on a single, and then there’s a shot of Questlove as it pulls out to reveal Jimmy, and trucks around to the right.
I’m basically in the corner of the studio near the producer’s table during the monologue shooting The Roots. Usually I have a two-shot of Questlove and Tariq. If the other Roots are involved I usually cover them too.
Then, during the walk across, which is where Jimmy walks from the monologue to home base, I move to home base and I shoot Jimmy’s single at the desk whether it’s “Thank-you Notes” or “Hashtags” – that’s my main shot.
During the interview I’m right next to Higgins‘ podium. I’m on Jimmy’s single. If Jimmy holds up something, a book or an art card or whatever, I get the close-ups of that.
Ben: And then there’s another camera closer to Jimmy who actually shoots the guests.
Kurt: Right, that’s Camera 3. So with Camera 1 I have Jimmy, Camera 2 has the two shot, Camera 3 has the guest’s single. If there’s a second guest, or there’s two guests that come out together on the occasion, Camera 4 will come around and usually give a two-shot of the guest, and then Camera 3 will shag, meaning go from one guest to the other depending on who is talking.
Ben: Are the camera shots you described for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon similar to when you were with Late Night with Conan O’Brien?
Kurt: It was a little different. The similarities were that I had Conan on his single during the interview. I had the left side of music. I was the dolly camera left for music. My first shot was a pull from Andy widening across Conan. And then I basically had kind of a head to toe side shot of Conan during the monologue.
My other move was, when Andy left, a wide shot of Conan. I would ped down and I’d dolly left and he’d jump on the star. It just kind of adds a little bit more movement to his jump and that’s something that I started. It just adds a little more energy to the shot, I think.
I shot a lot of the performance area stuff on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. We’d have performance area pieces in act one a lot of times, he’d cross to home base and there would be something in the performance area or in the audience so I would shoot that. Camera 2 was Conan’s single for act one playing straight out to the audience. It was just a different layout in that studio.
Ben: Do you have any favorite behind-the-scene moments from Late Night with Conan O’Brien?
Kurt: One of my highlight moments definitely on Late Night with Conan O’Brien was meeting Hunter S. Thompson. Hunter, of course, the gonzo journalist, wrote “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The newspaper that I shot for in upstate New York, Hunter wrote for that paper in the 60’s. He actually lived in my hometown for a while. He was writing “The Great Shark Hunt” at the time.
When he was on the show, there was a number of us that really wanted a chance to meet this guy or see this guy. I remember he was there earlier for an interview down at The Today Show. They called up and said, “Okay. Hunter’s coming upstairs.”
I was standing alongside the hallway, and when the elevator door opens up Hunter walked out. He looked right at me. He had a cocktail glass in his hand, and he motioned to me, so I grabbed his cocktail. He turned, and there was a floor dolly in the center of the elevator banks. There were a bunch of chairs on it. He sat on one of those chairs, so I handed him his cocktail back, he shook my hand, and says, “Hi. Hunter. It’s nice to meet you.” His people were with him: his wife, his producer, and his publicist.
At this time he was having trouble with his legs. He wasn’t really walking well. They got a few stage hands, and they pulled him on this floor dolly down the hallway to his dressing room. The chair he was sitting on was just on the edge of the dolly, but he insisted on not moving it. As he passes by me I said, “Buy the ticket, uh take the ride.” He just laughed. This of course is a famous Hunter S. Thomson quote.
I had a book that I wanted him to sign, “The Great Shark Hunt,” because it was the book that he wrote while he was in my home town. I was standing in the hall, and the door to his dressing room’s closed. Frank, the segment producer, walked out of Hunter’s dressing room and headed towards the control room. An intern walked up to me with some food for Hunter. She said, “Do you know where he is?” I said, “Sure, I’ll take that.” I knocked on the door. Hunter’s wife answered, and she says, “Hello.” I said, “Here’s Hunter’s food” And I said, “Hey, would it be possible to get an autograph from Hunter?” She’s said, “You’re the ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ guy from down the hallway.” I go, “Yeah. Yeah.” She says, “Come on in.”
So I go into the dressing room. They close the door. It’s a very small dressing room. He’s on a director’s chair in the corner. There’s his publicist, his manager, and his wife, and me. She says, “Hunter. This, gentleman would like an autograph.” He goes, “Well, he’s got to get me a fucking ash tray if he wants an autograph. An autograph for a fucking ash tray. I think that’s fair enough.”
I’m standing there. Somebody gave him an ash tray. So I hand him the book. I said to his wife, “Do you think there’s any chance I can get a photograph with him?” She goes, “Go stand next to him.” I have a really nice DSLR camera, but I literally bought a throw away camera from the drug store because I figured, if this moment was going to happen, it would have to be as simple as possible. I gave her the camera and I stood over next to him, and she took the picture.
I said, “Hunter, I actually got you something.” I had gotten him a cigarette holder, figuring if I got a chance to meet this guy I thought it would be neat to give him one because he always used one. He pulls the cigarette out of his holder, puts it in the new one, sticks it in his mouth. He takes the other one, pulls it apart and shows me, “This is mine. This is a custom thing here. You can clean it out,” and this and that. He gives me his, the one right out of his mouth. Trade off, you know.
That was really cool moment. What’s funny is he didn’t know who I was. The only person he knew there was Frank the segment producer. So the book is signed upside down and backwards, and it says, “Frank. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Hunter S. Thompson.” My buddy Jim that was working with me at the time saw me go in, and knew what was happening. To this day, Jim still calls me Frank.
Ben: That’s a great story.
Kurt: It was really amazing. It’s definitely a highlight for me.
Ben: Did the photograph come out nice?
Kurt: Oh yeah, it’s great. The photograph is actually on the back of my camera. There’s a little clip there and it’s been on there since he made that appearance, which was 2003. I look a lot younger in that photograph.
Ben: I’ve been an admirer of Executive Producer Jeff Ross ever since I read in Bill Carter’s books about his influence on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and Conan. Did you ever have any interaction with him?
Kurt: I absolutely did. Jeff was a great guy. He’s so level about everything. There’s a reason why he’s in that job obviously, and Jeff is so good at what he does. He’s funny. He’s very soft spoken, most of the time to his crew anyway, but he’s always appreciative. He’s always nice, and he understood that everybody was doing a great job and it ran well, and he didn’t really interfere with it. Jeff and I talked about motorcycles because I drive, and he used to drive one. We talked a lot about motorcycles because he really had a passion for it. He was a great guy to work for. He kept private for the most part, but he was always very nice to me. Receptive to his people and cared a lot about them. That’s what makes a great EP.
Ben: I’m sure you remember the 2007 writers’ strike?
Kurt: Oh absolutely.
Ben: What was that time like for you?
Kurt: Conan basically said the writers’ strike is happening, and I’m a writer, but I also have a contract with the show and I’m going to stand behind them as much as I can. He said, I understand you guys, especially freelancers, are dependent on doing the show to get paid. When we’re not doing a show, you’re not making money. We can do a show without them, and we probably will do a show without them if this goes on long enough. But, in the meantime, Conan said, we’re going to try to hold onto some solidarity and back them up as much as I can for as long as I can.
They paid us for the strike. I want to say it was like two weeks. We came in and checked in to see if anything was happening, or if there was a chance that we were going to do something. And then maybe we’d shoot something in the studios, or just hang around, or we’d do some tech stuff. Then we’d go home early. Then, at some point, push came to shove and Conan was told okay, you gotta do a show.
Then we just did a show, and it was some really funny stuff that we did during that writers’ strike because it wasn’t scripted. Conan had to improvise. I remember we had a fight scene that we shot out in the hallway with Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart and Conan. They were all in the same boat; none of them had writers. I remember being out in the hallway shooting this remote trying to figure out how to make this one shot dramatic. I said, “Jon, when Conan goes to punch you, why don’t you fill your mouth with water, and when he fake hits you, turn around and just spit the water out.” We did slow motion effect on it. It was fun. I remember us thinking, this is wild, we’re really off the rails here. And, you know, we all wanted the writers to come back, but it was a different, interesting time.
Ben: How does being a freelancer apply to you specifically with NBC?
Kurt: I’m a daily hire/freelancer – some people call it “permatemp.” Meaning I work there most of the time. I’m almost like a full time employee without the benefits. I don’t get sick time, I don’t get vacation time. I don’t get paid off holidays.
So for the ten weeks that the show is dark, if they have work, they’ll call me and say do you want to work The Today Show, or do you feel like doing this or that, and I can say yes or no. But again, if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid, and the medical insurance and all that still needs to be paid for that period of time, so that’s the complication of it.
The benefit is, if I have a week coming that the show is dark and I want to take off, I don’t have to ask them for the week off. If I were staff, they could place me wherever, whenever, meaning my whole schedule could get turned upside down.
I think for me, personally, I enjoy being a freelancer. I was approached a couple times over the years if I would I be interested in a staff job if they were to open up. I really wasn’t though because I enjoy the ability to dictate my schedule when Late Night is on hiatus.
Ben: When Conan made the switch to L.A to take over The Tonight Show my understanding is that most of the crew went with him. But you decided not to go. Why?
Kurt: I’ve got to say, family was the main drive. My dad was sick and has since passed. I was not going to move away. He and my mom live just an hour and a half upstate and I was able to see him almost every weekend. I was not going move across the country when he was in his last years.
When Late Night with Conan O’Brien was ending they really wanted to take who they could because they had a really good solid crew of people. Late Night with Conan O’Brien offered me a job to LA. It was tough because everybody’s moving out to LA, going out to do The Tonight Show. It was very difficult. It was such a good thing and fun. It was very easy to get comfortable with it, too. I said, “No,” not knowing what I was going to do. And basically once I said no, that was the open door for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to make me an offer. They offered. I took it. It’s really been great. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Thanks for reading. Part 2 is available here.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from interviews conducted on January 22nd and 23rd 2014.
My immense gratitude to Kurt Decker for his time and enthusiasm.
Thanks also to Dollar for his very helpful editing and feedback.