An Interview With Kurt Decker: Camera 1 At The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Part 2
Ben: What was it like transitioning from Late Night with Conan O’Brien to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?
Kurt: When I started on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon we spent all day rehearsing. There was a lot going on. It was a whole different animal. We were all learning a new groove. Nobody really knew each other. There were a few people that came over from Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but most of the production people were all new. And everyone’s trying to learn their gigs and learn what they’re doing. It was a slow process a first.
Now five years in, everybody knows everybody. We’re all comfortable with each other. There’s days when the daily production gets really heavy, and we’re hit really hard, but there’s days when, because we all know the rhythm and the pattern, it’s much easier, a smoother feel to the day. I can’t imagine not working on the show. It’s great. The people are fantastic. It’s a lot of fun. We’re always doing something kind of crazy too, which is fun.
For the first week of rehearsals I remember we went to Hurley’s for drinks, and I was doing a shot of Jaeger with Jimmy and his wife, and my girlfriend, and I was like, “This is going to be a good run, you know. We’re going to have a lot of fun.” And it really has been. It’s definitely more challenging from a camera perspective sometimes. Shooting the old style stuff like the Bob Dylan video, they really push the envelope like that. Jimmy really loves doing it. It’s his thing, doing those retro videos.
Music is certainly my favorite thing to shoot because it’s the most creative. On Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Liz and then Allan Kartun both scripted their music. I had a shot sheet, Camera 1 shot sheet. Dave Diomedi, I met him at the last few weeks of Late Night with Conan O’Brien because he came in to observe our director, he’s a really great guy, he had shot a lot of music and hadn’t scripted it. He would listen to it and know how he wanted to shoot it. It was a natural thing for him. It was really different for me to come off the rails and not have a script, but man, I can’t imagine having to go back to a script.
Sometimes we do script the first couple shots. Like, okay, he’s going to start on 5 in a wide shot, and then go to the drums, and then come to me on down the line, and then we just go with the flow. We just start shooting it, selling shots, and it’s fun. We look in our return, a button allows you see what the other cameramen are doing in your viewfinder, then you try to feed something else and we do different styles depending on the style of music.
Ben: When it was announced that Fallon was going to be taking over The Tonight Show, and that it would be in New York City, what was your thought process? I would imagine that you had at least three choices at that point: you could go to a different show completely, you could move to The Tonight Show with Jimmy or you could stay with Late Night and work with Seth Myers.
Kurt: We were all pretty much like, “Holy crap. This is crazy! It’s awesome! It’s crazy!” None of us really saw it coming that soon. We figured maybe another five years down the road, like a ten year run or something. But not even five years into the show getting an announcement like that!
We were all jazzed, excited, and I think that my initial reaction was, “Great. I’m going too.” There was never really a doubt. I mean, I have such a good relationship with Jimmy, with the director, with the people on the show. I couldn’t imagine not being there with it. Yeah, to me, it was simple.
To go to Seth would have been getting hired on a whole other show. It’s Late Night, but it’s a whole new cast of characters. Could I have gotten on the show if I wanted to? It would have been an option. But obviously you’ve put all this time and effort into this project and you want to be part of it. It’s not like I’ve got to move to LA. It’s right here.
I honestly never thought I would work on The Tonight Show. I never imagined it would come back to New York after being in LA for all these years, but here it is. Our new set is in. They’re still tweaking a few things, but it’s really impressive. It’s a super exciting time.
Ben: Is the entire Late Night crew moving to The Tonight Show?
Kurt: Pretty much. There’s a couple people that are not. Some did go to Seth Myers. Some are doing some other projects, but I’d say for the most part 95% or more are staying on.
Ben: There’s a ton of creativity on Late Night. Do you get the opportunity to be creative as well?
Kurt: Oh absolutely. I’ve definitely had creative input over the years on things. If you were to look back at “In the Year 2000,” which was a regular bit on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, before I was there, the way it was shot was pretty straight forward. They have a shot of LaBamba and they dissolve to a shot of Conan. Then Conan would read it, and then they dissolved to a shot of LaBamba, and back to a shot of Conan.
When I got there I tried putting my own spin on it. During rehearsals I started doing these pan-offs and pan-ons, and zoom-in to the face and then pan-off the face. I talked to Liz about it first and sold it to her. The bit itself is super strong and really funny, but from a visual standpoint I felt like it could use a little spin. Anyway, that was me. That was my little piece of the puzzle.
What was really cool was I had the opportunity several times to shoot music solo on that show. The first time we did it Alan had all the other cameras shooting from different angles so that he could edit if it didn’t work, but it did work, and we did it a number of times. It was challenging from a camera perspective, but really fun and creative to shoot. I really liked doing that.
There’s been a lot of little things like that over the years, even to today. I shoot “Slow Jam the News.” I’m the camera that’s racking focusing between the different players. When we first started “Slow Jam” it was just Jimmy and Tariq. I said to Bashir and Diallo, the guys that originally wrote the bit, “Wouldn’t it be funny if he got Brian Williams up here for this too?” It was just an idea. They made it happen.
I feel like it’s a creative environment. And you pitch ideas. But for every time somebody takes a suggestion, there’s many times they don’t, and that’s okay. You don’t take it personally. You’re just like, “Oh, I think this would be neat,” or, “This is an idea.” It either happens or it doesn’t, but it’s really fun being part of that process either way.
Ben: I watched last night’s “Slow Jam” with Mitt Romney. Did you do that one?
Kurt: Yeah, that’s my camera.
Ben: I’ve always enjoyed that segment. I think it’s very funny. Last night, for the first time, I really took notice of all the work that you had to do going in between the three of them. It’s very impressive. Most people were so busy laughing at what Jimmy was saying, or what Questlove was saying, that they probably didn’t take the time to appreciate your effort, but I really appreciated it. You made it look very easy and smooth.
Kurt: Well thanks, man. It’s all part of show. It’s like when you listen to a great band on the show, you might be like, wow, that band is really good, but you might not say, oh, the lighting was phenomenal on that show and the audio sounded outstanding, or the camera moves or the way the set was dressed. There’s all these people putting this together.
Shooting “Slow Jam” can be tricky sometimes. Yesterday Mitt was sitting off the stool a little, and I’m trying to line up Jimmy, Mitt and Questlove’s heads perfectly. I want the framing as tight as possible because the longer element of my lens I’m on means the focus becomes that much more extreme from one head to the next. If they’re off their marks by an inch it changes the way the shot looks.
You can look back at it and see there was a point where there was a reaction between Questlove and then Mitt. The director will say, “Rack to Jimmy…rack to Questlove…back to Jimmy.” Sometimes there’s an unscripted reaction so I’ll quickly rack to Quest just for a laugh and then rack to Mitt to his little laugh and then back to Jimmy. Dave absolutely appreciates that we all go the extra mile to look for those funny things.
Most of the time the viewer will never notice something like that, and that’s okay. It’s my job, and I want the show to be as funny and best as it can be. Whatever little piece I can put into it, I will, you know? That’s the pride you take in your job.
The director has full confidence in his cameras. We can feed him shots or sell him things during rehearsal, and if he likes it then he’s like, yeah, let’s do that. Sometimes it’s more creative than other times, and sometimes it’s minor. It’s fun either way. It’s really enjoyable. You feel a real sense of accomplishment. When I see the opportunities then I definitely take them. It’s also just knowing when is the right time to jump on.
Ben: Do you ever get lost in the moment during a show, because something is so funny or some band is just giving a fantastic performance, and almost forget that you are actually working?
Kurt: There’s definitely moments where you get caught up in the moment of what’s going on and it throws you off a little bit. Maybe you’re looking at your return, or you’re looking over the side of your camera and you’re seeing what’s happening, and it’s so distracting that you sometimes will drift your camera off of what you’re actually shooting. And then you look back at your camera and now you’re off your mark a little bit, so you’ve got to go back. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. We’re human.
Ben: The audience is encouraged to laugh out loud as much as possible. Is it okay for the crew to laugh as well?
Kurt: I laugh out loud all the time. Sometimes I’m laughing with the crowd and sometimes I’m laughing by myself. If it’s funny to me, I laugh. I don’t hold it back. I mean, if we’re queuing something, we have to be quiet then. As soon as it’s over people are usually busting up laughing. Yeah. There’s no restriction on laughter on that show. I think they encourage it. I have laughed so hard that I’ve let go of my camera because I was literally shaking so hard.
Ben: Have you guys ever had to re-shoot a segment because of a rowdy audience member?
Kurt: Only once. We had a person have a full blown seizure in the audience during Late Night with Conan O’Brien. We had to stop, obviously. Usually what happens is, if there’s an audience member that’s disruptive, they’ll give them a warning. There’s been a few audience members that have been asked to leave during the commercial break. Nothing that’s stopped the show. There’s been some interruptions and we move on.
Ben: That’s pretty phenomenal that, over thousands of episodes of Late Night, you’ve only had to stop once.
Kurt: For an audience. We have had to stop before. On Late Night with Conan O’Brien we did a segment called “Satellite TV.” There was a monitor that came down from the ceiling right behind Conan for different bits, and Conan could turn around and look at it. One day, they’re letting the monitor down – and it was not a flat panel, this is the whole tube big box TVs – they were letting the monitor down and the coax cable got snagged in the fly cable. The coax cable breaks and the thing flies down, sweeps, and nearly hits Conan. It was definitely a moment. We had to stop the show because we couldn’t do that bit without the TV working.
I looked up and I saw the cable and I said to the stage hand, “Get a ladder.” I ran up the ladder. I stripped the cable. Luckily, this is the old days of coax where there’s basically just two wires. So I stripped it down, put the two ends of the wires together, twisted them, and boom, the TV came on. The audience applauded. It was a cool moment. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stripped wires down and put them together, and that was definitely the highlight of ever putting two wires together. We went on with the show and went on with that segment. Just a quick pull up in editing and they were good to go.
Ben: Late-night talk shows sometimes include staff members in their comedy bits. Have you ever made it into a sketch?
Kurt: I’ve been on the show a couple of times. Once I was in a sketch called “Letters to Santa.” During rehearsal I was supposed to say: “Santa I want Zhu Zhu pet named Num Nums,” but instead I said “Num Nuts.” Jimmy and the crew all got a big laugh out of it. It’s fun to be part of the rehearsal comedy. Some of the funniest things happen during rehearsal. Sometimes those moments make it onto the show. Other times those moments are just to make us laugh. It’s amazing how someone tripping can be so funny especially when it’s caught on tape and we can play it over and over again and even slow mo it.
I did some stuff on Late Night with Conan O’Brien too a couple of times. There was a bit where I was in a joke T-shirt thing.
Yeah, I mean you see me from time to time. I’m comfortable being on camera. I don’t mind it. I’m not looking for the opportunity, but it’s fun when they do it. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, I’m up for it.
Ben: Do you ever go home and watch the show that night?
Kurt: I used to watch the show all the time, especially when I first started. I was constantly critiquing myself on all my camera work, my moves and what not. I did that for a long time and I still occasionally do. I DVR the show every night. I wouldn’t say I watch it every night. Usually if there’s something that I really want to see again, or I want to show my girlfriend, then I’ll put it on.
Ben: Do you ever watch any of the other light-night talk shows to see how they’re doing their camera work, or because there’s a guest that you really wanted to watch?
Kurt: I do. I watch Colbert and The Daily Show more regularly than any other ones. Usually it’s just the first act for the first comedy. I like the sharp newsy humor. I watch Conan once in a while. I still have a lot of friends that work on that show. I very rarely sit through a whole show. I do occasionally check out everybody else and see what Letterman’s doing, or Kimmel or Leno.
Ben: Have you ever visited the Late Show just to see what it’s like over there?
Kurt: I have not been over to Letterman. I have friends who work there, and I’ve talked to them about going, but it’s a scheduling issue. I have to find a week that we’re off and they’re on. Now that we’re doing The Tonight Show, we’re going to be on pretty much when they are on. I would really like to get over there and see the show. I’d love to see Letterman’s show before he wraps it up.
I did go and see Conan in LA. I went out for a long weekend and went by the show and talked to all my old friends. I sat up in the back corner of the audience and watched the show and watched the rehearsal. It was cool. It was good to see everybody.
Ben: Speaking of Letterman, you mentioned that you had done some work on Late Night when he was the host. I can’t imagine too many other people can say that they’ve played a role in all three iterations of Late Night. You’ve really been an integral part of an extraordinary television franchise. That’s pretty damn cool, if I may say so.
Kurt: I’m so lucky, and I realize that every day that I get up. I realize how lucky I am, not just that I’m healthy, but my job is just so much fun. I look forward to going in there. Last night, I got out of work and a bunch of us hung out in the office and were just shooting the shit a little bit. Who gets out of work and stays at for two more hours because you’re having fun and enjoy your coworkers company, you know? Good times.
Ben: Kurt, thank you very, very much. It has been a real pleasure to talk to you.
Kurt: It was really great talking to you too. It was fun.
Thanks for reading.
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.