What it’s like behind the scenes at the Primetime Emmys

From the rehearsals to the food, an insider's view at how one of Hollywood's biggest nights functions.


Rae Votta


Published Aug 26, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 5:12 pm CDT

Even with the advent of backstage livestreams and 360-degree social media coverage, the actual behind-the-scenes experience at a major awards show like the Primetime Emmys is daunting. On Monday night, I donned my most sensible black dress and low heels, armed myself with an iPhone as part of the on-hand social media team, and embarked on my first-ever Emmys experience to learn about how one of Hollywood’s biggest nights functions. Here are my CliffNotes.

1) The rehearsal is unintentionally hilarious.

Some of the celebrities do show up for rehearsals the day before, like Amy Poehler, but many celebrities who aren’t also presenters don’t. That means random members of the production staff get to take their place, wearing placards around their necks and giving fake acceptance speeches so the camera team can practice their shots. Even the red carpet clips need rehearsal, so the feed cuts to more production staff doing their best over-the-shoulder looks while wearing signs that proclaim them to be Anna Paquin. It’s very serious business getting things just right for showtime, but also pretty funny to see random folks playing at being big celebs.

2) Imagine how many people you think it takes to throw a show like this. Now multiply that by 10.

There are simply hordes of people making the Emmy magic come true that you never see. On the social media front alone, our team soared into the double digits, and that’s just a fraction of the digital production crew. There are talent runners who make sure celebrities don’t miss their cues, crews dedicated to simply making sure the seats are completely full at all times, and countless others who make the Emmys chaos look like a well-oiled machine to the TV viewing audience.

3) You will definitely bump into a celebrity, literally, before the night is through.

The famous quotient is so high it’s impossible not to brush elbows with a celebrity while doing your job. While my coolest moment was perhaps casually passing Bryan Cranston as the set was coming down at the end of the night and being able to tell him congrats, my most fear-inducing was a collision with Katherine Heigl, in a dress that probably cost more than my yearly rent, as we both re-entered the theater. She was totally gracious and apologized to me as I was apologizing to her.

You also spend a lot of time waiting for commercial breaks so you can re-enter the theater with A-Listers who’d popped out to use the bathroom and are now stranded outside with you, clutching their weighty Emmys. The red carpet is also an obstacle course filled with the trains of celebrities’ gowns you could step on and possibly destroy. The best part about the carpet is watching the celebs themselves bump into castmates and friends, although most of that is easily captured by the various press outlets stationed there. However, there is one hedge-lined stretch just before celebrities enter the venue that’s press-free, and it’s perhaps the most zen place of the entire night. It was here I got to compliment several Orange Is the New Black stars on their outfit choices without the fear of flashbulbs catching my fangirling.

4) The questions in the press room will make you groan.

Sure, you read those quotes in Us Weekly where they ask female celebrities what food they’re going to gorge on now that they don’t have to starve themselves to fit into a ball gown, but having to sit there and listen to that question asked every time a female winner walks into the room is downright depressing. Also the delegation from Israel’s celebrity news service was on point, getting a question in to every single winner who came into the room. No one escaped without a grilling from Israel.

The most unfortunately awkward press room moment was with Sarah Silverman, who won for the writing on her HBO comedy special. She had to follow the Robin Williams in memoriam piece, and then got grilled about a pot joke she made on the red carpet earlier. Nothing she tried to joke about landed with the still-sad press corps. “I feel like I bombed,” she mused as she left the stage.

The funniest press room moment of the night was hands down when Bryan Cranston was asked about his “viral” kiss with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and he exclaimed, “You’re telling me she has a virus!?” After a long day, we all needed some actual laughter.

5) Celebrities can hear you when you talk about them and they’re three feet away.

A casual reminder that, no, there’s not a screen separating you and your favorite TV stars. 

Our press room spot was prime front-row territory, and usually after a winner was done, they disappeared from the room forever. Not true for Modern Family, who came back through five minutes after their interviews to exit through another door. “They’re back!” I exclaimed to my coworker, and Eric Stonestreet stopped to wave at me and went, “We are, hello!” I had been so used to viewing the night through my digital lens that I forgot sometimes the celebs are, you know, right there.

6) There’s actually a ton of empty seats.

The area that the camera catches in the middle of the theater is packed, filled in by designated seat-fillers when the stars are backstage or in the bathroom, and the upper decks are pretty full as well. However, the sides of the orchestra are relatively empty during the show. These are seats that either house the seat-fillers when they’re not filling in up front, or are tickets that are given to productions staff who sometimes need to be in the theater but are often running around frantically dealing with backstage issues. 

7) The most exciting time in the theater is during commercial breaks

You’d think you want to be in the room to watch the awards being won, but actually the most fun time is during commercials, when celebs are up and out of their seats. For the social media team, that’s when we got the most interesting shots of the stars, and the people-watching can’t be beat. I saw Lena Dunham leaning over her seat to chat with Peter Dinklage, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig plopping down on their knees to chat with Jon Hamm in the front row, and Ryan Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus making post-show plans, just to name a few A-List interactions. Also, in a musical-chairs-style shuffle, sometimes you end up thrust into a new seat right before the cameras turn back on and accidentally surrounded by the staff of The Colbert Report as they win their Emmy and get to feel like you’re part of the moment.

8) After you win, you head… outside?

That’s right, you’re ushered off stage and then out of the building. That’s because the media center and the place where you receive your actual Emmy (not the prop you’re handed on stage) is in a tent on top of a parking garage. I ended up making the trek with Stephen Colbert and crew, who definitely noticed and commented on the odd location. I almost blended in enough to snag an Emmy of my own, except that you have to prove you’re who you say you are to actually walk away with a statue. 

9) The food is actually great.

You’d think that the crew and press would get less-than-stellar food, but they actually serve great snacks and a full dinner meal for the hardworking backstage folks. They even came around with candy bars when the press room wrapped as an extra treat. Kudos to the Emmys for taking care of the people behind the scenes!

10) When it’s over, you hardly even register that it’s done.

The awards end, but winners keep streaming into the press room for about an hour after the show finishes, so there’s no real sense of finality when you’re backstage. Only after the last press appearance is done and people start to jump ship for parties do you exhale and come out of your Instagram tunnel-vision haze. And realize your back is killing you. And you definitely did not eat enough of the salmon.

Photos via televisionacad/Instagram | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Aug 26, 2014, 12:18 pm CDT