Trevor Noah had a special guest on his Spotify podcast What Now? With Trevor Noah on Thursday (Feb. 8) – Ben Winston, who was one of the executive producers of the Grammy telecast on Sunday, Feb. 4 (along with Raj Kapoor and Jesse Collins).
Noah, who has hosted the show the last four years and this year was also credited as a producer, opened by saying “Can I tell you there are few gigs I’ve done in my life that are more stressful than the Grammys? It’s exciting, it’s fun, but … it’s too much stress.”
Winston agreed. “I worked on that show for like four months and then the last three or four weeks it becomes intense and then the last few days it’s even more intense and then the last hour before the show is like the worst of all of it because that’s when everything you’ve been planning for a year falls apart because artists aren’t showing up … I’ve run the Grammys for four years now. For the last two years that half-hour before we’ve gone live I would say without question are the two most stressful half-hours of my entire life. Just the stuff that comes in and how just feel like you’re sinking on a ship that you’ve been building for months.”
One of the major stressors was a number of top stars arriving late for the 5:00 p.m. PT starting time, the result of a combination of factors – always heavy L.A. traffic aggravated by a rainstorm on show day, tight security and demonstrations near Crypto.com Arena where the show was taped, which impeded traffic.
Trevor asked Winston if a story he had heard was true – that Mariah Carey, who was set to present the first award, was picked up in a golf cart to get to the show on time.
“That’s 100% real,” Winston said. He recalled that at 4:48, none of the first three presenters (Carey, Christina Aguilera and Kacey Musgraves) was in the building. “It was an absolute nightmare. So, Patrick Menton, head of talent and co-executive producer of the show, got a guy in a golf cart – this is the God’s honest truth – to drive the wrong way down the [freeway] on the hard-shoulder, drove over a mile, got Mariah out of her SUV, stuck umbrellas to each side of it so she wouldn’t get soaked [and got her there].”
Winston communicated with Noah through an earpiece the host was wearing during the telecast. “I’m trying not to stress you out because I’m in your ears the whole time. I have to give him his props here. Trevor is unbelievable at taking information live in your ear. I was slowing you down because Mariah wasn’t ready yet. [As soon as] they went ‘Mariah is ready,’ you went ‘Time for our first award.’”
Noah and Winston also discussed Jay-Z’s calling out Grammy voters for repeatedly denying his wife Beyoncé the album of the year prize. Jay’s remarks were unexpected, but both men defended his right to say what he said.
The podcast played an excerpt of Jay’s remarks: “Think about that: the most Grammys, never won album of the year. That doesn’t work. Some of you are going to go home tonight and feel like you’ve been robbed. Some of you may get robbed. Some of you don’t belong in the category. When I get nervous, I tell the truth.”
“I’ll tell you this much. I didn’t expect it,” Noah said, likening it to the moment in 2005 when Kanye West went off-script at the Hurricane Katrina telethon and said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” Noah said when Jay made his surprise remarks, “I felt a little bit like Mike Myers” [who was West’s shocked co-presenter on that telethon].
Noah set the scene: “I have just presented Jay with the Dr. Dre [Global Impact] Award. I’m on stage. I’m standing to the side. I’m expecting Jay-Z to come up and make a speech and I expect it to be a speech the way everybody makes a speech, “Reach for the stars, dream big, this is inspiration, hope for the best, thank you so much, I love you all, good night.”
And then Jay gets up and starts his speech. There are moments where I’m like, ‘Am I hearing this correctly?’ because I’m behind and you can’t really hear exactly what he did. … People are laughing. It was almost like a roast meets an acceptance speech. I liked it, though, I will say that. I like it when people are honest, I won’t lie.”
Winston agreed. “I don’t think it was as disrespectful to the Grammys as has been taken. He and his wife between them have won 60 [56, actually] Grammys as a couple. So he stood there as a real honored guy. Listen, I have nothing to do with the awards. I’m not even in the Academy. I can’t vote. I make the TV show with you Trevor. I’ve done it for the last four years.
“Of the last four years, they’ve turned up three out of the four. The only one that they didn’t come to was the one in Vegas [in 2022]. So, I think it matters to them. I think the Grammys and the Recording Academy matters to them as an institution. And any institution that matters to you, you want it to be done right, and you care about that. I respect that. And I also say ‘fair play’ to the Grammys for saying ‘speak whatever you feel.’ He also gave it credit saying the Black Music Collective has done a lot of good work. So yeah, he feels like Beyoncé should have won an album of the year…”
Noah interjected, “which I second, by the way.” Noah parodied West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and said, “Ben, I’mma let you finish, but I do think Beyoncé should have won for one of the greatest albums of all time” [an apparent reference to Lemonade, which lost to Adele’s 25].
Later in the conversation, Noah returned to the subject of Jay-Z’s blast. “I appreciate the moments where Jay-Z comes on stage and just throws a little spice into the pot. Man, thank you Jay-Z. If Jay-Z can’t do it, who can? Maybe he’ll inspire more people to do it. This is life. It gets people interested. It gets us talking. It’s entertainment.”
Both defended Swift, who has been criticized for not acknowledging Celine Dion, who presented her with album of the year.
“To be fair, she was excited she had just won album of the year,” Winston said. “I don’t think she meant disrespect by it in any way. I think she was just excited.”
Noah concurred. “In those moments, speaking from experience, humbly, you do black out a little bit when it’s like a major moment.”
Noah may have been referring to the moment on Jan. 15 when he won a Primetime Emmy as executive producer and host of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, which was voted outstanding talk series. For his part, Winston has won at least one Primetime Emmy in each of the last eight years. He won last month as an executive producer of Elton John Farewell From Dodger Stadium, which was voted outstanding variety special (live).
Winston asked Noah if he was worried when he started his monologue that so few of the people who were mentioned in the monologue were in the room yet.
“Live TV is live,” Noah said. “… In this moment in particular, you’re about to do something in a room where people aren’t even sort of in yet, yet you’re talking about them and to them and they’re not there. I’m literally scanning the room praying that I will see anybody, anybody, anybody in their seats. So, you look around and say, ‘Oh thank God, there’s Ed Sheeran, there’s 21 Savage.’
“Like when Meryl Streep came in … First of all, she’s Meryl Streep. She didn’t need to run in because she was late. She ran in. She apologized for being late in a really nice, respectful, human way .. In that moment I was like, ‘OK, everything is going to be OK and thank you Jesus. I think we’re doing to get through this thing.’”
Winston gave Noah credit for his willingness to do his opening monologue in the audience, among the celebrity guests. “Most of the time with comedians at the beginning of the show, they’re on a stage, they’re safe, they’ve got their prompter. We literally stick you in amongst them, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s much more of an interesting watch. You walking around the room shows off who’s in the room. The second reason is … [we’ve] got to clear that stage for the next artist. We don’t have space for you on that stage.”
“I both love and hate it,” Noah said of performing his opening jokes while standing in the audience. “I love it from a producer’s perspective. I see why you wanted to do it and I enjoy that element of it. As a performer, it’s chaos….I won’t lie to you guys. It’s terrifying, but I do enjoy it.”
Winston concluded the podcast by explaining his role as one of the executive producers of the Grammys.
“My job I think is to program that show to do the best I can to make sure I have something for everybody, whether you’re Auntie Margaret in Alabama or you’re Cool Kid in New York, there’s something for you. You only get a viewing figure [good rating] for a Burna Boy if you follow it up with a Billy Joel. So, you’ve got to find that balance so you can actually get audience for those new artists, get people excited by Victoria Monét, Burna Boy, because they’re watching these other ones that they came for.”