Producer Ben Winston Talks Grammys, ‘Kardashians’ Future and Ellen DeGeneres Special

Towards the end of the first act of the 2024 Grammy Awards, Tracy Chapman — 15 years since her last tour and largely absent from the public eye — joined country singer Luke Combs on stage for a duet of “Fast Car.” Chapman wrote and released the song in 1988, and Combs had spent 2023 riding a wave of popularity for his note-for-note cover.

The moment captured the in-house audience — see Taylor Swift singing along — and at home. The show hit four-year viewership highs. It was a particularly sweet pay-off for producer Ben Winston, who spent the months leading up to the show never really believing they’d get Chapman on stage. Such is the agony of making the Grammys, apparently, where talks with artists frequently fall through and so much of the night is dependent on who gets nominated eight weeks before the show.

Winston, who’s now a year out from his job showrunning pal James Corden’s late Late Late Show, recently spoke about crafting one of the Grammys’ bigger moments — the night also included that Joni Mitchell performance — and offers some updates on his other gigs. After all, Winston is also the producer on Hulu’s The Kardashians, where he’s recently resumed filming, Ellen DeGeneres’ upcoming comedy special and, it turns out, a little project for the upcoming Olympics.

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So tell me about getting Tracy Chapman on board. Obviously, that was such a huge moment.

So that was Raj Kapoor and Patrick Menton, who we make the Grammys with. They came into my office, four or five months before the show, and said, “This Luke Combs thing is blowing up. How amazing would it be if we could get Luke and Tracy together?” Tracy hasn’t done anything in a long time. I want to say years. So, that’s everything you could want from a Grammy show. So there was interest from her, but I was like, “I won’t believe it until it happens.” There’s often interest from amazing artists. There’s always interest. It’s the Grammys. Whether you can force it over the line is the thing.

I’d imagine you’ve had a lot of plans fall through over the years.

I really try and protect my heart and not get too excited about things. Because, meanwhile, we are working on the comeback of Billy Joel, the first time he’s ever written a song in 30 years, and the Joni Mitchell conversation was happening between me and Brandi Carlile. We’d tried to get that the year before and it didn’t happen. I was still pushing on that with Brandi. So, there was irons in fires. The whole time, Raj and Patrick are saying, “Tracy’s still in play.” They’re asking about timings and rehearsals. When she confirmed, I was just so excited — but also so determined that we would keep it a surprise.

And you did.

As the screen goes up, you just see her hands are like “Oh, those can’t be Luke Combs’ hands.” Revealing Tracy was such a magical moment. First, it’s a comeback of an absolute icon who means so much to so many communities and music fans all over the world. But it’s also this beautiful moment between two artists. There was just this collective beautiful thing that happened in the room, everybody experiencing something in that moment of unity and collective enjoyment that we don’t necessarily get in our divisive, fractured society and world. It was just this perfect moment where music truly can bring people together. Also, kind of boldly, we put it at the end of act one. We wanted to win the trust of the audience, to be like, “No, you’re in for a real treat tonight.”

It really had legs. That clip was circulating for days. 

I didn’t necessarily realize it would be as big as it was. I think that the reaction to the show was better than I’ve ever seen in my five years doing it. I think we got that balance. There was something for everybody.

Who makes the seating chart? I found the social dynamics at play in the pit this year to be just… fascinating. 

Oh, I do the table plan.

Is that stressful or fun?

I’m meticulous about it, but I really enjoy doing it. It distracts me for a moment. It’s like doing the best ever wedding. Everyone gets a plus-one, only one plus-one. So what you’re doing is matching a couple with another couple. Who do I put Taylor [Swift] with? Who do I put Beyoncé with? Who do I put Billie [Eilish] with? And where do they go within the room? I mix and match it, because I want people walking from different parts of the room. I don’t know who’s going to win, but I want to watch people walk through this gap here or that hap there. That way you’ve got loads of beautiful faces on camera as they go past.

Are you signed on for next year?

Yes. I don’t know if I’ve got a contract, but if they want me to do it, I’m doing it!

Ok, so is your brain already spinning about the possibilities of the last few months of music? There are new albums from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Kacey Musgraves, Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish, all dropping albums, and this wild cultural moment of the Drake-Kendrick beef. Is all that just catnip?

I’m glad I don’t get to vote. (Laughs) It is going to be a very, very big year — and another, just from what you’ve said, incredible year of women in music. And we’ve just come off a year where only one of the eight Album of the Year nominees was male. But the reason why this is one of the hardest shows to do is that you really can’t do anything until eight weeks before with the majority of these artists. You can talk to a Tracy Chapman and a Joni Mitchell. So although you are mentioning loads of amazing artists, we can’t even have conversations with them until the nominations come out. They wouldn’t want to tempt fate by having those conversations with us anyway.

You’re a year out from The Late Late Show ending. What do you miss most about having the daily gig?

I miss those morning meetings, sitting around with 12 people that you love, talking about what you are going to do that day. I miss the instantaneous feeling of achieving something every day. Every single day, we would make an hour of television. Now I’m doing lots of shows, but they all take weeks or months. And I miss my friend.

James show got a lot of credit for departing from the standard late-night format. The time slot went to After Midnight, essentially a game show, and we recently saw John Mulaney embrace 1970s chaos in Everybody’s in L.A. Do you see room for more innovation in that space? And is that something that you’d want to be a part of in the future? 

For sure. I thought John Mulaney’s show was really fun. It was a real breath of fresh air. But, with these shows, you’ve always got to look at who your talent is and just build around that. A lot of people would talk about how we were bringing the British sensitivity over —  Graham Norton, where guests came out at the same time — but I never thought of it like that. I felt like we had a genius at the helm in James, so we had to build around his personality. John Mulaney is a good example. That’s what they did so well on that show. It suited him. There’s no point taking a talent or making them do a show that somebody else can do.

Where’re you at with The Kardashians right now?

I don’t know if we’ve been announced that we’re shooting season six early, but we are. And, if you see them out, you see our cameras. We’d never done a reality show at the company, so when we first took it over, in their move to Disney, I was nervous. I didn’t know about what the experience would be like. But they really are such a delight to work with. I know I sound like I’m saying this because it’s an interview. (Laughs). But they really work hard, so it’s a joy to film.

And beyond season six?

Long may it continue. There’s always something interesting going on in their lives. I think it’s fair to say that the E! Show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, was a reality show about the existence of this family. What we’ve made, and this might be overblown, is a docuseries about six fascinating businesswomen who are hugely successful and hugely famous and how they cope with what’s actually happening in their life. We’re not searching for storylines, like other reality shows might have to. There are already so many interesting things going on — both in their lives and on their schedules. That’s what a reality show should be. We don’t need to create storylines that an audience knows are not true.

You’re producing Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up special. You’ve done a lot of concert specials, but not much comedy. What was the draw? 

There’s huge appeal. She’s one of the greatest stand-ups of all time. She’s an absolute icon. And so when we met and had a conversation about it, I jumped at the chance to pitch us as producers. I’m honored that she agreed. It’s just great to see her on stage, mic in hand, talking about the things that matter to her.

When you originally met with her, did you realize it would be billed as her final special? 

We met so early in the process. I’m not being cute, but I don’t think it even came up. I didn’t know she’d actually said that it was going to be her last. (Laughs) Is that what she said? If it’s going to be her last, then I’m very honored that we’re making it. Seeing her on stage doing these warm-up gigs has made me really excited about the show. It’s poignant and funny. When we came to America, James and I, we used to watch the Ellen Show. We were so in awe of everything that sense of fun she created.

In previous years, I feel like you’ve had a lot of specials in the mix — the Friends reunion, the Adele concert, Elton John — but, across the board, there are fewer in the mix. Is that just another impact of the strike?

That Friends Reunion was mega. I really loved making that. Also, it’s now so much more poignant because of everything that’s happened since. But, you’re right, there are fewer specials happening right now. I think that’s probably still a fallout from the strike. Those specials take a long time to pitch and then make and then cut. As soon as the strike was over, I think the first priority was “How do we get our series back on air?” and “How do we commit to long-running things?” I don’t think they were thinking about special. There’s less money in the industry at the moment and everyone’s more likely to spend it on series.

What’s next for you?

We’re doing a little special right now. We’re producing the handover ceremony from Paris to L.A. for the end of the Summer Olympics. You know how, during the closing ceremony, there’s a 15-minute thing where they hand it over to the new host country? I was tasked with the mission of what that something is for L.A., and we’ve been working on something really cool.

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