Hampton Terrace Guest Profile: Fred Zeller of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”

jimmy_fallon_2We have so many interesting guests here at Hampton Terrace that it occurred to me that it might be fun to share some stories here in my blog. Of course, everyone is special in his or her own way…..but let’s limit this to those you might want to read about.

Several weeks ago Debra and Fred Zeller stayed over a weekend. My background includes music promotion and the subject of music came up at breakfast.. It turns out that Fred has been a sound engineer at NBC, 30 Rock, for almost 30 years….about 10 as the sound engineer for Conan, and the last year doing the same for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Over the years he has met and worked with virtually every celebrity and musical guest on the planet. We talked about Macon, GA, my hometown, and the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, etc. I produced an Allman Brothers reunion in 1986 which turned out to be pivotal in reuniting the band after a 10-year break.

I get an e-mail a week later from Fred saying that The Allman Brothers were playing the Fallon Show on March 9th and he would hold tickets for me. So Susan, my sister-in-law, my daughter and I went to New York to spend the day with Fred. Fred got me in about 11 am for equipment set-up and sound check. I was able to spend a couple of hours backstage and reconnect with some of the Allmans: Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, the drummers. Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, guitarists. Fred was old friends with some of their tech guys so we spent considerable time listening to road stories. It was great. I watched the band do a couple of noon run-throughs….and even though the technical crew at the Fallon Show had seen just about every act there is….they applauded the sound check. This band has remained vibrant, fresh and tight, in spite of a 40-year career. Their line-up changes have been careful and deliberate.

While Susan, Lynn and Lauren sat in the live studio audience, I got to sit in the sound production room with Fred. The layout is not too much different than the cockpit of the space shuttle. This guy is the ultimate multi-tasker. His hands fly all over the board, flipping switches, pushing slides, punching buttons. His chair rolls around his work space methodically as he moves from panel to panel. I am hearing the director cueing cameras, sound augments, props. Although I had seen an earlier run-through for the show (with a Fallon stand-in), it turns out the live production is pretty much like Saturday Night Live….theater on the fly. They know that a really bad screw-up can be edited out before the evening show, but much is left in. A spontaneous-looking performance is the goal.

And screw up this show did. A national headlines-type screw up. Jimmy had challenged guest Chelsea Handler to a martini making contest. The goal was to make 3 martinis, grab them and race around the audience, return to the stage and dump them in a container to see who could spill the least over the contest. Chelsea got back first, but the mess they both made had soaked the stage. As Jimmy was running back to the table his feet went straight up the in the air and he crashed on his back, breaking all three glasses. When he got up, he was bleeding profusely from his hands. It turned out not to be serious…. but it was terribly funny because with his Saturday Night Live experience, Jimmy was not stymied by the moment…and Chelsea Handler was so quick that she had two great one-liners within seconds. The perfect guest for the moment.

I had the extra thrill of hearing and seeing the way the production booth handled the mishap. Close-ups. Slow motions. A running gag for the rest of the show. The injury turned out to be just minor cuts and Jimmy had the hand wrapped for the rest of the show. It was not wrapped the next night.

allmanThe Allmans, meanwhile, were fabulous. I cannot thank Fred Zeller enough for giving us this unforgettable experience at 30 Rock. Owning an inn has many types of rewards.

If you think this is the only guest story I’ve got….just wait.