Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood — the pair returning as hosts of the 48th Annual CMA Awards for the seventh time on Wednesday night — have become as big a draw for the annual awards show as the actual trophies. Paisley and Underwood’s hilarious banter, go-for-broke willingness to achieve a laugh and tremendous chemistry have elevated them to the highest ranks of award show hosts.
While he is quick to give credit to the dynamic duo, David Wild is the power behind the pen. The writer — who is also a Rolling Stone contributing editor — has written the script for the CMA Awards for more than 12 years, authoring shows for former hosts Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn. Both Gill and the Nineties’ most successful country duo gamely delivered Wild’s copy, but his collaboration with Paisley and Underwood has brought the show to new creative heights.
In this exclusive interview, Wild takes Rolling Stone Country behind the scenes of country’s Academy Awards to reveal just how involved Paisley and Underwood are in the process, why the jokes are kept super secret and how stars have reacted to being the butt of a monologue joke.
Brad and Carrie first hosted in 2008. How’d they do?
We were a new team and I bonded very quickly with Brad because we realized that no matter where you come from and no matter what you do for a living, a wiseass is a wiseass and we were two people who liked to make fun of each other. Carrie was and is one of the most interesting dynamics of anyone I’ve ever worked with because I don’t think we got to know each other at all for, like, three years. But professionally she was instantly the most pleasant surprise I’ve ever encountered. She was a little shy and sort of taking it all in and being a student, never a diva-ish moment, not one, none. The camera loves her, not just because she is exquisite; the camera loves her because there is a life to her. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, this could be like country Sonny & Cher,” and it’s true: Brad has this frenetic brilliance and Carrie has this quiet, calm wit and charm.
Have they become increasingly more involved in crafting the opening?
Brad is always involved. He’s wonderful and brilliant so I’ve always welcomed it and enjoyed it. Carrie has surged in the last few years — last year, big time — and often saved the rest of us when we were going down a wrong path. Her instincts have gotten great.
What’s an example?
With the ObamaCare [sketch] last year we had an original song and it wasn’t right. Carrie, a couple of days before the show, said, “Maybe it’s a George Strait song.” George is kind of a conservative so it would be funny to invert a George Strait tune and I went to my iTunes and I’m looking at what would rhyme with something — Obamacare— and saw “Amarillo by Morning.” I instantly called Brad and he was like “She’s right!” Last year, we were struggling with different songs to be the theme of Luke [Bryan] and Zac [Brown] fighting and Carrie said, “Why Can’t We Be Friends.'” I thought, “Is that too obvious? Do kids know that?” It’s kind of Seventies and it’s not country and it worked. Brad’s value is remarkable in a million ways. Brad musically executes a lot of it. The thing about Brad, he just goes off and makes the tracks. We’ll be trying to clear [a song to use] and he’ll just go all night with his computer. Some of the first jokes we ever scored with were Tim McGraw in Avatar. [Brad] has a background in graphic design and computer stuff.
The image of an Avatar blue McGraw fans saw on TV was Brad’s creation?
Yeah, he just did that.
How else have things changed since you started with Brad and Carrie?
We used to do all the jokes in dress rehearsal and that was a huge mistake because some managers and other talent would hear these jokes and we had people coming back and asking us not to do jokes. That’s a disaster for us. In country music, people are more polite so we have cut great, great material and, generally, this is not about being mean. I think we have always kept everything pretty loving because that’s the nature of country. Last year was the first year we no longer did the routine [during dress rehearsal]. We’ll do a few lines of something, but we’re not doing the jokes.
Do the artists in the audience you’re poking fun at have advance warning?
No. [In 2011], we did Tim and Faith dolls and they didn’t know at all. And if you watch [Hill’s] reaction, it made that whole bit 100 times funnier. [Paisley and Underwood] said, “There’s nothing there” when they looked under the dolls’ clothing, and [Hill] mouthed to the camera, “I know.” That genuine warmth and family vibe of people who actually like each other for the most part, we soak that up and try to push it a little further. There are times we can push it pretty far, but these guys are not mean-spirited people.
How much room is there for spontaneity? Last year, Carrie looked completely surprised when Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty twerked up against her during the “Blurred Lines” parody.
People don’t know this, but a lot of it is so last minute and happenstance. Last year, we asked the Duck Dynasty people to come and they were so great, they were so game. I just remember casually saying, “Feel free to shake it a little. It’s a big arena. Let people know in the back.” And they went for it.
So that was a surprise?
That was a surprise. Oh no, if [Brad and Carrie] look surprised on stage, it’s a surprise. Stuff has happened every year.
This interview is happening nine days before the CMAs. How far in advance do you start writing the show?
We’ve started to meet six weeks out. This year we did it at Brad’s house. I just finished writing the first draft of the monologue. That meeting [six weeks ago] was the last time we really talked through stuff and now I’ve executed a version of it with a lot of those ideas and a lot more.… I have way too much. I have eight or nine songs. I have three that I will kill to land. Then you have to start clearing these [songs], which is difficult. We’ve been to the last minute waiting for people and begging [for permission to use the song].
Are there topics that are off limits?
I’ve never been shot down that way. Maybe there was a time when country audiences didn’t know some pop stuff. That’s gone. You hear it in the hip-hop influence on some of the country stuff. It’s all part of the musical pot and we stir that pot…. What’s cool about the show is there’s always a couple of people from Hollywood, movie stars, a couple of rock people [in the audience]. I just think they’re a very smart, warm, appreciative audience. They don’t hate each other. Ricky Gervais could not host this show; it’s not slash and burn. These are your friends. You kid them like how you would kid friends.
How do you decide if a joke stays or goes?
The central brainstorm team [is] Brad, Carrie, Robert Deaton, our executive producer, and me. It is what’s funny and what amuses all of us. If we all laugh, it’s in. The hardest part is when three of us love something and one of us isn’t sure. You certainly need everybody to at least be game.
So it has to be unanimous?
Carrie can bring Brad around to anything and I think Brad can bring Carrie around to virtually anything. I’m not the one who has to walk out there. It’s about them on stage.
Do you know who’s going to win in advance?
We don’t know who’s going to win and so, sometimes, Brad and Carrie are up for awards and that’s a weird thing. I’ve had to write two versions — like “If Brad wins” and “If Carrie wins” — and there are different jokes…. I don’t what Brad and Carrie are paid, but no one would believe the amount of effort that they have put into this. It’s unthinkable in any other city or any other part of show business. Often people who agree to host shows are like, “I can be there that day. I can be there at 3 o’clock.” I write so many other award shows and this is an award show like no other.