It's less than 18 hours till kickoff, and pregame jitters are starting to creep in on
As James "J.B." Brown, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, and Shannon Sharpe pull their belt buckles up to the "belly button" marks on their massive glass desk for a final dry run, the master planner behind this extravaganza surveys the scene with the serenity of an admiral who has never lost a ship. "That whole feeling—when you've created the thing, loaded it in, and you're in the final approach, solving last-minute problems—I'm addicted to that," says Jim Fenhagen, president of Jack Morton Design and the unflappable set-design guru behind some of TV's biggest stars.
Set design is not one of those categories that have Emmy watchers casting lots in the office pool. But when the big egos of the small screen get the itch to redecorate, or boost a sagging brand, Fenhagen is their man. Howard Stern sought him out to design his set at Sirius/On Demand, complete with bikini rack and stripper pole. Bryant Gumbel tapped him for his set for Real Sports on HBO. He's behind Ebert and Roeper, Donny Deutsch, Jon Stewart, and Larry King. He was one of the first calls Martha Stewart made when she got sprung from the slammer.
"Jim's probably the best there is in broadcast," says Jill Taffet, chair of the broadcast design and motion graphics department at the Savannah College of Art and Design and a former VP and creative director at E! News. Fenhagen's industry peers evidently agree. The 53-year-old, who once nearly ditched his TV career to play bass in a new-wave band, has an astounding 15 Emmys on his shelf, for everything from Martha (2006) to Dateline NBC to Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? And while stage decoration for Broadway or movies gets all the glory, sets are increasingly integral to a TV show's success. "The stakes now are much, much higher," says Steve Kazanjian, vice president of the L.A. design firm DZN. "If the brand is successful, it can be a real cash cow." Think, he says, of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, two billion-dollar brands whose sets are arguably more iconic than their hosts (if not Vanna). Then there's the marbleized excess of The Apprentice. The trailer-park toxicity of The Jerry Springer Show. "All those nuances are part of a larger statement," Kazanjian says. "Anything you can do subconsciously in the design will help further that message."
Nowhere are those subtle touches used to greater effect than on the set Fenhagen designed for The Colbert Report—part Riefenstahlesque homage to the star, part symbologic gallery—where alert viewers are rewarded with snarky jokes at every turn. The idea for the "library" portion of the set was, in itself, a spoof on news sets like now-departed Aaron Brown's cozy enclave on CNN, which Fenhagen originally designed. Colbert loved the idea of subverting the genre with faux artifacts from his über- Republican "backstory": pictures of the failed Supreme Court nominees, from Robert Bork to Harriet Miers; a copy of the Constitution; a mini Rosetta stone; a tiny set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; and certain seminal texts such as a CliffsNotes to American government, selected works by Tom Clancy, a Kinsey Report, and Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul. At the time, though, even Fenhagen was skeptical. "I kept saying, 'People might not really notice this.' But when you're working with a comedy team, they really get into it. They couldn't help themselves."
"The set for Colbert was Jim's masterwork," says Ben Karlin, executive producer of The Daily Show, which also produces Colbert. "It perfectly captured the elements we wanted, fusing Stephen's ego and hyper-America, while giving it a real physicality." More important, he says, "it gave us what we look for in a set: a skeleton to hang our stupid jokes on."
Colbert, whose home office is a modest fern-green attic bedroom, says the set helps him get into character, particularly when he sits at his anchor desk, with subtle spokes of light in the backdrop radiating from his head. "The inspiration," he says, "was da Vinci's Last Supper." Like Christ, he points out, he has no halo. Not necessary. "I am the sun! I cast no shadow because I am the source of light." Even the eagle, he says, looks at him admiringly.
The electro-pop of CBS's NFL set also encodes brand messages that have little to do with football. "The idea was to make it look really technologically advanced, colorful, energetic, and youthful," says Fenhagen. "So it looks like a video game."
Build it and that sacred 18- to 34-year-old demo will come. Or so CBS hopes: It paid $622.5 million for broadcast rights to AFC games on Sunday afternoon and lured J.B. back after 12 years at Fox. It also bought the rights to Super Bowl XLI in Miami, further raising the stakes. So in came Fenhagen, who had done sets for ESPN as well as for Turner Sports' Inside the NBA. He and his senior designer, Andre Durette, started with adolescent overkill as their premise: multiple TV screens (47 in all, including 41 flat-panel plasma, three LED, and three projection screens), to make the set "a portal to the NFL." They amplified the effects with glass, imagery, graphics, and tickers. And before the first high-def broadcast from New York was even over, the competition at ESPN was emailing Fenhagen: "Now you should turn your energy on our stuff!"
But he had a more pressing assignment across town, in the garment district: setting the stage for the return of Isaac Mizrahi's Isaac on the Style Network. The bed-headed designer wanted the anti-NFL site, "a really sophisticated set that was also friendly," Mizrahi says. "The show is all about style, so the set has to be really stylish." Fenhagen came up with an all-white box positioned in the midst of Mizrahi's actual workroom, tapping the immediacy of reality TV. Mizrahi was delighted, particularly with the fashion closet, a sort of Devil Wears Prada affair, where he can drag guests for instant makeovers.
As if the NFL-Mizrahi contrast weren't jarring enough, Fenhagen is also doing the midterm election set for The Daily Show ("Are you familiar with Caligula and the fall of Rome?" asks Karlin), a NASCAR set for ESPN, and an NHL-themed set for OLN. The string tying all these disparate assignments together? There's Fenhagen's skill in translating often vaguely articulated or crudely sketched ideas, but really, satisfied customers say, it's that he's just so damned nice. "I adore how well Jim listens and how marvelously he expresses himself," Mizrahi gushes. "Jim is one of the most talented people you'll ever meet, yet one of the most humble," agrees Laura Shuler, president of Jack Morton Worldwide, U.S. "Part of the reason celebrities want to work with him is that he isn't competing with their larger-than-life, overbearing personalities."
Credit his good upbringing, by an Episcopalian minister father and Southern grande dame mother, or the manners of his native South Carolina, a heritage still discernible in his voice. But despite his success, this former theater major from Kenyon College still pines for the stage. That's why he's hard at work on "Night of Too Many Stars," a Jon Stewart—hosted special that will air live from New York's Beacon Theatre in October. He calls it "a perfect thing—theater and TV coming together."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.