- Associated Press - Friday, May 18, 2018

NEW YORK (AP) - For one week each May, some of television’s best-known comics take on a new role as the little devils perched on the shoulders of their bosses.

Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien delivered withering jokes at the expense of their industry this past week before advertisers gathered in venues like Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall to hear what broadcast networks have in store for next season.

The executives can’t talk about declining ratings or a lack of ideas, boardroom battles or new series that will disappear after an episode or two. They’re paid to project confidence at what are elaborate sales presentations with billions of dollars at stake.

It’s left to the comics to acknowledge what people are thinking but not saying.

For instance, the fate of network chief Leslie Moonves due to a power struggle was on many minds but few lips at CBS’ show. Moonves made people exhale with a brief aside - “So, how’s your week been?” - but Colbert mined it for comedy.

“This year CBS has the most exciting legal dramas,” he said. “Also some great TV shows.”

Kimmel is the gold standard for these performances, rarely seen publicly. He’s been appearing at ABC presentations since 2002, and his profane, lacerating stand-up routine is anticipated more than the sneak peeks of new shows. He knows the business cold, and spares no one.

No ABC executive was going to talk about the stinging loss of Shonda Rhimes, the creative force behind shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” to a new deal at Netflix. Kimmel did.

“I can honestly say, on behalf of everyone here at ABC who worked with her for so long, we hope she rots in hell,” he said.

ABC is saying goodbye to Shondaland and “going headfirst into Roseanne-istan with no plan,” he said. He relished mocking the title of a new ABC show, “Whiskey Cavalier.”

He’s not all self-deprecatory. Kimmel zeroes in on the weaknesses of rivals; Moonves has been particularly annoyed through the years at Kimmel jokes about an older CBS audience.

“Fox needs help,” the comic said. “They canceled ‘Lucifer’ and ‘The Exorcist.’ They can’t even make a deal with the devil.”

Kimmel added some expletives to a joke about NBC stacking its three Dick Wolf dramas set in Chicago - a subject Meyers took up more gently at NBC’s presentation, with a quip about the actors’ lack of Chicago accents.

Meyers is newer to the game, and he usually lacks Kimmel’s bite. Much like on his late-night show, Meyers has been coming into his own, though. Joking about Bill Cosby and Matt Lauer is a lot braver at an NBC event than at ABC.

“It’s not surprising for NBC to be dramatic,” Meyers said. “We are home to the No. 1 drama on television, a show that each week gives us twists and turns, heartbreaking reveals and, this season, the departure of a once-beloved character. I’m talking, of course, about ‘This is the Today Show.’”

Colbert works this gig with a handicap. CBS in the Moonves era is an unabashed booster of network television. The boss is more apt to puncture his rivals’ business claims than programming decisions. It was safer for Colbert to target President Trump.

He did note that with CBS’ reboots of “Murphy Brown,” ”MacGyver” and “Magnum P.I.,” the network is guaranteed to be No. 1 in 2018 and 1988.

Pairing O’Brien with the comedically overmatched Anderson Cooper and Shaquille O’Neal was an inspired decision at Turner’s presentation.

He told Cooper that CNN was no match for Trump. “He’s like King Kong to your little biplane,” O’Brien said.

Kimmel remains the ultimate truth-teller, however.

“Let’s be honest, this is all nonsense,” he said. “Our ratings are going down and our prices are going up. Too bad. Eat it! We’re four years from having our brains digitally fused to our Instagram accounts. So here’s what I think we should do. Just let these stupid shows wash over us, clap politely and then let’s just go get black-out drunk together.”

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