By Dan Snierson
Updated June 17, 2014 at 07:58 PM EDT
Credit: ABC

Twitter is a handy place to scan the latest headlines, enjoy your favorite comedian’s analyses of your least favorite reality show, and, yes, write horrific things about famous people. Jimmy Kimmel Live has turned that third thing into a simply clever and satisfying bit called “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets,” in which… well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: Movie and TV stars recite the terrible things that people have said about them on Twitter with a straight face (and possibly sauce it with a comeback).

The sixth edition of the two-year-old franchise — which includes Tim Robbins calling out the bad speller that called him a “pretensious c—,” Bill Murray chuckling at the tweeter who said he was glad that Murray got shot in Zombieland, and Sarah Silverman’s saucy response to the person who wanted to urinate in her face — earns the No. 35 slot on our 50 Best TV Scenes of the Past Year feature, which can be found in this week’s issue of EW. Below, co-head writer Molly McNearney (who’s also Kimmel’s wife) takes us through the cruel-ing process of creating these segments:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea come from?

McNEARNEY: Almost two years ago, Jimmy was reading some terrible things people were writing to him on Twitter. He was reading them and he was like, “Oh man, people are awful!” He was reading them to me and the thought occurred to me: “We should have everyone do this.” In fact, my friend Kelly Oxford, who is very popular on Twitter, was at the house and she started reading hers back and forth, and the two of them were reading these awful things people had said. And I think they kind of took comfort in knowing, “Oh, I’m not the only one that people are awful to.” So I wanted to provide that to all the celebrities on Twitter. I think it’s kind of therapeutic for them to realize that they’re not alone. Also, I think it really illustrates how mean and cowardly and toxic people are online. I mean, every comment section is a danger zone. I don’t think people realize that the things they’re saying actually can hurt people. And I don’t think they realize people are reading the things that they say about them. So, the bit serves two purposes. One is to illustrate how terrible people are. And second, it’s allowed celebrities to be self-deprecating, and I think it’s funny to see these celebrities read terrible things about themselves.

How do you pick which tweets to use? Is there a litmus test for knowing that a tweet has crossed the line and is just too mean?

Anytime we book a guest on the show, we search their name on Twitter and pull all of the terrible things written about them. I take out ones that would offend them to a point that they wouldn’t want to come on our show [laughs] and also that just shouldn’t be said on television. But I keep some mean ones in there — truly, the meaner the funnier, in my opinion. I put the harshest ones at the top and the more gentle ones at the bottom, some celebrities are really comfortable reading the harsh ones. In fact, some guests ask, “Can we please get another round? These aren’t mean enough.”

Like who?

Cate Blanchett actually wanted meaner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wanted meaner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was incredible. Usually we narrow it down to three to five that they read. They’ll read them and then we pick which one we think plays the best. So for almost every person you see in “Mean Tweets,” there are two or three more [tweets] that we’ve recorded, but we’ve just selected the one that is best for the bit. It’s really sad: Some people want to be in it — Fred Willard, the Killers — and there are no mean tweets about them. We search and search and search and we can’t find mean things written about them. I guess it’s a good problem to have. They do want to be part of the bit and we have to tell them, “We’re so sorry that there aren’t mean things written about you.”

Are there situations where the celebrity says, “That one actually kind of bums me out. I just can’t say that one”?

It always goes through the publicist first so whether it’s the celebrity actually reading it or the publicist, we get: “No way is this person reading this.” And then we will try to salvage it by coming back with some gentler ones. Sometimes that works and sometimes they shut down and say, “We don’t want to be a part of this.” The majority of them have seen the bit. They know it. They like it. We now have guests who are asking for it. Emma Stone, when we booked her, said, “I want to read as many mean tweets as you can find about me.” And she read a bunch. A lot of them are familiar with the bit, which helps us. We don’t have to keep selling them on it anymore. They want to be a part of it. The majority of the time, the guests are ready and willing. Every now and then you get one that hasn’t seen it or isn’t aware of it and thinks we’re kind of crazy for sending them these terrible things. [Laughs]

Of course, it’s smart PR for celebrities to show that they can be self-effacing and have a sense of humor about themselves…

People think that celebrities are kind of untouchable and they have these big egos and they are not listening to the common person, but I think that this shows that they are human beings, they have feelings, they’re affected by the things that people say about them and they can make fun of themselves. Everyone likes a person that can make fun of themselves, and people really want celebrities to make fun of themselves.

How long does it take to assemble a segment?

The shooting of it is so easy. It takes the guests about three to five minutes. We have this setup near the dressing room, they come in, they read three or four sentences and they leave. And then we just compile them all. We have an edit bay that has all of them in it. Right now, there are 30 guests that we haven’t even used yet. It is a real science of getting the rhythm of using a good variety of people: Some of them are shorter. Some of them are longer. You don’t want to put all the really mean ones in one because then your next one will be a little diluted. So, there’s a science to it. We try to put one out every few months. We don’t want to overkill it, but we definitely have the material to do another one and we will. We have this nice bank of mean tweets.

What are a few of your favorites from the past year?

I loved Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Sofia Vergara was awesome. I love when celebrities will respond to the tweet and add their own thing, like most recently Sofia Vergara with the d— in her mouth. I really loved Ethan Hawke’s in this last one. His delivery was perfect and it was just so sad [laughs]. I like the ones that make you feel sad. People want to tear down celebrities. It’s good to see the human side, that these are people. You’re just being mean to another human being, regardless of what they do for a living. It kind of humanizes them, which I like.

What sort of response do you get from the celebrities who participate? Do they tell you it was surprisingly therapeutic?

I think anyone is grateful to be a part of something that has such viral presence. They seem thankful to be part of it. We’ve also seen that a lot of the people who’ve written the tweets, they get a lot of backlash online, which I think is kind of nice. They get a little discipline. The fans of that celebrity will then go to that person’s Twitter page. Some of them have had to shut down their accounts, which I think is kind of nice.

It’s like social media justice. Though some of the people who write these mean tweets will then tweet something like, “I don’t even remember writing that!” Or they’re just excited.

I know, it’s weird. Some people are so excited to be in it, and I’m like, “That’s kind of the sickest person.” Some of the names are blurred because if someone’s username is their first and last name, we legally can’t show that. … The meanest people are also the ones that can’t spell and have terrible grammar.

Any talk of a spin-off franchise?

Maybe “Nice Tweets.” It would be really boring [laughs]. Maybe we should do that. No, there hasn’t really been talk of much. We did a music edition. We’re doing an NBA edition [which aired Sunday]. But I think we’re going to stick with this because it’s working pretty well.

Is there one celebrity that you’re dying to see read a mean tweet?

Oooh… I think Obama would be awesome. Getting the president to do one would be my dream come true.

What’s the meanest tweet about you that you’ve ever read?

I got one that said, “You’re really hot for a woman in her 40s,” and I think I was 31.

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