Just the FAQs: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About 'Wipeout'
by Kim Potts, posted Jun 21st 2010 3:20PM
It really is all about the Big Red Balls. Those giant rubber orbs are synonymous with 'Wipeout,' and are the cause of many a trouncing of a show contestant, of course. But how did producers come up with idea? How do they come up with any of the Rube Goldberg-y contraptions that keep lulling viewers into thinking they can conquer whatever unexpected zonks the course will throw at them? And how do they/whose job is it to test the ever-changing 'Wipeout' course?
In honor of the ridiculously addictive ABC series' third season premiere on June 22 (8PM ET), I talked with 'Wipeout' co-host John Henson and executive producer Matt Kunitz to get the scoop. The one thing I was surprised to find they have in common: Neither Henson, the former 'Talk Soup' host famous for his hair stripe (in fact, when he calls, the caller ID on my phone shows his phone number, under the name "Skunk Boy"), nor Kunitz, the one-time 'Real World' and 'Fear Factor' executive producer, have tried the course.
Unlike the rest of America (and the more than two dozen countries around the world where 'Wipeout' editions have popped up), they're not even tempted. "No, I can honestly say there's been nothing on the 'Wipeout' course that's tempted me," says Kunitz, who's been anointed "The King of Reality TV" by the Los Angeles Times. "There were things on 'Fear Factor.' Like, I always wanted to kind of get in the car and flip a car, and I never got to."
Adds Henson: "They can't even get me out of the studio. I have seen far too much footage for me to ever want to get anywhere near that course. To me, that's like saying, 'You're the guy in the deli that cuts the roast beef ... you ever thought about putting your hand down there in the slicer just to see how that roast beef feels?' 'No, nope, not for a second, never.'"
The co-host and producer are both excited about the new season, and the new challenges contestants will meet, and they were more than happy to answer queries about season 3 and as many Big Red Balls questions as I could toss at them ...
Will we see new games on the 'Wipeout' course this season?
Lots of new stuff, in fact, including new stuff on the old stuff, like sneak attacks from seemingly stationary objects and spraying paint. "Even the obstacles that are coming back all have sort of a new wrinkle to them," Henson says. "Even the Big Red Balls have a new wrinkle."
That new wrinkle comes in the form of The Motivator, which is now the platform contestants stand on before they begin to tackle the Big Red Balls. If they hesitate at all, The Motivator pops up and pushed them into the Balls. And among the new obstacles: Mid-Evil Wipe-a-Lot, Overdrive, the Circle Challenge, the Trampoline Sweeper, the Fling Set, the Door Knock, Moving Big Balls, the Zip Line Shape Shifter, the Fence Flapper, Double Cross and Bruiseball.
The Motivator is part of an overall change of course -- pun intended -- that's designed to make sure contestants don't start feeling too cocky about their chances of breezing through the 'Wipeout' competition. "The fundamental change that I've noticed is that this season, the people who built the course have introduced the idea of deception," says Henson. "There's a little trick-eration going on in the course now, so there are certain obstacles that are hidden from view, and I guess the only way I could describe it is for me to say, if you would find yourself running the course and for any flash of a moment feel the slightest bit of confidence, something terrible is getting ready to happen to you."
What kind of mind dreams up the obstacles on the 'Wipeout' course? Does he have an official title, like "Wipeout Course Designer," or "Sadist"?
Actually, everyone involved with the production comes up with ideas for the course, and Kunitz says inspiration can come from anywhere, from, not surprisingly, the toy store to ... the laundry room? "We have a huge stunt this season called Spin Cycle, which is, essentially, like you're jumping into a giant washing machine, 40-feet-tall, and it's full of foam. And that comes from (producer) Scott Larsen just one day doing his laundry and thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool if you were inside of that machine?' So, the stunts come from all kinds of different things, usually just things that happen in life."
Last year, Shaq Tweeted that he really wants to run the 'Wipeout' course, and Ellen DeGeneres is a huge fan of the show ... will we ever see 'Celebrity Wipeout'?
Kunitz: "Maybe, but it's so tough to book a celebrity for a reality show, and then to try to book 24 of them, to get their schedules to match up ... But we have put out the challenge to Shaq. Anytime you want to run the course, Shaq, you can come run the course. It doesn't have to be a whole celebrity version. We'll have a special guest, Shaq, running the course, because he can run for charity. So, an open invitation to Shaq: You're welcome to come anytime you want."
Henson, on the other hand, thinks it would be worth the effort to get groups of celebs together. "I have suggested to them that we begin doing celebrity versions, starting with celebrity families," jokes Henson, who's celebrating not only the season premiere of 'Wipeout' this week, but his wedding to actress Jill Benjamin this weekend. "I think we begin with say, a Wayans brothers episode, and then maybe we work our way into a Baldwin episode. You know, even the crazy born again guy, and the one that got all-coked up and ripped up the hotel room, that guy too. And then maybe close up the season strong, with a whole Osmond 'Wipeout' miniseries."
Reality shows are famously inexpensive to produce, but is it true that the 'Wipeout' budget includes $100,000 a year just for padding?
"Oh, easily more than $100,000 a year," Kunitz says. "There is a department of about 30 people, and the majority of their responsibility is padding. Padding and covering the padding, so vinyl and padding is a huge part of our production. We buy it in bulk, and we did a lot of research into the different types of foam, and then how to layer the foam to lessen the impact.
"I think the cool thing about the show is that the hits look really hard, but the reality is, they're always slamming into foam. They're never hitting anything that's going to hurt them."
So, the Big Red Balls ... are they foam? Rubber filled with air?
"Actually, the Big Red Balls do not have foam," says Kunitz, who's currently developing another game show for ABC, called '101 Ways to Leave a Game Show.' "It's one of the few things that is not foam, because it's a rubber ball. Underneath the red vinyl cover is a big rubber ball, essentially, and we have it connected to air tubes, and we can fill it, and let the air out, as the day goes on, because as it gets hotter, they expand. So we're constantly adjusting the balls."
Adjusting the balls -- go ahead, giggle ... you know you want to -- is also necessary because when the balls get too full, it becomes too easy for contestants to jump across them.
"We're watching the balls all day long," says Kunitz, who, I'm guessing, may be the only person on the planet capable of talking about the Big Red Balls without snickering the whole time. "And we finally got smart in season 3. It used to be that (production crew) would have to swim out holding an air tube, swim out to the balls during the course and plug it in and fill it up in the water. But we got smart this season, and now they're very technologically-advanced, where all of the tubing goes into the ball, down to the bottom of the tank, up through a little tunnel. And so they can literally just turn valves without getting in the water and regulating the air pressure in the balls."
Wouldn't 'Wipeout' make a great videogame?
Funny you should ask ... it would, and it does. Out on June 22, 'Wipeout: The Game' (Activision) for Wii and Nintendo DS gives gamers the chance to run the course, virtually, sans pain, while egged on by the voicework of Henson and co-hosts John Anderson and Jill Wagner. "That's absolutely insane to me," Henson laughs. "I can actually play a video game with myself as a character, listening to myself the host making fun of me, the character, as I, the person, play the game. I'm pretty sure I've broken the laws of physics in there." Henson and Anderson will play the videogame on-air during the July 1 'Wipeout' episode.
Wouldn't the show also make a great amusement park attraction?
Again, somewhere, people are already on it. Last summer, ABC hit the road with the "'Wipeout' Road Trip," a touring replica of the show's course that hit Orlando, Nashville, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia and gave fans the chance to try the Sucker Punch Wall and the Spinning Log Roller. And since ABC is Disney-owned, a 'Wipeout' spot at Disney World or Disneyland seems like a no-brainer. "I think that might be the way it's headed, to be frank with you," Henson says. "You know, I've heard whispers ... and there are more people than ever who want a chance to run that course."
Who tests the obstacles to make sure they work, that they're not too easy, or too hard, or won't maim contestants?
There's a whole staff devoted to this very thing, and they have a very appropriate name: The Black and Blues. "It's a young group of kids, and when I say kids, they're probably 19- to 25-year-olds, that we have dubbed The Black and Blues, because they test stunts all day long, for months and months and months, and by the end of the day, they're generally black and blue," says Kunitz. "One of them is a professional skier. There are two females who are Marines. And then we supplement them with other just crazy kids, who just want to get out there and constantly test the stunts.
"But they're not just testing it the way that the average contestant would do it. We're always asking them, 'OK, if someone was really going to do something really stupid that could potentially hurt themselves, what would that be?' And now let's test that. (A contestant) might decide that they're going to try to run across the big balls and do a backward flip ... so let's go out and (test) that. Or, maybe someone will want to run into this thing head first. So can you please run into this thing head first? We really want to test every possible scenario to make sure that this new course is safe."
And after The Black and Blues finish their tests, the 'Wipeout' crew brings in "real people" for a final trial.
"We learned early in our days of producing 'Fear Factor' that if you rely on a stunt man to test the stunt, you'll be able to tell if it's safe," Kunitz adds, "but you'll never get an idea of how a real person is going to react to the stunt, you know? So, we put real people on it afterwards to get a really good sense of how a real person is going to react to the design or the obstacle."
Those real people ... are they friends and family of the crew? Are people constantly bugging you to run the course?
Henson says yes, that one of his best friends has asked that his 40th birthday gift be the chance to run the 'Wipeout' course. And Kunitz says the 'Wipeout' crew even took a call from a Saudi prince who wanted to 'Wipeout.'
"We had a Saudi Prince whose emissary called and said they wanted to rent out the whole course. We said, well, you know, it's incredibly expensive, because you would be renting the entire ranch and then the crew that goes with it, safety crews, and everything that goes along with running this course. And they said money was no problem!
"But we've never really done it, as many as have asked, Saudi princes and celebrities, because we're not really in the party-throwing business."
OK, but back to the Big Red Balls ... where did the idea for those come from?
The ball section of the toy store. Which led a producer to call a company that makes giant balls for soccer camps and ask if the balls could be jumped on. The company said no, but they could customize a version for 'Wipeout' that could be jump-on-able.
"And then the company customizes the ball," Kunitz explains. "We say we don't want it to be a soccer ball ... 'Could we cover it in a different cover?' And, you know, the next thing you know, we've got the Big Balls.'
(Note to self: Resist urge to quote Michael Scott here.)
Meanwhile, the Big Red Balls actually do become Big Soccer Balls in the June 29 episode of 'Wipeout,' in homage to the 2010 World Cup.
What is the criteria for casting contestants on the show? Most of the contestants are not, shall we say, gym rats ...
"Every day, I walk into the holding trailer, where I go and I meet the contestants in the morning, and I see 24 faces there looking at me, and I look at 90 percent of them and think, 'What are you doing here?! How could you possibly think you have any chance at winning this show?'" Kunitz says. "But that's what's fun. You've never seen, like, some guy with six-pack, rock-hard abs on our show. We're not looking for the extreme athlete to come and do this show. We want everyday people, because, to me, that makes it more relatable. How many of us are uber-athletes or have uber-athletes in our family? Not many of us. But we all have someone that might be a little overweight or is short or has a huge personality, or is older ... we believe that diversity is what makes the show fun."
'Wipeout' was the breakout hit of the summer in 2008, the show continues to be popular with viewers and wannabe contestants (the July 1 episode features the show's 1,000th contestant), and is one of the biggest family-friendly shows in primetime. Does the secret of the show's success really boil down to the fact that humans just like to see each other fall down?
"Yes! That's why this show does so well," Henson laughs. "It's based on the fundamental building block of comedy, the pratfall. The root of all comedy is a pratfall. It's like the atom of humor."