Behind The Scenes Of ABC's 'Winter Wipeout'
December 7th, 2011 1:10pm EST
It's not Christmas season until someone gets hit with a big red ball.
At least that's the prevailing thought at ABC, which rolls out its winter edition of Wipeout tomorrow night at 8 PM ET/PT. Before the fake snow starts falling and the spills start happening, I visited the set of Winter Wipeout to give you an inside look at the most hilariously painful show on television.
For the uninitiated, Wipeout is a competition where contestants of all sorts - and often eclectic personalities - brave increasingly more difficult and more hilarious obstacles en route to the "Wipeout Zone" and a potential $50,000 prize. In the winter edition, these obstacles have festive names like "Nutcracker" and "Jingle Balls."
And they look something like this.
Working on the show is a labor of love (albeit crazy love) for series co-creator and executive producer Matt Kunitz, who's also responsible for other reality series like Fear Factor (making its return to NBC next week) and ABC's 101 Ways To Leave A Game Show.
Sitting in the production offices in frosty Santa Clarita (it was a brisk forty degrees on this particular evening), Kunitz clued us in to what it takes to make Wipeout, starting with the show's huge set. "It's like Disneyland!" he quipped.
"The course is completely different. Every year, the course evolves and gets bigger. The falls are much higher than we've ever had. The wipeouts will be much bigger," he said, before admitting that such a thing comes with plenty of concerns. "We have to one-up ourselves constantly. It's getting bigger and bigger, but you have to keep it on budget. It has to be safe, but you want the big wipeouts, so there's a fine line," he added before rattling off four different kinds of foam. Who knew padding an obstacle course involved options?
As you can imagine, the show is no easy feat to pull together. Asked if there's ever something that they couldn't get to work, Kunitz shook his head. There's no room for error.
"The thing about this show is it takes so long to build a particular obstacle, so if we build it, we're going to use it. Sometimes we're building literally up until 6 PM the night before. If it doesn't work at 6 PM the night before, we change the rules of the stunt to make it work. We don't have the option to just say 'forget it, we're going to throw away this stunt.'"
Once an obstacle is put together, it's turned over to the show's course testers, a batch of 18 to 25-year-olds nicknamed the "Black and Blues" (you can guess why). Kunitz has nothing but respect for these crazy kids who sacrifice their bodies for the show.
"They've become quite amazing, so you can't get a good sense of 'is it doable?' You get a sense of 'is it safe?' They literally slam themselves into every obstacle, every object. They take a fall at every angle," he explains.
The Black and Blues are just the start of the testing process. After the testers get through with an obstacle, the show brings in "friends and family of the crew or [people from] word-of-mouth...real people who've never seen the course before" to give it a try, and then contestants are brought on.
Kunitz himself has never braved the course, and don't expect him to. "I have never tested a single stunt out here. I don't want to be ridiculed by the entire crew [and] end up in some gag reel at the end of the season," he said with a laugh. "It's not designed for success, it's designed for failure."
Helping Kunitz create the madness are casting producer Rich Leist and production designer Matt Pennington, who take time out from watching the action in the "Wipeout Zone" to chat about their respective roles in bringing the slips, falls and crashes to the small screen every week.
It's Leist who's responsible for finding the show's willing victims...er, contestants.
"I go through their videos, their background checks, their medical stuff. I have quite an interesting and bizarre job," he said with a chuckle. "We're going to be approaching 2,000 contestants on a primetime game show, which is unreal."
"With contestants on Wipeout we look for people who aren't shy. Wipeout is one of those shows where you have to be willing to completely be yourself and show America the fun side of you. Most of these people are the type where if you go to a party, if you walk into a room, people are like, 'Oh my gosh, Jim's here!' Outgoing and just exciting," he explained.
Beyond that, they're not looking for anything all that specific: "You can be eighteen. You can be sixty-five. There's no barrier. Wipeout is for everyone, which is what makes it very different from all these other shows."
"Most of these people are crazy," he added, nodding to the contestants braving the freezing cold behind him. "You see so many different sides of people. People who come to auditions in costume, or dressing up as a big red ball. You really see a lot," he confided. "Somebody completely changed their name, changed their everything, tried to pretend they were somebody else to be on the show."
Meanwhile, Pennington leads the charge when it comes to designing the Wipeout obstacles, which have ranged from the now-infamous Big Red Balls to a faux car wash and, on this particular night, a giant game of Plinko.
His sources of inspiration can be anything from something he spots on a road trip to something conceived on a napkin at a coffee shop.
"I'll come up with all these different ideas, funny ideas. [I] either start with a wipeout or start with a theme and just kind of mix them together. To have a great wipeout without hurting somebody and make it look great, that's hard to achieve," he said, explaining that the process from idea to physical obstacle is an "assembly line" of computer assisted design (CAD) drawings, steel, carpentry, foam and construction.
Did he ever come up with something he couldn't do?
"All the time. Usually those are the ones I come up with at like 3 AM when I'm half asleep. Next morning I'll wake up and go 'Oh, no. I can't do that,' crumple it up and throw it away."
Working on the show is a perfect fit for Pennington, who's no stranger to physical activity - and injury. "I've hurt myself about every way I possibly could," he told me. "You can ask my mom, and she'd just shake her head."
So certainly he's tried the Wipeout course, then?
"No," he admitted while laughing. "I push all the buttons, so I can't be out..."
He had to stop in mid-sentence as a contestant takes a tumble, their unfortunate scream drawing everyone's attention. Once he was sure that there was no serious injury, he finished the thought. "I've tried one, way back in the day, and I fell."
Joining the Wipeout team is Vanessa Lachey, who replaces Jill Wagner as the on-the-course co-host. Keeping warm next to one of the many space heaters set up amongst the crew, she remained undaunted by the temperature or the late hour, enthusiastic about coming aboard.
"I got to meet Jill when she was finishing up season four. I was like, 'Oh, I hope I do it justice' and she was like 'Please, it's just like bringing a whole new personality to it.' She's off doing her own thing and it's like a whole new vibe," she said. "The biggest challenge for me is maintaining the integrity of what Wipeout is but also [to] bring my personality to the table. Until it airs, I won't know how it comes out. We'll see.
"It's honestly been one of the easiest transitions in terms of work," she continued. "I've gelled with everyone here. It sounds really cliche but it's so true."
Her affection extends to the contestants as well. "My heart goes out to all of them. I want to hug them," she admitted. "Especially because there's no second place. It's $50,000, winner, champion and then nothing."
Unlike Kunitz and Pennington, Lachey is just waiting for her crack at the Wipeout obstacles.
"I am jonesing to. I want to get out there. All the powers that be are all 'Wait until you film the first season.' They don't want me to be a bit wobbly when I'm doing my standups," she said with a laugh. "But I have the same mentality that all the viewers at home do. It makes you want to get out there and do it yourself."
Winter Wipeout airs tomorrow night at 8 PM ET/PT on ABC. You can catch a clip below. Goodnight, and big balls!
(c)2011 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.
Photo Credits: ABC