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behind the scenes

The Psychology Behind Gonzo Game Show Killer Karaoke

10/16/13Sunset-Bronson Studios, Hollywood, CaPhotographer: Adm RoseMark McGrath hosts season 2 of Killer Karaoke, where contestants sing karaoke while performing "killer" stunts.

TRUtv's Killer Karaoke is either the epitome of trash TV or a surrealist masterpiece. The game show has contestants "suffer" through humiliating obstacle courses while also performing karaoke at the same time. These aren't mere everyday obstacles: There's "Cactus Maze," where a balloon-covered singer has to wear drunk goggles and wander through a sea of cacti; "Shock Therapy," where a singer strapped with shock collars and bracelets attempts to serve margaritas and guacamole; and even a game called "Swamp Swing," where a singer is dipped into a vat of ice-cold water and snakes. But what's the line between humiliation and torture? We spoke with executive producer James Rowley to learn exactly how much high-minded thought goes into something so perfectly lowbrow.

Start with big ideas.
We have a staff of producers and people that are really well-versed in the physical — people from Wipeout and Fear Factor. In the beginning, everything is open. But eventually you have to figure out: What’s going to actually work? What can we afford? What fits in the format of the show? Are you really gonna be scared? Is it too mean?

Test those ideas, a lot. No fear.
We have a couple of little rules. One is, we’ll hurt ourselves before we hurt anyone else. There is nothing done on the show that producers haven’t tried at the same intensity that it’s tried on the show. It’s not like we do a shock at level one for us and then we turn it up to ten for them. Let’s say you lie under a bucket, you pull a thing, and a bucket dumps on you. Well, when you test it, you find out if you dump a bucket at a certain angle, even if you’re off by one degree, you’ll miss the person completely. So we have to dial that in. It sort of becomes half a test for Is it funny and does it work? and half an engineering test.

Create some sort of motive.
It’s about what is the contestant going through, and I don’t mean that in the physical sense. I mean more why are they doing it and what’s their drive. I hate to use the word motivation, but what is their reason for doing this? We have a game from last season called “Head Case.” It's a bunch of covered boxes that you either have to put your hands or your head in. If you do it just because it’s the game, there’s not gonna be the same reaction as if you genuinely want to put your hand in the box. So we put $50 in the box with whatever gross thing and then there’s motivation.

Put the torturous tasks in a very specific order.
The other thing that becomes really interesting that we get from testing is: "What order are you gonna do it in?” Because a lot of our games are what we call "station-based." "Go here, pick one of these up, and do this. Then go to the next station and pick one up and do this." You can do something uncomfortable, silly, painful, or scary. In “Head Case,” you have to start with something scary or uncomfortable. If you start that way, the player will instantly assume that all five boxes are scary or uncomfortable. They’re gonna be terrified, because you just scared them. Now, when they’re putting their hands in something silly like spaghetti, in their mind is where the terror really happens.

Use the power of anticipation.
We have a new game called “Twist and Shout.” You lie under two buckets. They have labels on them — they might say “smoky” and “forest.” And the player has to choose, am I gonna dump the bucket that says “smoky” (not knowing what that is) or am I gonna dump the bucket that says “forest”? Let’s say it was fireplace ashes and leaves. You have that moment of Okay, I have a choice to make. Then we tell the audience what each choice will do, but you don’t know. You’re lying under a bucket and you hear the audience go [inhales breath] and you don’t know why, and you don’t know which bucket it’s in.

Create fear without showing torture.
To me, our most important thing is safety. But then it becomes the tones. You can very quickly go to real terror, which is nowhere near as much fun to watch as someone who’s just scared. On top of all this, you’re still singing on national television, which is no small feat. That’s scary. I wouldn’t do that! There’s no way I would go out and sing on national television.

Wait, but what about the singing?
You have to be careful of the song, because the song can help the contestants. What they’ll do — especially if they know the song really well — is shut down emotionally and they grab onto the song because it’s something to focus on: “I just have to sing these words and then this pain will stop.” Slow ballads don’t work for us. You also have to pick thinking, What’s it gonna sound like to the audience if we’re playing a backing track and they’re not singing? because that’s likely to be what’s happening if you’re in the middle of a stunt. You’re gonna only hear every fifth word or something. If it’s a boring baseline, that becomes a consideration.

Photo: Adam Rose/TM & Turner Entertainment Networks