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Welcome Back, “Wipeout” – A Chat with Jill Wagner and Matt Kunitz

You don’t find that many shows on prime-time television that can successfully capture all ages of the viewing public, but ABC’s “Wipeout” is definitely one them…you know, provided that you can stand to see grown men and women bust their butts as they try to complete some very outrageous (and significantly foam-covered) obstacle courses. Although now on its fourth season, the show has switched things up a bit for its winter episodes, offering what would appear to be ice and snow – though, given that the proceedings are taped in California, it almost certainly isn’t – as the contestants battle obstacles like the Wipeout Ski Lift, the Polar Bear Run, and…well, you get the idea.

Co-host Jill Wagner and series executive producer were both on hand during the Winter 2011 TCA Press Tour to talk about the show. So, for that matter, was commentator John Henson, but he always seemed to be otherwise occupied when I was free to chat, so we never successfully crossed paths. Still, if you’re going to talk to someone about a show, better to go with the brains behind the outfit…and, of course, the hottest of the co-hosts.

Jill Wagner, co-host


Bullz-Eye: Well, first of all, let me just tell you that I’ve got a 5-year-old daughter who has made “Wipeout” appointment television for the entire family.

Jill Wagner: Yes! I love your daughter! (Laughs)

BE: Well, she is pretty awesome. So how did you come onto “Wipeout” in the first place? I presume an audition was involved, since you have to be both funny and quick on your feet.

JW: You know, it’s funny, because…I was doing commercials for Lincoln-Mercury, and (executive producer) Matt Kunitz had seen me on the commercials, so they called me from them. And I was in North Carolina at the time, and they said they wanted me to fly back for an audition, but I was, like, “I’m with Grandma! I can’t fly back now!” It was some holiday, so I had to stay at home…and they actually wound up having a camera guy come over and shoot my audition at my grandma’s house, interviewing my brother and his two friends. So that was my audition for this show! And I knew that a lot of my friends were also auditioning for it, so I thought, “There’s no way I’m ever gonna get it, because I’m doing it from Grandma’s house!”

BE: Yeah, but maybe that gave you an edge, because it was so different.

JW: Well, the thing is, my brother now credits all my success to him, because he says that his interview was the best, and he made me shine. Which is probably accurate. (Laughs) But I would never tell him that!

BE: Where in North Carolina are you from?

JW: Winston-Salem. Well, my parents are in Winston-Salem.

BE: I’m in Virginia.

JW: I love it! We actually have a house in Gretna, Virginia. I was actually just home for about a month. It’s so nice to just go back and get my fill of my country people… (Laughs) …and then come back out here to La-La Land?

BE: So have you ever been watching the course, seen someone go down, and just thought, “Well, they’re dead. They’re not getting back up”?

JW: Yes! All of the time! I wish the camera would show that half the time I’ve got my hands over my eyes going… (Sucks in breath) “Just don’t tell me, don’t tell me…” And then the person comes up, and they’re laughing! And I’m, like, “What is it, did they hit their head too many times?” You know what? You would be really surprised to see how much foam padding we have on all of those things.

BE: Yeah, Matt was saying that you guys get a bulk discount.

JW: It’s unbelievable. It’s, like, two feet of foam. So it really would be hard for someone to get hurt seriously, and they take it very seriously, so they have medics and everybody standing around, just hoping that no one gets hurt. And it’s been very rare. I think out of 200 people, only two got mildly hurt and had to go to the doctor. But, I mean, that’s a pretty good number for that show, which to the normal person watching it, who’s not on the show, makes you think, “Oh, my God, people are getting really hurt!”

BE: It’s ironic that it plays so well to a family demographic, since it regularly inspires me to curse. I’ll see someone go down, and I’ll be, like, “Oh, shit!”

JW: Well, that’s funny, because that’s what they do. They just have to…I can hear people on the set, and I’m, like, “Pottymouth!” (Laughs) And, of course, that’s what I do out there, too. It’s all in good fun.

BE: Do you find yourself frustrated for people because it’s taking them so long to get through an obstacle?

JW: Oh, yeah. More times than not I’m frustrated because it’s taking them too long to get through it. But I understand that it’s hard, and a lot of these people aren’t athletic at all. So you just have to keep that in mind. It’s, like, “Oh, it’s a grandma who is 53 years old, and she probably hasn’t done anything like this in her life, and she probably doesn’t work out, and the last time she went running was 10 years ago.” You just have to keep that in mind. And then there’s some people who I’m, like, “Oh, they’re never going to make it through there,” and then they blow through it! So I’m surprised every day. I bet on the side. I have my own favorites. Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win. (Laughs)

BE: Who was the contestant that you were most excited to see win?

JW: God, there’s been a lot. You know what? I can’t pick one person. Normally, I really fall in love with all of our characters. They’re really all so different, and you want to root for each one for different reasons. So normally, with the four that we have at the end, usually I’m happy with whoever wins. Unless I’ve bet money on the other one. (Laughs)

BE: A lot of times, you go to silence in lieu of possibly saying something that might offend a contestant.

JW: You know, I have to watch my mouth. Sometimes you have people that are really, really cocky, and…I wish the audience could hear what I hear, because you guys…obviously, they don’t show all of the interview. But there are really some odd comments that we get. (Laughs) To each his own, though. That’s the beauty of our contestants: they’re wacky, they’re crazy, they’re funny. That’s what makes the show. Thank God for them, or I wouldn’t have a job.

BE: For my money, there’s nothing better than a contestant who talks a load of shit, only to slip and bust their ass before they even get to the first obstacle.

JW: (Laughs) My God, I know…and I kind of like that! It’s, like, hey, karma’s a bitch…

Matt Kunitz, executive producer

Bullz-Eye: I was just saying to Jill that my 5-year-old daughter has made “Wipeout” into appointment television for our family.

Matt Kunitz: It’s interesting how…in the ratings last week, they said that we were the #1 2 – 11 year old show all season long so far. (Laughs) But what I love about that…because, obviously, we’re not trying to target 2 – 11 year olds. Everybody wants 18 – 49. But 2 – 11 year olds are watching with their parents, which is great. And I hear that all the time. “My 5-year-old…” “My 4-year-old…” I heard it yesterday: “My 3-year-old loves the show!” And this person was telling me that the 3-year-old even gets up and…when the contestants do their shout-out and do some kind of scream, the 3-year-old gets up on the couch and does the same scream! So it’s good.

BE: I keep saying that you guys should have a TCA day on the “Wipeout” set, where the TCA members run the course.

MK: You want to come run the course? (Laughs)

BE: I want to. And I think my daughter wants me to. But I don’t think my wife would ever let me.

MK: Yeah. (Laughs) That’d be good stuff, though, watching the critics take a shot at it!

BE: So how often do you try to mix it up and add new stuff on the course?

MK: Well, every episode there are new stunts. For example, they start the qualifier, and the very first stunt they do is new every episode. And then there’s different ways of switching it up throughout the show. The winter season is one season, and then when we get into the summer season, it’s a completely different course…times two! We shoot for about five weeks, then we shut down for about a month and a half and build a completely new course, so that during the summer we have two full completely separate courses that we can mingle together and try to keep it fresh. I think it’s important to keep it fresh and to keep not only the audience but also the contestants on their toes, so that they don’t know what to expect.

BE: So, now, are you always on the set when they’re running the course?

MK: Yep.

BE: Has there ever been a point when you’ve seen someone wipe out and just thought, “Oh, my God, that person has died”?

MK: No, not that, but definitely…like, I mean, this clip they’re showing right now… (Points to a nearby monitor) …where this girl is smacking her head into that beam, there are times where I’m just, like, “Ohhhhh!” But, you know, safety’s a number-one concern for us, so we spend…hundreds of thousands of dollars on padding alone. Just on foam. We have a special deal with foam manufacturers now. We go directly to the manufacturers to get foam. So while everything looks like it’s a hard impact, there’s usually anywhere between six and 18 inches of foam that they’re smacking into. So as hard as the impacts look, I know that it’s safe, because we’ve put so much into it.

BE: My daughter is of the belief…and keep in mind that she’s only five and hasn’t seen every episode…that no one has ever successfully gotten past the Sucker Punch portion of the course.

MK: Here’s the thing: we don’t show everybody. And sometimes…I mean, the show’s called “Wipeout,” so if I showed everybody making it, it’s not really interesting. People have made it across, for sure, and we’ve shown a few of them. But we don’t show all of the successes because, ultimately, it’s about the wipeout. So when we plan the show and design the stunts, we plan it for 90% failure. We want to see that 10% of the people can actually do it, so everything that we have out there is do-able by that one out of ten people that attempt it. Or, at least, that’s the plan. (Laughs)

BE: What’s the most amazing performance you’ve seen on the show?

MK: We had this woman who was an ex-stuntwoman who came on the show. She was on a “Blind Date” episode, and…I don’t know whether she was doing it on purpose, but she was really good, and every wipeout that she had involved some kind of crazy flip in the air. I’m often impressed by the women on the course. You don’t expect them to do as well, and they come out and…I mean, this woman was incredible.

BE: Has there been anyone in the Wipeout Zone who just legitimately depressed you because of how long they were taking to complete the course?

MK: Oh, that happens a lot, where you’re just, like, “C’mon, please! We need somebody to finish this course!” (Laughs) It’s tough. When you get to the Wipeout Zone, that’s really tough. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s scary…and difficult. So, yeah, we’re always crossing our fingers on that one.

BE: Lastly, can you even believe how successful this show has become?

MK: I’m thrilled by the success. I mean, ultimately, we set out to do a family show, and it’s turned out to be just that. And it’s reaching across all demos. You can’t ask for more than that.

You can follow us on Twitter @moviebuffs and on Facebook as well.

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