I Love My Job! Working on the Set of 'Wipeout'
You can't help but crack up at the crazy antics of the contestants on ABC's hit show 'Wipeout,' which airs Thursdays at 8PM. What could be funnier than seeing hapless people bounce like pinballs between the famous foam "Big Balls," then go careening into a giant lake of mud? This season it's wilder than ever, since they've added TV snow, ice, polar bears and penguins to the mix.
It takes a village to get a complicated show like that running. As a matter of fact, 350 people are employed, from hard-hat construction workers to gorgeous babes in bikini tops on the big, bad Black and Blue Crew. Most of them are on set at a large ranch in the hills just north of Los Angeles.
AOL Jobs was invited up to that ranch to go behind the scenes and see what kinds of jobs are involved in a production like that, and to see what it takes to get those jobs. We talked to everyone from theproducer -- or "CEO" of the show, as he explains it -- to the people who have to dive into the muck to retrieve a lost shoe, if that becomes necessary.
Big boss of the Big Balls
Matt Kunitz created the show with Scott Larsen, and the two are executive producers, basically responsible for every detail, large and small, on this massive production. "There are many different departments, [each] with department heads, and all of them answer to the producers, who all answer to me," Kunitz explains. "I'm overseeing the whole thing: creatively, financially, casting, stunts -- you name it, I'm involved in it." All this, and he still finds time to develop other shows.
Kunitz graduated from USC with a degree in film and television, and then started his career as a production assistant on what is often considered the very first reality series, MTV's 'The Real World.' From there he moved to NBC and went on to produce 'Fear Factor.' After that, his goal was to come up with the next great competition series, but one with a lower gross-out factor. And so 'Wipeout' was born.
Kunitz's job involves overseeing the set housed at a ranch near Los Angeles, and occasionally flying down to Argentina, where they tape different versions of the show that eventually get broadcast to 26 countries. Most days, however, he leaves the set when they stop taping around sundown, so he can be home with his wife and kids in the evenings.
"I have the best job in the world," he laughs. "I get to come to work every day, I get to watch people wipe out, I get to laugh, I get to work with this great crew. And if I'm having fun, if the crew's having fun, the audience is having fun." Those laughs and screeches you hear are not canned.
The host with the most
You've likely seen John Henson as the host of 'Talk Soup' since 1995, and now he's trading quips with John Anderson as they provide running commentary for 'Wipeout.' "If there is a better job, I don't have any idea what that job would be," he says. "Basically I just watch people fall down and laugh at their expense. I would do it for nothing, although I'm not going to tell the producers that."
Henson believes he got the job because, "I've got a good 15 years of making fun of people under my belt." His professional advice to anyone who wants to become a host like he is? "Eschew all education. That stay in school thing? It's bulls--t."
Licensed to design mayhem
Matt Hooper Pennington, or "Hoop" as they call him, is the 'Wipeout' production designer. He's the one responsible for creating the giant obstacle course, which took tremendous imagination. "I used a lot of cartoons for inspiration," he laughs, and adds, "my mom was a fine artist, my dad was a contractor, so I grew up in a very creative household."
Pennington got a film degree at the University of New Mexico and has spent most of his spare time ski racing, mountain climbing, surfing, snow boarding, etc. -- basically if there's an extreme sport, he does it. "I've seen a lot of different ways for people to fall," he says, explaining that he created the course for failure. "The show is called 'Wipeout.' If someone can easily get all the way through the course without wiping out, I haven't done my job."
His job is ideal for the single thrill seeker, because when he's not working on the set six months out of the year, he spends the other six months traveling the world doing extreme sports and coming up with new challenges for 'Wipeout.' He realizes that that wouldn't be so easy if he had a family to support. But since he doesn't, he has what he considers a dream job. "The best part is that whatever you can imagine, you can build here. If you come up with an idea that is absolutely colossal, you can create it."
Black and Blue Crew boss
Members of the Black and Blue Crew don't have to have a college degree, they don't need to have years of experience, and they don't even need to be particularly creative. What they do need to be is extremely "willing," according to Stunt Producer Jonathan Arthur, who is responsible for making sure all the contestants and gear run properly, and that everyone is safe.
"I have a team of testers/production assistants/go-to people who are basically willing to get in the water when no one else will, and run the course between stunts to make sure all the equipment is set right and safe," he says, noting that everything is designed for safety first. "All the surfaces are soft -- some have several feet of foam underneath the vinyl padding. And on anything you could get whacked by, we've got the highest-grade medical foam -- it's like you get whacked by a temperpedic mattress." The Black and Blue Crew has to test everything over and over, just to make sure.
Arthur chooses his crew members so that they'll be representative of the types of contestants that come on the set -- male and female, young and old, with few other assets than the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking. Some, however, like the ones who hang around in wet suits rolled down to reveal bikini tops, are quite easy on the eye.
Arthur himself has quite the pedigree. He got a master's in business administration before he decided that office life wasn't for him, and his father-in-law gave him and his wife (an award-winning stunt artist) the opportunity to move to Hawaii and do stunts on 'Lost.' Now, when he's not working on 'Wipeout,' he does stunts for actors such as James Marsden, Patrick Dempsey, Ben Stiller and Paul Rudd. He realizes he owes much of his stunt career to nepotism.
Skilled Labor Jobs
But he says working on the Black and Blue Crew is a good way to get your foot in the door, even if you don't have a famous relative. "You can start by getting on a set as a production assistant," he advises, "Or hustling sets -- sneaking on the sets when you don't belong there and trying to get in front of the stunt coordinator, shake his hand, hand him a headshot and resume and say, 'I can do this, that and the other thing.' Somebody has to give you a shot, otherwise you'll never make it in this business. You have to build the ladder of networking and relationships."
It's important to note that not one of these interviews was conducted without a snowball thwapping either the interviewer or the interviewee smack in the head. This season of 'Winter Wipeout,' everyone gets the snowball treatment -- they're using them as motivators in the heat, which at times reaches into the '90s. This has to be one of Hollywood's jolliest sets; there is simply no room for attitude or stress when people are involved in projectile bouncing and tumbling. 'Wipeout' is not only creating 350 jobs in the United States alone, but it's supplying a lot of much-needed comic relief to those at home.
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Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want. Her work has been translated into 20 different languages, and she is a frequent expert guest and commentator on news and talk shows. She has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, on the CBS Early Show, NBC Today, CNBC, Fox Business News, Dr. Phil, Oprah.com and many other media outlets. Lisa discusses her AOL pieces each week and interviews vital guests on the web TV show, This Week in Careers. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.