It's Friday. Do you know what that means? Tonight, TruTV will gift humanity with an all-new episode of Cable television's most terrible/brilliant gameshow, Killer Karaoke. An hour-long amalgam of Fear Factor, adult DoubleDare, and an American Idol audition, this series is an Americanized reboot of British spectacle, Sing If You Can, hosted by self-depreciating reformed jackass Steve-O.
The premise is awesomely stupid: contestants recreate songbook classics while being subjected to absurdly unnerving circumstances. In the first episode, a man attempts to recreate the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" while getting his chest waxed. A young woman is lowered into an icy cold tank of swimming snakes and baby alligators while hooting A-ha's "Take on Me." A dork from Cincinnati wears a balloon suit and drunk goggles while ambling through a cactus maze and screeching "You Are So Beautiful," all in the pursuit of a money tree writhing with snakes. The episode's winner, who is none of these people, takes home "a whopping $5,500." As the Times so aptly put it, "What more do you need to know about the lust for fame that has infected our species?"
We recently spoke with the woman responsible, Natalka Znak, the British CEO of Zodiak USA, who is also behind such creations as Hell's Kitchen, Hardcore Pawn, and Celebrity Wife Swap. She knows what she is doing.
What was the elevator pitch for Killer Karaoke? This seems like the sort of show where you could just walk into a meeting, show a five-second tape, and then an exec hands you some cash, a stack of release forms, and a bucket of alligators.
We've based in LA, but we have a New York office, and every six weeks, I go out to pitch. I'm the head of [Zodiak USA] and I usually have people with me, carrying all the relevant bits—which makes me sound grand, but I'm not. But on this occasion, I was pitching alone and I had been given various packages, and I ended up at TruTV with a big jumbly pile of a mess. Things sticking out of my bag. So I go in there, and I rummage through my big, brown paper thing and I pull out this stuff and I go, "Okay, here's the batch I'm gonna pitch for you."
Marc Juris, the head of the channel, looked at my bag on the floor and said, "What's that brown envelope? I want to know what's in that bag."
So I got the envelope. I said, "Oh, it's a singing show [based on] Sing If You Can. I didn't think you'd be interested in a singing show." He said, "Well, I am, put the tape in." So I put the tape in, and he bought it straight-to-series in the room.
Sing If You Can seems to require singing talent. This doesn't require any vocal skills at all.
You would be wrong. We cast this show very, very carefully—we have an excellent in-house casting team. All of these people are really, really good singers. If you have really bad singers and they're screaming at the same time, then maybe that's too much. The times at which they are singing, they are actually quite good. We just do a very good job at distracting them.
The New York Times review was surprisingly positive, kind of cheekily saying Killer Karaoke "may be the greatest show in television history."
I've had a lot of reviews in my time. But in my favorite one, which is here on the wall framed from the UK, I was listed as "One of the 10 People to Have Dumbed Down British TV." Quite a recognition. I think the Times review might go next to it quite nicely. Killer Karaoke could sit on either list, really: it's either the best show in the world or the worst show in the world. Some reviews have said that—and I think as long as you've got a show where people are saying that, you're kind of onto a winner, aren't you?
To me, the show seems like deliberate self-parody. You actually have contestants in balloon suits walking through a cactus maze to get to a money tree that's writhing with snakes.
On many levels, it's very profound isn't it. It's a comment on reality TV. I've been asked over many years, "How low will you go?" The answer is, "A lot lower!"
You've produced Celebrity Love Island, Celebrity Wife Swap, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Who are your fantasy celebrity Killer Karaoke contestants?
This is going to sound awful, but I really love Donny Osmond, and I'd love to see Donny being electrocuted while singing.
Are plans for a celebrity version underway?
I've made a celebrity version of every show you can think of, so I always have plans for a celebrity version. It's always the next stage. But no, I haven't spoken to Tru about that, not yet.
What stunts haven't you been able to stage that you'd like?
We've thought about putting a shark in a snake tank, but thought that would be too much. I've got a particular obsession, emu? You call them ostriches here. I did a fantastic stunt with Johnny Rotten, of all people, once: on the British version of I'm a Celebrity, where we painted him in tar and he got pecked by ostriches. It was one of the funniest and most surreal things. But for some reason, we can't use them here.