‘Wipeout’ Creator on How the TBS Revival Went Ballsier With New Hosts John Cena and Nicole Byer

Michael Schneider
·6-min read

When “Wipeout” creator Matt Kunitz began planning the show’s revival for TBS, he knew one element had to return: Those iconic, large red balls. Everything else could be updated — and has been, from new hosts John Cena and Nicole Byer to a revised game play that now features teams of two.

“Our marching orders were to make it bigger, bolder, edgier,” Kunitz says of the show, which returns April 1. “Bigger and bolder, that’s easy. That’s the design of the course, which had to be more competitive and more athletic. And edgier, that really is about our hosts.”

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But bigger and bolder in the time of COVID-19 meant a major undertaking for the new “Wipeout.” Another safety issue the show faced in its return was the death of a 38-year-old contestant on set last year.

Nonetheless, the escapist nature of “Wipeout” seemed ripe for return in these uncertain times. It was Corie Henson, head of unscripted for TBS, TNT and TruTV, who first inquired about bringing back “Wipeout” when she arrived at Turner in late 2019. Henson was an ABC exec when “Wipeout” launched and hit it big on the Alphabet net in the late 2000s (she was also married at the time to then co-host John Henson), and was eager to make a splash in her new gig.

“I was looking for big, broad formats and I wanted a legacy franchise that I could bring back,” Henson says of the show, which went off the air in 2014. “Creatively, we felt we felt like there was a way to update the format.”

The original “Wipeout” launched in 2008, in the midst of the economic crisis, and became the kind of feel-good show that viewers were looking for. Now, “Wipeout” 2.0 comes as audiences are in the midst of a global pandemic and also presumably looking for merriment.

“I always felt that this show was going to come back, that it was just a timing thing,” Kunitz says. “I think America is ready to just have a just a silly, fun show that you don’t have to think too hard to enjoy and the whole family can get together and laugh.”

Providing those laughs are WWE star and actor Cena and “Nailed It” host and comedian Byer, who manages to toss in plenty of blue gags while still keeping it family-friendly. “It took us a while to dial in how far we could take it,” says Henson. “But John Cena plays an amazing straight man to her sort of bad girl, and she does it all with such an innocence in her delivery.”

In another change, for the first time, the hosts are actually stationed in the final “Wipeout” zone as contestants aim to complete the course. Kunitz says that’s where some of the best interaction takes place.

“We designed the set so that the host booth is maybe nine feet away from the final obstacle,” he says. “So they are right there. It’s the pivotal moment if they can get through this obstacle, and do it faster than that last team did it, they’ll win the $25,000. That moment is right in front of them. And that natural interaction as they’re yelling at the contestants is very different than what we’ve had before. The chemistry is fantastic.

Also new to the mix is sideline reporter Camille Kostek. Yet much of the production team remains the same, led by Kunitz, who is currently based at Lionsgate under an overall deal — but had negotiated the ability to still do “Wipeout” (which is produced by Endemol Shine North America) should it be brought back. “I would say it’s the most important show of my career,” he says. “It would be heartbreaking if I wasn’t able to come back and produce the show again.”

The pandemic presented some unique challenges to producing “Wipeout,” however. Adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols ultimately ballooned the show’s budget by 25%, which translated to several million dollars more in costs.

That included building a break tent the size of two football fields, so that crew could take their lunch and still be socially distanced. Basic tasks like loading equipment took longer because it took more Teamsters and more trucks, since tasks had to be handled more individually. COVID-19 testing was probably the most expensive part, as an on-set team of at least 10 medical workers regularly monitored contestants and the 300 crewmembers. Production also took longer than normal because of the pandemic.

“What we really had going for us is that we’re 100% outdoors,” Kunitz says. “When you watch the show, you will have no idea that it was ever shot in COVID. Contestants are running side by side, jumping on top of each other. We don’t have that sort of awkward distance between people, and we were able to do that because of the intense COVID protocol system that we had set up.” Kunitz says the production managed to avoid a COVID case until after Thanksgiving, and even then, managed to avoid a spread on set due to contact tracing.

Safety took on another meaning when a contestant died during taping last fall. A coroner’s report found that he had had of a heart attack and had suffered from undetected coronary artery disease.

“It was devastating, not just for obvious reasons but for the family and for the family of people on set,” Henson says. “Even before anything was shot, safety and protocol that goes into building the course and testing the course and the repetition of all of that testing is exhaustive. They reassessed everything and ensured that there was medical and safety in place to continue. In that moment we decided to continue on with the show, but obviously with a heightened sense of awareness of the sensitivities around what had happened.”

Meanwhile, the Turner nets have been promoting “Wipeout” heavily during March Madness, and hope that it translates into a decent launching pad for the show. But although “Wipeout” has been off the air since 2014, it hasn’t ever really disappeared from the zeitgeist. “Social media was a huge part of our show, and kept it alive, the six years that we were off the air, because of our Facebook presence and the 6 million fans on Facebook that never went away,” Kunitz says. “Endemol did this amazing job of sort of feeding that beast and keeping content constant for the last six years. Those clips got millions and millions of views… That to me says that audience is still there and they are clamoring for it and, you know, we’re gonna deliver for them.”

Adds Endemol Shine North America COO Sharon Levy: “Bringing ‘Wipeout’ to a whole new generation has been an exciting undertaking for all of us involved. Nicole and John are a dream team, while Camille is bringing a fresh new perspective to field reporting. And TBS is pulling out all the stops to let viewers know this classic series has a new home and new spin, but thankfully the same Wipeouts.”

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