A grown man wearing a diaper is spun around until he can barely stand, then is made to try an obstacle course carrying pitchers of milk without spilling any. Another man, dressed like an insect, flings himself onto a giant-sized “windshield” with a giant-sized “splat.”
Is American television going crazy? No — American television is going Japanese.
With the increasing popularity of YouTube clips from Japanese game shows such as “Endurance,” “Hole in the Wall” and “Human Tetris,” U.S. networks — never shy about imitation — are bringing similar antics to their prime-time schedules.
On Tuesday, ABC is airing back-to-back premieres of “Wipeout” (8 p.m EDT) and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (9 p.m. EDT), with a domestic edition of “Hole in the Wall” coming this fall on Fox.
“It’s going to be like nothing that American audiences have ever seen on network television,” says “I Survived” host Tony Sano.
Indeed, Americans, accustomed to such family-friendly game shows as “Jeopardy!,” “The Price is Right” and “Deal or No Deal” will likely find the new shows somewhat jolting. Then again, that’s the idea.
“There is a great desire to shock over there,” notes “Hole in the Wall” executive producer Stuart Krasnow. “Ironically, we’re more puritan over here. But the Japanese will shock to any extreme.”
Popular around the world, “Hole” pits contestants against solid walls coming at them with odd-shaped openings. They must mimic those shapes with their bodies to allow them to pass through the walls, lest they get knocked into a pool of water.
Bring on the humiliation and embarrassment
Physically challenging, for sure. But for sheer zaniness, “I Survived” executive producers Arthur Smith and Kent Weed have gone all-out weird.
“We watched hundreds of hours of Japanese shows and looked for all of the consistent themes,” says Smith, “whether it’s being dizzy, use of treadmills, falling into water. We took those elements and then designed new games around them,” with a little help from Japanese game show producers to make the stunts more … well, Japanese.
By now, you’re probably picking up that the most consistent themes in Japanese game shows are humiliation and embarrassment — sometimes to the point of sadistic — which oddly enough can serve as stress relief for conservative Japanese. “It’s one of the only avenues they have for release, where they can actually let go and not be conservative anymore,” notes Weed.
Krasnow agrees. While U.S. game show contestants are in it for the cash and prizes, he says the motivation is far different for the Japanese player.
“It’s true escapism,” he notes. “It allows them to really not be that proper person who just fits in all the time. Their culture is really about not being the loud one in the room and not being noticed. So for them to stand out is funny in and of itself.”
To make it through such torture also reflects well on one’s family, Smith says of the Japanese. “Their games are all about saving face. When you don’t do good, you’ve harmed your family — you don’t look good in your family’s eyes.”
‘Shock for shock’s sake’
All this is very different from American game shows, where players are generally treated with respect, no matter how goofily they behave.
“Treating our contestants well is our bread and butter,” says “The Price Is Right” executive producer Syd Vinnedge. “For us, the contestants, and therefore the audience, are the stars of the show.”
Hosts of U.S. game shows, such as Drew Carey, laugh with nutty contestants, not at them. The American host, Krasnow explains, “is there to comfort the losing contestant, to put a silver lining on a contestant who feels bad. In Japan, it’s not like that — it’s shock for shock’s sake. If they feel bad, who cares?”
And unlike Japan, U.S. game show contestants are typically chosen for their likeability. “We place a lot of emphasis on casting,” says David Goldberg, president of Endemol Entertainment, which produces “Deal or No Deal” and the upcoming “Wipeout.” “We think it’s really important to have people playing the game that we relate to and have a genuine interest in seeing them win.”
One thing that’s true in both the U.S. and Japan — there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people who are willing to do just about anything in front of a camera.
“Ninety-five percent of the world are voyeurs, and 5 percent of the world are exhibitionists,” says Krasnow. “Thank God for the 5 percent.”