Reality competition shows allow viewers to recognize themselves in the contestants on-screen, either relating to overcoming a challenge or perhaps being inspired to get up and go have an adventure of their own.
The Envelope asked four reality TV hosts — Phil Keoghan of “Amazing Race,” Padma Lakshmi of “Top Chef,” RuPaul of “RuPaul's Drag Race” and Jane Lynch of “Hollywood Game Night” — to have an adventure of sorts by gathering together to talk about the reality TV landscape today, which somehow led to a conversation that included jokes that didn't make it on air, naked vacation photos, smelly Ukraine toilets and the ugly cry face.
Here is a condensed transcript from that April 28 conversation.
What makes a good reality show? Phil, since “Amazing Race” — how many Emmys has “Amazing Race” won?
Padma Lakshmi: Oh, here we go.
Jane Lynch: Yeah.
Phil Keoghan: Television is all about moments. And reality, I think, has become so popular because we've found a new way of entertaining. And script writers are so unbelievable in terms of being able to create moments out of nothing. Like, literally people sit down and they write a moment. And I think reality was another way that we could create opportunity for things to happen that weren't written on the page. And so when you throw interesting people into an interesting situation, out of that can come great moments.
But there's always going to be some manipulation, right?
Lakshmi: In scripted there's a narrative, there's a plot. In “Top Chef,” we do all of the things, or try to, that Phil's talking about. But the narrative comes after. You have to look for a natural narrative in the behavior that you tape and find.
So it's an editing room kind of thing, really, where you're creating it?
Lakshmi: Well, you don't know who's going to freak out at the challenge, you don't know who's going to shine, you don't know who's going to get into a fight. So you have to be able to find and follow the drama rather than, you know, as Phil said, you have to create an opportunity for it to flourish and blossom.
Keoghan: And hope that something good happens.
They talk about “frankenbiting,” you know, where you take a sound bite, and you kind of stick it with something that's out of context. But do you really have to go there?
Keoghan: If you find yourself having to frankenbite everything, then presumably your “prepare producing” — as in creating the opportunity for things to happen — didn’t go so well. And now you’re having to frankenbite to kind of make up for something you didn't do back here.
How important do you think the casting is to the process?
Lynch: Well, we're different, we're like a party, you know? This is about the audience...
And you're working with celebrities, too.
Keoghan: But in a way, you're casting too, right? I mean, because you're putting together a mix of people.
Lynch: Right, we put together a mix of people, and we have two civilians, two normal people that come in, and we hope that the audience feels like they're at a party with some really shiny people who are having a really good time. You get to see who they really are, and I think it's a more fun thing to go on than sitting on a couch and talking to a talk show host, and pushing your show. I mean, you get to play and have fun. What we want to do as the host is allow things to happen, and to allow people, especially these shiny celebrities, who are usually a lot of fun or they wouldn't be there, to have a really good time. And the audience just digs that.
Lakshmi: It is a really good time.
Lynch: Yes, and Padma was there, and you were great, although your team let you down.
Lakshmi: It happens. (Laughs)
Padma, what about on your show? I mean, how important do you think casting is to that?
Lakshmi: I'm not really involved in the casting because I'm also a judge. So I try to stay as away from it as I can. It's important, but you can never really tell until you get these people into the show, and they're in the thick of doing whatever it is we're doing. Some people, you know, don't have endurance. Some people don't have good strategy. Some people are very expressive, and other people are not. So you never know what's going to click because also, it's not just each individual, it's the alchemy of those people together. We just hope for really compelling contestants. We don't even necessarily want, like, terrible people on. It just matters about whether they're effective in the medium of television. And this is true for all our guest judges too.
That's a very interesting point, though, the whole issue of authenticity, and that some people not really working on television because they're not really photogenic or whatever. RuPaul, I'm guessing that for your show, that whole issue of authenticity versus what's fake, what's theatrical — that's got to be operating in a somewhat different way, right?
RuPaul: You know, everybody has this idea that reality is so fake, and the audience even thinks, oh, that was edited that way. If you see it on camera, it happened.
RuPaul: And, you know, I've got to tell you, reality TV is more real than real life. Everybody has this idea that there's all this trickery and franken-editing, and...
Keoghan: Biting, yeah.
RuPaul: Frankensteining, and it's really, it's not on our show. Our show is personality-driven. These are the most courageous characters in the world. And these are boys who were shunned from their families, from their neighborhoods, and everybody said, you can't do that. But guess what? They did it anyway. So we choose from that group of people, who are already amazing and courageous, and we cast this show as an ensemble. Somebody represents the ingenue, somebody represents the old school, somebody represents sort of the new school. And so we put all these people together, and you've got dynamite.
When you've been on the air for a while, how do you keep the show fresh, you know? And Phil, that's got to be an issue on your show.
Keoghan: Well, I do feel that we do have a secret ingredient in the sense that we have the world to choose from. So we've been to India, for instance, 10 times. We could go to India 100 times and we still wouldn't use up all the opportunities that India has to offer. So you will never see the same background on our show. Every time you look at our show, what's behind the contestants and where they are is always different.
RuPaul, your thoughts on this?
RuPaul: Oh, well, I don't know if you know, but all the producers on our show are gay. We're very, very creative people. And we draw from the vast history of not only the gay experience but the outsider experience, the people who dance to the beat of a different drummer. Our show showcases the art of drag, which is really about mocking everything — everything's up for grabs. So, you know, you take on any subject and you add drag to it and it's hilarious! Our show, at its core, is really about the tenacity of the human spirit. And how interesting is that? The human spirit, let's make a show about it!
Lakshmi: I think that is what's compelling about all our shows, that side of reality is very positive. You get to see a person react spontaneously to what's coming at them. Whether it's a game of charades and it's an actor, or someone who's from another country, and ordinary, doing something they've never done, or someone striving to do the best at what they want to do, and it must be a really moving thing for these people to always be told all your life that you shouldn't dress up, that you shouldn't do this, and be in a forum that actually exalts it and rewards being good at it.
On all of your shows, you're giving ordinary viewers, people who are watching at home a chance to see things and experience things they would normally never get a chance to experience.
RuPaul: I beg to differ! I think, at its core, what happens is the audience gets to see someone break through that wall, that wall that we all have and that the audience has. You know, watching the crucifixion and resurrection of someone, everybody loves a comeback. So, in the course of all of these shows, you get to root for someone who has possibly your own goals in life, or you relate to them because they're trying their best. And then when you see them break through, and they get it, they get it! You go, yes, yes! Because you understand it on a human level. You understand, because that's your story too. And that's what we do on these shows, that's what reality shows are. We tell the audience's story, not specifically, but at its core.
Keoghan: Which is when it becomes inspiring, and I think that's what we hear so much from people, where the viewers are saying, that's me, that's my uncle, those are my parents. And so when I hear from viewers that they're inspired to take that once-in-a-lifetime trip, you know, people will send me photographs from our locations.
RuPaul: Are they nude photographs?
Keoghan: Sometimes. It's funny you should say that. Yeah, a nude bungee-jumping shot I just got the other day, with way too much dingle-dangle.
For your show, I think when they get a chance to see celebrities outside their role, that's got to be a lot of the appeal.
Lynch: It is. And you know what's really great about all the celebrities that show up is they come to play. I mean, every once in a while you'll see somebody kind of sit back, like what did I get myself into? Because it's very exposing, you know, to play these games, and perhaps fall on your face, literally and metaphorically. And so you kind of have to commit to it. And I haven't seen anybody walk away from that. We had Martha Stewart on a couple of weeks ago. And, you know, she was very prim and proper, but then she just started getting into.
Keoghan: Let it go?
Lynch: Yeah, kind of. Martha Stewart never lets go.
Keoghan: Right, always in control.
Lynch: In the Martha Stewart way, you know, her eyes went like this a couple of times, and it was good. It's like a party. Sean Hayes created this thing out of his notorious game nights that he has at his home, and I've been to a few of them. And he has a bunch of celebrity friends, and he has a bunch of, like, normal people friends. And it was always fun. That was a great dynamic to see, you know, the barista from the coffee shop hanging out with Megan Mullally, and, you know, being on the same team. And we were thinking, isn't that a cool thing to do on television? So...
This is almost like improv, right?
Lynch: A lot of it is, but I have some great writers, Grant and Anne, who give me a ton of jokes, and some that I put in my back pocket, we were talking about it.
Keoghan: Can you tell the one that you put in your back pocket?
Lynch: Yeah, yeah, yeah, this one, I pull it out, and it looks like I made it up off the top of my head, because I'm that good. But we had these Sports Illustrated models all on placards behind me, and I said, “You know, as a feminist, I am appalled. As a lesbian, I am delighted.”
What about the most challenging time you've had as a host.
Keoghan: This last season, we had so many teams arrive at the mat at one time, it's so competitive, that I literally lost count. And I told one team that they were in a certain place, and then they weren't. And I said to [the producers], just leave it in, because I was totally confused in the moment, and the audience got that there was mayhem. For me, the hardest part is, you know, I write the scripts, and so sometimes a show will drop out. We shoot 12 shows in 21 days. And this last season, we had a show drop out, and so when I really wanted to be sleeping — because we don't get a lot of sleep — I was writing a [replacement] show as we were flying to this other country.
RuPaul: What do you mean a show drops out? I don't understand what that means.
Keoghan: Well, sometimes, we might be going to a particular country and then there's, you know, political unrest, or it's deemed that it's not safe for us to go somewhere. It very rarely happens, but in this particular situation, we had something come out. And that particular [replacement] episode was really a good one, because sometimes when you try to overproduce things, it doesn't work out as well.
Lynch: It's almost when your back's to the wall sometimes, you do your best work.
Keoghan: Yeah, sometimes the best stuff will happen out of things that weren't planned, weren't discussed, and then you get this magic. But if luck is the residue of design, then with all of our shows, what we are doing is we are creating the opportunity for things to happen. I mean, to answer your question, because I know it was a long time ago, but Ukraine. Ukraine, I was in immigration overnight, I couldn't get out, and the teams were running to the pit stop and I was stuck there overnight in some room with plastic seats. That was not enjoyable. And the toilets smelled.
Lynch: Oh, yeah, I bet.
Keoghan: And I could only smell people, but I couldn't see them. And I woke up in the morning, and there was a huge room of smelly people.
RuPaul, any moments that have gone in ways that you thought weren't good?
RuPaul: The hardest part of doing my show is when some real emotional thing happens, and I make that ugly cry face, which is very hard to make, because my face is...
Lynch: It is, it's ugly. It's an ugly cry.
RuPaul: Well, it's just, my face is full of Botox.
Lynch: Oh, right, right.
RuPaul: It makes it really difficult. I'm crying right now.
RuPaul: No, it's hard. You know, I like to be in control, and there have been some times when those kids have revealed something on there. I mean, I don't even want to repeat some of the stuff, but these are people who have been through hell and high water to get to the show. And these are the people that our culture has shunned, and said, you can't do that. I mean, you know, dressing up in girls' clothes if you're a boy is like an act of treason in a male-dominated culture. And here we have champions, the best of the best. And so it gets emotional. When they get real, oh, it's gon' get real! And so, you know, my face may crack, and I try not to cry. And that's difficult.
Padma, what is the toughest thing?
Lakshmi: It's not even sending them home, it's when I have to spit. And I know that sounds weird, but when I have to spit something out...
Lynch: Because it doesn't taste good?
Lakshmi: [Nods] I can count on one hand, in all the seasons, that I've actually spit something out, and it's usually because something isn't cleaned properly or cooked properly. In one case it was an artichoke, and it was the beard of the artichoke. In another case...
So no one can spit pretty.
Lynch: Yeah, nobody spits pretty.
Keoghan: Do they cut away, do you go...
Lakshmi: No, they show it -- are you kidding? That's golden.
Lakshmi: I'll never forget, it was Arianne, it was the New York season. She was the pastry chef of a restaurant she and her husband owned together in New Jersey. She couldn't have been nicer. We were filming at Tom [Colicchio’s] restaurant. and she made this dessert out of lemon curd. And you know how sometimes you eat a chili and it's so hot, you're just dying? You're dying, there's a nuclear bomb that goes off. This lemon curd was the sweet version of that, because it was also so sour, and I don't know how to —- it was like napalm in my mouth! And it's just a horrible moment. I'm feeling bad because, you know, millions of people are going to see me do that to this woman who has kids, who has a thriving business, whose life it is to make pastry.
Lynch: And you're about to spit it out into a napkin.