CBS' Emmy-winning reality show, "The Amazing Race," has seen its share of eclectic contestants come and go over the series' 13 seasons: beauty pageant winners and bickering married couples, jock siblings and even little people. But this winter's installment marks the first time that "Race" has included a "Hollywood star" in its contestant ranks -- even if that famous face hardly counts as a household name.
Enter Mike White, the actor-screenwriter-producer-director who's best known for writing hit comedies, including "Nacho Libre" and "School of Rock" (in which he also plays a supporting role). White, a former producing partner of Jack Black, calls himself a "scholar" of CBS' multiple-Emmy-winning reality show and a self-professed "weird reality fanatic" who began his quest to become an "Amazing Race" contestant during the Hollywood writers strike in late 2007.
"I couldn't write. I'd been watching for so long, I was just like, 'I want to go on the show!' " White recalled. "I made a tape with a friend and sent it in. It wasn't like I tried to pull rank. We just sent in an audition and they called."
In fact, White, a Pasadena native who earned his stripes as a writer for Judd Apatow's late, great 1999-2000 television series, "Freaks and Geeks," places his burning ambition to be on "The Amazing Race" right up there with his abiding goals in life. "It's definitely on the bucket list," White said over a plate of roasted vegetables at the Brentwood Country Mart earlier this week. "Do 'The Amazing Race,' do a few movies, die happy."
But that doesn't quite explain how the whippet-thin Hollywood hotshot -- whose boyish physical presence and unblinking demeanor can't help but bring to mind the slightly demented naif-stalker he portrayed in 2000's oddball dramedy "Chuck & Buck" -- wound up on the physically arduous, globe-spanning obstacle course/time trial, which kicks off its 14th season at 8 p.m. Sunday.
Before White could take his place at the starting line, he had to persuade producers to cast him despite his professional pedigree; unlike so much programming on VH1, "The Amazing Race" had largely resisted anything resembling "celebreality" stunt casting until White came along (one exception being the casting of "Survivor" alumni Rob and Amber in Season 7). Then, White's original partner, filmmaker Jon Kasdan (who wrote 2007's "In the Land of Women"), dropped out during semifinal callbacks. And in a turn of events that surprised White as much as anyone, the show's casting director helped choose Kasdan's replacement: White's father, Mel White, a 69-year-old documentary filmmaker, author and leader in the gay evangelical Christian movement -- one of the oldest contestants to appear on the show. "I thought I'd collapse," Mel said of his expectations at the outset. "I thought when Michael said go, I'd fall down dead."
As well, Mike White had to overcome his own professional misgivings. "You feel a little weird as a writer of scripted television for many years to say you're a fan of reality TV. You feel like a traitor. But I am a total fan. There are life lessons that can be derived from reality television. It was a . . . blast."
It's hard not to harbor certain suspicions about Mike White's motivations -- namely, that his appearance on "Race" is some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque gag -- especially if you are at all familiar with White's view-askew comedy. Plumbing the aesthetic of discomfort for laughs as well as pathos, White's well-meaning but often dim-witted characters tend to find their bliss only after coming through the fire of ritual humiliation (see: Jack Black as a doofus music teacher in "School of Rock" or Molly Shannon as a misguided animal rights zealot in White's directorial debut, "Year of the Dog").
But to hear him tell it with wide-eyed sincerity, White didn't do the show for greater fame. He wanted to go on in large part to shake himself from complacency. "No matter what your job is, to be kicked out of that bubble is a healthy thing. You're asked to do things you'd never do. And the whole time it's slightly embarrassing, slightly humiliating. You get over yourself."
When Kasdan suffered what White jokingly refers to as a "nervous breakdown" during a battery of psychological tests administered by show producers, White had already won the admiration of Lynne Spillman, casting director for "The Amazing Race." She gauged him as someone who "was doing it purely for the love of the show and not for any kudos or fame."
After the two became chummy, White invited Spillman to a party at his house, where she met the openly bisexual filmmaker's friends and family members with an eye toward casting a replacement. Which is when she met Mel White, a prize-winning documentary producer and bestselling writer who ghost-wrote the autobiographies of such religious firebrands as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. After undergoing three decades of "anti-gay" therapy in conjunction with the church, however, White came out of the closet in 1994 with his autobiography, "Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America."
"He was fascinating: opinionated, complex, sarcastic," Spillman said. "I didn't realize he was Mike's father at first. I tried to be cool, but I was so excited. Mike said, 'You gotta be kidding! He's the only person I'm not funny around.' "
Added Mike White: "To be perfectly honest, I'm competitive. I wanted to win. As much as my dad is spry for someone who's almost 70, he is still 20 years older than the next-oldest person on the show."
Nonetheless, both were persuaded that the experience would be positive and provide for plenty of father-son bonding that occasional lunches and cross-country visits can't approximate. Still, boundaries had to be established upfront. "Right at the beginning, he told me, 'Dad, don't go aggro on me.' I had to look it up. What's 'aggro'?" recalled Mel White from his home in Virginia. "I thought it was agriculture. But it's aggro-vated. He knows I'm a gay Christian activist. I'm aggravated half the time!"
Asked if he learned anything surprising about his son while traveling together under the battlefield conditions of reality television, Mel White grew suddenly emotional. "I couldn't pay for what 'The Amazing Race' did for me, to have this time with my son," he said.
Shooting wrapped in late November, after the racers hit five continents, 15 countries and traveled 30,000 miles. But so far, neither White has seen any footage from the show outside of a quietly hilarious CBS promo :// www.melwhite.org/blog/& ;feature=player_embedded"> www.melwhite.org/blog/& ;feature=player_embedded clip in which father and son are introduced simply as "writers" and shown pecking away at side-by-side laptops, doing tandem yoga and tooling around on Segway PTs. Mike White admits he stage-managed the commercial to temper people's expectations. But it seems like he also couldn't resist imposing some small measure of his comedic worldview on the show.
"They always have people doing this sporty stuff like volleyball," he said. "What would be the laziest thing we could do for our promo? Let's just ride on Segways in our neighborhood! I was thinking, 'Let's just do the goofiest stuff possible.' "