June 24, 2008

Reality Competition ‘Wipeout’ Gets Rolling Tonight

By Korina Lopez

Nothing guarantees a laugh like watching people trip, slip and fall.

At least that's what ABC is counting on with the reality competition Wipeout, premiering tonight (8 ET/PT). In each episode, 24 people of all shapes and sizes compete for $50,000 by running a course filled with obstacles designed to knock them into mud pits, spin them until they're dizzy and then knock them down again.

"The time-honored tradition of watching people falling down is always funny," says Wipeout host John Henson, a 20-year comic vet best known as host of E!'s Talk Soup. "And it's certainly that tradition that this show is following."

Henson, along with co-hosts John Henderson (ESPN's Sports Center) and Jill Wagner (best known as the Mercury girl on car ads), shares observations while watching the action replayed on a screen. And there's a lot of action to observe on the massive set, which spans several acres. "It looks like Thunderdome," Henson jokes.

Placing people in harm's way for laughs is also a time-honored ratings-getter on Japanese TV, one that has been gaining momentum in the USA for several years, particularly on cable shows aimed at young male viewers. But Wipeout executive producer Matt Kunitz likens Wipeout more to Fear Factor, which he produced for NBC.

"It's America's Funniest Home Videos meets Fear Factor. We create the moments rather than waiting for someone to slip and fall," Kunitz says. And unlike Fear Factor, viewers with delicate constitutions don't have to worry about people eating spiders or sitting in a vat of snakes. "There's no grossness, no violence, drugs or sex," Kunitz says. "Just good, clean fun -- except for the mud."

The show has an arsenal of 60 stunts to throw at challengers, different ones on each episode. Some, such as Big Balls, in which contestants try to run across a row of giant, bouncy red balls without falling off, prove to be so entertaining that they become show fixtures.

Among other arenas:

*The Sweeper. Perched on a pole, contestants must jump over a rotating arm that gets faster and higher until it knocks them over.

*Dizzy Dummy. Six people get strapped to a spinning mechanism and then run a short course.

*The Dreadmill. Contestants run on a 40-foot-long treadmill, which goes up to 15 mph, while leaping over inner tubes and opening up doors in their path.

*Sucker Punch. It's like Whack-a-Mole if the mole were doing the whacking: Contestants run along a wall from which fists pop out and sucker-punch them.

Although the cash prize waits for one exceptionally agile person each show, the course is designed for failure, Kunitz says. "We want only a 5% success ratio, because this show is about wiping out." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>