Wipeout makes me laugh. It’s absurd and an appalling waste of water, but I’ve been watching it with a friend ever since we stumbled onto the “blind date” episode in season three and were still tuned in two hours later. It reminds me of how much I enjoyed American Gladiators when I was a kid. They’re one trick ponies, but somehow I don’t get bored.
A lot of people must feel the same way, because both shows have netted millions of viewers, as have the Japanese shows they’re often compared with, Takeshi’s Castle/Most Extreme Challenge (MXC) and Sasuke/Ninja Warrior. They range from ridiculous to serious but there are certainly similarities, in the case of ABC’s Wipeout so much so that Tokyo Broadcasting System, producer of the Japanese shows, sued ABC for copyright infringement.
Wipeout is an American game show set up like a sporting event with booth commentary by the straight man/comic team of ESPN SportsCentre host John Anderson and comedian John Henson. Their over the top shtick is offset by actress Jill Wagner, who does on-field interviews and alternately laughs and cringes with the tv audience as people wipe out. Contestants are eliminated through a series of obstacles designed for failure. The finalists face a physically demanding course called the Wipe Out Zone, and the person with the best time wins $50 000.
Takeshi’s Castle was a 1980’s Japanese game show featuring famous actor/director/jack of trades “Beat Takeshi” Kitano. The show began with over 100 contestants swarming towards an obstacle such as a climbing wall followed by a pit of mud, and progressed through a series of absurd challenges, including navigating mazes full of people in monster suits and avoiding giant paper boulders hurled by guardsmen in fancy dress. The course finished in a final water pistol-type showdown with Count Takeshi where the winner took home one million yen, but the Count usually prevailed so there were only nine winners in the show’s run. It was visually and narratively creative, and also very silly.
MXC was a Spike TV show made up of footage from Takeshi’s Castle pieced together and overdubbed for an American audience. In a kind of post-modern twist, Takeshi’s Castle pretended that the game show contestants were an army storming a castle, and MXC overdubbed it with a narrative about game show contestants. The dubbing made me uncomfortable and I thought MXC seemed strangely disjointed, probably because it was chopped up bits taken out of their cultural context.
Although ziplines are common currency and Buster Keaton proved that it’s funny when people fall down, it does seem as if Wipeout must have been influenced by Takeshi’s Castle and MXC. For instance, ridiculous scenes where contestants jump onto a revolving surfboard platform and have to jump over giant fish, ride a zipline towards a Velcro wall, or run through doors with nasty surprises behind them bear a distinct resemblance to scenes from Wipeout. But both shows are very much rooted in their respective cultural aesthetics. Where Takeshi’s Castle has stylized low budget sets, Toho Studios-style people in rubber suits, and epic storylines, Wipeout has flashy large scale sets, food-flinging disco dancers, and sportscasters.
On the surface Wipeout is a stupid show, and since it’s mostly about laughing at people falling down I suppose it’s fair to say that under the surface it’s also a stupid show, but slapstick comedy has to be clever to be effective. I think Wipeout works because it’s well structured and strikes a good balance in combining elements of physical comedy, competition and audience appeal.
The humour of Wipeout and Takeshi’s Castle relies on the fact that the contestants are mostly not any better at running the course than you, or your mother in law, or that guy over there would be. It’s physically challenging, but it doesn’t require skill per say, so part of the fun is being able to imagine how much better you might be able to do if you had the chance. Watching athletic people perform difficult feats has an entirely different kind of appeal from the slapstick comedy of watching people fall down. It’s amazing to see what the human body is capable of, but I love eating cupcakes too much to really relate. I’m never going to be hauling myself up a set of notches hanging from a barbell. I can, however, imagine toppling off a spinning sweeper arm into the mud.
American Gladiators is competitive and athletic, but the aesthetic is more roller-derby meets giant bouncy castle. It just can’t be that serious when the events include what is essentially bungee cord basketball and rolling around in giant hamster balls. In fact, if I had infinite funds I’d consider opening something like Gladiator Arena as a giant adult playground.
The only show in the mix that isn’t comedic is Sasuke. It’s a 3 hour special program in which 100 athletes attempt to complete a series of gruelling obstacle courses, and Ninja Warrior is the edited version that airs outside of Japan. I’ve often seen American Gladiators compared unfavourably with Ninja Warrior, but despite the similarities I don’t think they’re really the same kind of show. Ninja Warrior is a serious competition with very high difficulty courses. The contestants are professional level athletes pushing themselves to do their personal best, and sometimes no one makes it to the end.
Basically, it’s Triathlon vs. The Three Stooges. In Ninja Warrior and American Gladiators I’m cheering for someone to win, but in Wipeout and Takeshi’s Castle I find myself simultaneously laughing when people fall down and rooting for them to succeed, which makes it a no-fail situation for me as the audience. I suppose what it comes down to in the end is that a pie in the face is still funny.
the majority of alex MacFadyen’s social interactions at the moment are with 2 year olds, so it’s possible his enjoyment of slapstick is actually a survival mechanism.