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We've been doing well for interviews from the team behind MXC, and Josechung has done it yet again. Here he's had a very detailed chat with Larry Strawther, one of the three executive producers. Below he talks about how difficult it was to get permission from TBS to use their show, "lost" merchandise, and what members of the Takeshi's Castle cast thought of the show. This interview is not to be used outside Takeshi Kingdom or Keshi Heads without permission.
1. How did the Idea for MXC come about?
Paul Abeyta, Peter Kaikko and I had worked together at Merv Griffin Productions. I was mainly in the game show side, and had worked on the development of the 2nd incarnation of Jeopardy! (with Art Fleming, again for NBC) and the pilot for "Dance Fever." After we sold both, I went over as the head writer on Jeopardy! and Paul came over from the Griffin Show itself and became the producer on Dance Fever! Pete worked for 20th-Fox and watched over the show for them. He and Paul became long time partners after that. And I went into sitcoms, but we stayed in contact over the years. Around 1994 or 95 we did a pretty funny show called "Night Stand." I only worked on the first season for that. Around 2001 we had a lunch and Paul asked if I ever watched Iron Chef which at that was showing only a dubbed American version, making it kind of campy. Paul said "Instead of a cooking show, what if we dubbed in a game show?" Paul wanted to do it as a daily show with improv groups like the Groundlings providing the dubbing. I like improv but on television it almost never works (unless it's edited in such a way you don't know it's edited.) But I thought the dubbed game show idea would work as a scripted show - if you could find the right show. We contacted another Griffin alum and he supplied us with a bunch of Asian game shows - well over 100 of them. We split them up to view. Most of them were the crazy in-the-studio kind of shows, and I think we could have made it work, but then Paul said we have to look at this one. It was Takeshi's Castle and when we saw it we all said - yep, this is the one.
2. What did you think when you first saw Takeshi's Castle?
As I said before ..."Yep, this is the one." It was just so surreal. We had no idea what they were saying. The one we saw wasn't dubbed or subtitled. But somehow we didn't need to understand it to make it funny, and that's why it was perfect for our purposes.
3. What Made Takeshi's Castle work for MXC?
It was so visual. So over-the-top. It would still work even if we couldn't take the time and spend the money to make a perfect lip synch on the dub. We could also turn it from an individual competition into a team competition and this allowed us to tell a story each game. Without the competition aspect - the horse race, so to speak, you're just repeating crazy stunts and wild dialog over and over. Even if it's subtle, you need a storyline that makes it seem like the show is moving forwards, towards something bigger.
4. Was it difficult getting permission from Tokyo Broadcasting System to use their show?
Very, and for a number of reasons. Some were legal. The show was owned by TBS, and licensed to an American distributor, Bellon Entertainment, so that complicated discussions. Also, TBS did not have the legal right to use some of the images that had been used at times on some of the shows - some of the monsters from Japanese horror films, etc. - and they had no legal right to use the audio because of the music that was buried in the audio tracks. Another issue was that Paul and Peter's company - RC Entertainment - did not have a real strong track record in comedy. However, my track record in comedy (I had worked on and/or run three top ten sitcoms by that point and had network development deals) helped overcome some of those problems.
5. How were you able to keep the Rights to MXC from Spike TV?
That was easy. TBS and Bellon were very tough negotiators and had some deep pockets, so all that Spike could do - especially for the puny amount they paid us - was license the shows for a specific number of episodes within a specific period of time. If they were willing to put up some real cash, I'm sure they could have gained more rights.
6. Once the show had been licensed, did TBS give you all the episodes of Takeshi's Castle at once or did they just give you a few to start with?
For the first 13 episodes, we were only licensed a specific number of episodes. Then for the 2nd season episodes we got access to more of them. But we mainly selected from certain Takeshi Castle seasons. Like any show (sitcom or Drama), there are years you hit a groove...usually sometime around season two to five. Same was true with Takeshi Castle...plus.
7. You've written for shows like Night Court to Malcolm in the Middle. What was different about writing for MXC than writing for "normal" television?
Well, the budget and schedule of course. We had to write and turn around shows very quickly. The first season we had only thirteen weeks total. We had made an 8-minute presentation but there was concern if it would stand up to multiple episodes. (This is where creating a storylines that move the episode prove so important.) So as part of those first thirteen weeks, we actually had to gear up, produce a pilot, and make adjustments from a creative and logistical standpoint. That took about 4-5 weeks right there. Then we had the remaining 8-9 weeks to write and record the remaining 12 episodes. It was crazy. And tempers flew. And words were yelled and regretted, but ultimately we did it. And that challenge was one of the things that attracted me to the project. I wanted to see if we could do it. But the budget also limited the size of the writing staff. We only had enough money to hire actors who were all very funny, but we didn't have the budget to also hire some pure writers who looked at a bigger picture. (Vic Wilson was the exception to this.)
Another difference between a over-the-air network show and a cable show was more freedom, less censorship. There was good to this, but ultimately, this worked against us - at least in my mind. The edginess-on-the-cusp-of-raunchiness was perfect for some of our early shows. And this got us attention. People couldn't believe we said this or that. But the edginess was usually clever and used sparingly. But then the Spike execs missed the boat when they thought our success was due mainly to the raunchiness. I'm not averse to a good blue joke (we could be quite edgy/naughty on Night Court) but it works best when done sparingly and judiciously -- not all the time. The first season when I was show runner, I think I kept the edginess/raunchiness under control. But then I left day-to-day operations and my successors either didn't want to or were too intimidated by the Spike execs to limit the raunch.
8. We're there any aspects or features that were planned or used in the early stages that weren't kept or used?
Well, I told you before that Paul originally wanted to do it as a daily strip show. I said that was impossible from a creative standpoint and Pete proved it was impossible from a monetary standpoint.
I went back and looked at some old notes for this one.
I still have a sheet that Paul made soon after we chose Takeshiís Castle. His suggested name at the time was "Read My Lips." (He then came up with Most Extreme Elimination Challenge which I liked more.) For the hosts' names he originally had Vic Romano and Boomer Eastman. For the Captain he had Skip Martindale and his original suggestion for Guy LeDouche was Serge Bellafonte. Fortunately, Paul later came up with Guy La Douche but was leery of using it. I thought it was funny so I included it in our shooting script. I named Captain Tennile. And I think I also partly named Kenny Blankenship only because a neighbor of mine had that last name. But I could be wrong about this.
On this same sheet I see his first choices for the big rolling wheels game were Death Logs, Rolling Carnage, and the Big brown Log Game. Log Dropping Event was his fourth choice. It eventually became Log Drop.
We wanted to put in more fake commercials using some of the footage that wasn't conducive to the games. The first one was done by a couple of the actor/writers. The words were funny, but they missed on the parody of the production values. So it seemed slow, and the music and graphics added nothing to the mix.
I wanted to parody the whole "up close and personal" pre-stories a lot more and "Fox-ify" the graphics more than we did. I have a note hammer viewers over the head with overly repetitive cuts and replays. We tried to but all this took time, and time is money. Nowadays it would be easy to do, but in those days James, our graphics guy, could barely keep up with what we were doing.
Because Spike was offering us no money, I wanted to supplement our revenue by selling "sponsorships" to help our budget. At the time, I remember seeing Survivor doing this all the time, plugging Kodak cameras or some smartphone with a camera (new at the time) during some game, etc. I figured we could sell a sponsorship on the scoreboard, and on each competition and game and cut away to some stat graphic sponsored by somebody. We did this in the Taco Bell replay but then Spike kept all that money and after that we said "Screw this."
9. What was your favorite game on the show?
This is so hard to say. Probably the ones on the presentation - Log drop, Sinkers and Floaters, the gauntlet of rocks (whatever we called it. Can't remember now)
10. What was your favorite game to write for?
I liked games where we had the times to do set-ups and callbacks. I remember a horse race game - at least I think it was the horse races, I did always like those -- where the winner of the first race was something like Dewey, and the second was Ben Dover, and the winner of the third race was some guy named Howe. Nothing special by itself, but at the end Vic said something like "Just to recap for our audience, the winners in this round are "Dewy Bendover and Howe?" I'm sure I've blown the details but I always liked long payoffs like that. .
11. What made MXC such a fun show?
The freedom to create our own world out of something that was something else. I loved parodying and making fun of all those over-produced sports shows. We made ourselves.
12. What do say to the people who think that MXC was offensive or disrespectful?
They're probably right. But that was the point.
13. What do you stay to the people who think MXC belittled or ruined Takeshi's Castle?
1) Takeshi's Castle is still there and still being sold, and making more money because of us, so we certainly didn't ruin it.
2) We didn't belittle it because we actually thought it was a great show.
14. Would MXC be as popular as it was if a different show besides Takeshi's Castle was used?
A good version of MXC would have been done. During our research period, I viewed an Indonesian show that was close in terms of the wildness. But it wouldn't have been as wild. It didn't have ALL the elements. As for popularity, that is not just a product of creativity. It's more a function of being in the right place at the right time, the right competition, and the public sentiment at a specific time. In other words, thatís totally unpredictable.
15. Did you ever hear any reactions from anyone who was on Takeshi's Castle?
Yes, we heard that Beat Takeshi (the star and producer) started listing the show on his resume. And I spoke via email with Brad Lesley, the American baseball player who appeared during two or three later seasons. I was friends with a former teammate of his from his American baseball days. He had been outspoken that we were crap compared to the original show. I tried to convince him that you can't compare apples and oranges. His beloved version of Takeshi's Castle wouldn't get a .2 rating in America. No dubbed show 15-year old foreign show would. We got very good cable ratings plus we introduced many people to the original. I don't think he bought it.
16. When did you know the show wasn't coming back?
It was obvious after Season 3 that it was on the cusp. To me it was the raunch factor. I had friends tell me Ö ehhhhhh, and I couldn't disagree. 95% could be funny but that 5% was so over-the-top it made it seem like it was 25% raunchy. I had no day to day involvement by then but was still getting copied on emails because I was an exec producer and trying to make the DVD deal and live show deal. Ultimately, the latter was just too problematic (at least for us) from an insurance standpoint.
17. If the show hadn't been cancelled, how much longer could the show have gone based on the amount of footage you had?
We were near the end of the available usable source footage, but with some cleverness we could have repurposed it a whole different way.
18. If the show had had some sort of ending or finale, what would it have been?
I've never given this any thought until today. Maybe Vic would have woken up from a dream in bed with a one-armed man with a VO saying "And thatís how I Met Your Brother" and as we go to black we hear a gunshot. and hopefully, we wouldn't have needed a graphic of an asterisk and at the bottom the text "homages to The Bob Newhart Show", "The Fugitive", "How I Met Your Mother" and "The Sopranos."
19. Once MXC was over, did you get to keep any of the episodes of MXC or Takeshi's Castle or any other memorabilia?
Memorabilia? Well, I have the original MXC scripts because I had the last pass on them, and they're still on my computer (or external hard drive at this point. Or at least, I hope they're still there.) College Girls was actually the first script we recorded. About 110 degrees in our office in Studio City on a Saturday afternoon in early August -- when the air conditioner went kaput. I also have some hat Spike gave us when they changed from TNN to Spike. (Now that was an experience! Even had a party at the Playboy Mansion.) I also still have some T-shirts we tried to market, but TBS wouldn't let us because they didn't have rights to certain images. I think I actually do have the original VHS copies TBS and Bellon sent us to choose our episodes. And I still do have the rough edits of those shows, and pretty much most shows I've produced.
20. Where do you think the Vic, Kenny, Guy and the Captain characters are now that the show is over?
Hopefully somewhere collecting better residuals than they were before our show aired. BTW, you may already know this but the original Japanese actor who played our Kenny was elected as a Japanese legislator. I'm sure his pension has to be pretty good. At least, better than if he was working for us.
21. Are you familiar with the 3 American attempts to Remake Takeshi's Castle (Storm the Castle and King of the Mountain)?
I knew about and saw Storm the Castle. It was pretty generic and derivative -- looked like way too many other over-produced network shows. I'm not familiar with ''King of the Mountain.'' You said three, what's the other? Ours? Which is not really a remake as a re-purposing (a little inside TV industry talk there which will impress no one in a bar).
22. What went into creating the MXC DVDs?
By Season 3 part of my arrangement with RC Entertainment was to find ancillary deals for MXC. (t-shirts, DVDs, whatever) I already mentioned the problem with getting rights from TBS and Bellon for the t-shirts. And, unfortunately for the DVDs, this was just as the big DVD boom was going bust. About a year earlier companies were putting anything and everything on DVDs without question. Now they were asking lots of questions. However, we had finally secured approval from TBS and verified that Spike/Viacom didn't have first refusal rights. So using some contacts I started making cold calls and sending out emails to independent distributors -- Anchor Bay, Lions Gate, Rhino, Image and some others. Another independent was Magnolia, which was partly owned by Mark Cuban. I'm a basketball fan and knew he owned the Dallas Mavericks, and I also knew some stuff about him from his Broadcast.com days, and liked what I read so I took a guess on his email address and sent him a short teaser about the show and our quest for a DVD distributor. I was right on the email address and he got back to me within a half hour -- he knew the show and within a day I was talking to Magnolia's DVD guy, Randy Wells. I immediately thought they were a perfect match for us, but we had to let everything play out. We did end up getting a lot of offers. I got some advice from a friend, Linwood Boomer, who had created Malcolm in the Middle. He felt 20th Century-Fox dropped all promotion of the Malcolm DVDs when they weren't going to be a huge success. That's pretty much what all majors do -- go for the home run while the Independents are more patient and willing to play small ball. I think Greg Bellon (who had TBS rights in the USA) would have preferred we go with a major (Fox or MGM), but he understood our concerns and since the Magnolia offer was pretty good, he and TBS backed whatever we did. In retrospect, I think it is still the best deal. The majors would have dropped us after our first DVD.
The Magnolia people were great throughout. Ironically, my daughter Megan met Cuban when he spoke at her college this past Spring, and she mentioned our show, and he remembered all the details. It proved to her I do tell the truth sometime.
23. How did you decide which original episodes of Takeshi's Castle to put on the DVDs?
The selection was pretty easy once we learned that no distributor wanted to spend any money on extras. The episodes themselves just went in chronological order -- one season at a time. The extras were simple and cost-efficient. I chose a Top 25 hits/eliminations (Kenny's Most Painful Eliminations), which was basically the best hits that we had already used a thousand times in promos. We used our original 8 minute pitch/presentation sequence. The audio commentary was used on three significant episodes. The first show we taped (''College Girls''); the first one we aired (''America's Meat Handlers vs. Cartoon Voice Over Actors''); and the third was ''Porn Actors vs. Home Improvement,'' probably because it was the wildest one we had done up to then.
As for the original episode of Takeshi's Castle, I think the first one we used was the one that we all first saw (although my memory might be faulty on that one). On later volumes it was just episodes we thought were good.
24. What's the story behind the Monsters episode being heavily edited on the DVD?
As I understand it, some of the monsters were owned by other studios and TBS had a one-time only usage license (at least in countries where copyright law is actually enforced, like the USA) so we had to edit them out. I know it took them a long long time to get rights on their end for us to use as much of that show on MXC as we did. I think there were some music problems as well, but I can't swear to that.
25. I have a feeling I know the answer to this one but, when is MXC Season 5 going to come out on DVD?
I have no idea. A couple years ago Pete Kaikko sold out his interests in RC Entertainment to his partner Paul and Paul now makes all MXC decisions without consulting me, even though he's supposed to.
26. When did you first see Wipeout and what was your initial reaction to it?
I was outraged and couldn't believe it. It was such a blatant rip-off. Style, verbal tone, so many other things. Their producer claimed otherwise, but that was so much BS. I never saw the original Wipeout pilot, but I am told that it was very different. They get some network notes and the next version looks almost identical to our show. I've been in the business a long time and can easily imagine ABC execs strongly suggesting they ''make it more like MXC'' Obviously there are some differences they can point out, but the overall style, the verbal style, the editing pace, even the ''color commentary'' were total rip-offs of what and how we did. I did a video comparing the two show's hits and elements side by side which I placed on YouTube -- within a day or so it was the highest ranked video when you typed in the letters MXC. Two days later Google/YouTube pulled it when ABC claimed copyright infringement. Not only that if you typed in MXC, you no longer went to anything related to our show -- all the top listings were now bike-related MX things. I filed a protest pointing out that commentary and satire fell under fair use. I also got some publicity in the Hollywood Report, Variety and a number of national newspapers. So after a few weeks, YouTube re-instated the video. It was online for four maybe five years and somebody (probably ABC or Endomol) recently filed a copyright complaint against it again and now it's off again. I think I'll try to get it back online, if for no other reason than to get the truth out on occasion. Here's a link to it if you never saw it before -- http://localsports.biz/MXC/MXC-Wipeout.htm
27. Are you disappointed that Wipeout has been on longer then MXC?
I never gave a thought to how long it's been on the air until this question. The biggest disappointment is that the Wipeout-MXC lawsuit threw a wrench into a long long friendship (although I'm sure time will probably heal that), but more importantly, it screwed us out of our chance to sell our own live version -- which I know we could have done so much better.
28. With all these Japanese shows like I Survived a Japanese Game-show, Hole in the Wall and Ninja Warrior coming to American television, how much credit should MXC get for their creation.
Maybe some, but who can tell? Network execs are influenced by lots of sources. We weren't the first to utilize crazy Japanese Game Shows -- we were just the first to be even crazier than they were.
29. What is the legacy of MXC?
We were funny and we certainly had our fifteen minutes of college cult fame. But I think most of the positive legacy is on the technical side. We broke ground in selling our show via a home-edited sales presentation. (Remember, Mac G3 computers and the Final Cut Pro editing system had just come out and we were among the very first to use it for comedy presentations). We set up a very cost-efficient and still funny workflow that has certainly influenced later shows. That was probably the most rewarding thing for me. But the extremely tight production schedules and constant looming deadlines on small staffs does wear on you. Fortunately, we had a very funny group of people working with us. On the negative side, what I feel is most unfortunate is that that too many people remember the show for its cheap, lazy, immature raunchy jokes rather than the 80-85% of the writing and performing that was real funny. The post-season 2 quantity of potty humor certainly quickened the show's demise and lessened its memory.
30. Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions.
Hey, thanks to you. It was good to go back and revisit and re-think stuff. For most of it I have great memories.