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Jose Chung has done some great interviews over the years with contestants who have appeared on Takeshi's Castle. However this one is a little different, below is a Q and A with Paul Abeyta, the co-creator of the American dubbed version MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge). The following interview covers how they created their own world out of the original Takeshi's Castle, talks on more Almost Live specials, and an MXC movie.
Joshua: When did the idea first come up to make a Japanese show?
Paul: At the time my partner Peter Kaikko and I were bouncing around ideas because we were always trying to develop new shows. And Comedy was something I really, really enjoyed. Something just hit me; maybe it was based on a throw-back to "What's Up Tiger Lilly". Also Iron Chef was big at the time and I was a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But I thought what can I do, because I was really looking for ideas. I have a friend, Paul Gilbert, who works in international syndication so he had a vault of Tapes from all over the world. He said "sure come on down to the vault and see if there's something you like". So I went there and started looking at all of these different foreign shows from East Germany to Colombia, Taiwan, Japan, Russia and I came back with 3-4 different shows that I liked. Takeshi's Castle really stood out because it had continuing characters and the stunts were really outrageous. It was almost like a human video game. So I honed in on that one because I thought it was funnier than a show from say the Ukraine because everyone from the Ukraine looks very much like us. Whereas Japanese shows are very Asian and if you give an Asian guy a name like "Murray Shwartz" or "Juan Valdez" it's a lot funnier because clearly he is not a Juan Valdez or a Murray Schwartz. So it helped with our storytelling and made it inherently funnier as opposed to giving them Asian names which really would not be funny and would represent one joke. So I found the distributer, a guy by the name of Greg Bellon who was the agent for Tokyo Broadcasting System. It took us forever to license the show to just do a presentation. So I came up with the idea, Peter Kaikko liked the Idea and we thought to bring in Larry Strawther who I had worked with for years. We brought it Mary Scheer, Victor Wilson, John Cervenka, Christopher Darga and we sat around for a few weeks just trying to define the characters and give them backstories before we came up with games or storylines so we could write the show around them. Once we had that figured out, the rest was pretty easy. There was never a literal Translation. We have no Idea what they're saying on the original show, nor did we want to know. Occasionally someone outside the show would say "Why donít we bring in some Japanese people to find out what they're saying and we could just take it from there". We would say "No-No we want to create our own world". So we created our own world and Takeshi's Castle was gone. The show we had was "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" which was kind of a joke because it sounds like a literal translation and then Spike TV made us shorten it for TV guide which is how it became "MXC". We took that 8 minute presentation to 5 different networks and got 5 different offers which really doesn't happen in show business. Kevin Kay at Spike TV really understood the show, probably more than we did. We had no idea how successful the show would be. I give Kevin and Spike TV a lot of credit for giving us the creative freedom to come up with the show. We got so involved with these characters that it really was a labour of love and we really knew these characters inside and out. The one major rule we had was to never make any Asian references, which we never did. The second thing we did was we never took the direct joke; we would always try to take it from a different angle. This made the comedy incidental because we wanted it to play real. The more real we played it the funnier it would be.
Joshua: I remember when I watched it a lot of my friends would say "Oh they just translate it".
Peter: Yeah, Everyone thought that. One of the offers we had was for $350,000 which we thought was for each individual episode. And Peter and I thought "That can't be, if that's true then let's just make the show so we can all retire". But it turned out that that amount was for one entire season of shows because they thought "Big deal, all you have to do is cut the shows and translate it." Well it was never that easy cutting down to a half hour. I would look at 4-5 episodes and cut them down to make one half hour episode. Every Half hour had a storyline and that storyline was based on the matchups and a storyline with Vic and Kenny. In TV terms, an A-story and a B-Story which Larry was really helpful with because of his experience in Sitcom. I would come up with the Matchups which would assign a point a view. Because Country Music vs Fashion and Beauty gives a foundation for jokes as opposed to just having anonymous Team A vs Team B storylines. But as I said, we never used Translations. So when someone who spoke Japanese was in the room we would have to stop them from telling us what was being said on the original show. We never wanted the original show to influence what we created. Our point was to be totally of the wall and irreverent and as disrespectful as possible. We attacked everyone and everything; there was no one that was off limits in our world. In that respect, the show appealed to everyone.
Joshua: So like the old National Lampoon adage which said that "If you made fun of everyone, you couldn't be accused of being biased."
Paul: Exactly, Our attitude was nobody was safe and we never looked over our shoulder. Our show became a great guilty pleasure that no one would ever admit to watching because it was this dirty little show that made Fart Jokes and Penis and Vagina Jokes.
Joshua: Yeah having seen the original show. There was a lot of dirty humour as well. It always made me laugh when people would say that MXC was dirty and disrespectful to Takeshi's Castle. When in reality, the original show was pretty dirty and disrespectful.
Paul: The original show was very much like that. The creator Beat Takeshi, who is now a venerable actor/Director in Japan, before Takeshi's Castle he was the Howard Stern of Japanese Radio. This guy was always in trouble because of his sense of humour. I don't think we ever disrespected the original show because we never made fun of Asian culture at the same time we didn't give a S*** either. That was their show, this was our show. They provided the imagery and we provided the content. Without that content, there would be no MXC. A lot of people would just watch the show for the imagery but most of the people who watched it really loved the writing and watched it for that. But everyone who watched it really loved it and was always amazed that we got away with the jokes that we did. We were able to get away with it because if we did do a dirty joke it was just Kenny saying something and not realizing it was so dumb. The Vic Romano character was always there to correct him or apologize for him. But the Kenny character never quite understood the things he said or what was coming out of his mouth. The show was basically stream of consciousness and we would say the things that people were afraid to say out loud. It was very fun. But again one of the stipulations in our contracts said that we could not disparage the Japanese Culture or its people. On that basis it was just easier to never make an Asian reference.
Joshua: Did you ever get notes from TBS, Spike TV or Censors?
Paul: We never got notes from TBS, not that they wouldn't have liked to, but they didn't understand our jokes anyway. We were never told by Spike TV, "You Have to change this". It was always "I think it would be a good idea if you rephrased this" or "There may be some sensitivity if you say it like this". But they never put down their foot and said "You must change this". We knew we were the bad boys and girls at Spike and I think they were afraid to ask us to do anything. Although they would occasionally suggest things that wouldn't work and we were able to say "No" to them. We were passionate about the material and they knew that. The notes we got from Spike were things like "Try not to say the word 'Retard'. They were very gingerly in their way of asking us to change certain words which made it easy to do. We were very good at censoring ourselves, we knew how far we could go and it was my job to run the room. A lot of outrageous things were said and I would be the one to say "That's good" or "Let's try to come up with something else" because we might be asking for trouble if we say this. Running the room was the greatest job in the world because basically you were paid to laugh for 10 hours a day. It was exhausting because I would have a splitting headache at the end of the day, But the great thing about our writers was most of them came from an improvisational background and would literally get up and act things out. A lot of it was having the freedom to come up with the material and we came up with a lot of great material. A New York Times writer by the name of Jeff Klein spent a week with us. He wanted to observe and I said "No-no it would be better if you sat down as one of our writers for the week". He wrote a 3 page, Sunday edition story and he couldn't believe our stamina and our ability to pitch hundreds of jokes each day and still keep going. The material was so fun and it never felt like work. That's a job that everyone covets. It was great working with people who all were really funny and respected each other. Everyone was invested in the product and it I think it shows.
Joshua: As far as I'm concerned, it was the best show Spike TV ever put out.
Paul: I agree with you. What's interesting is that when we were on prime time and the ratings came out, Spike was always in the top 10 in our demographic (Men ages 18-35) and our show was top 3. Ever since our show went off, I donít think Spike has been in the top 10. Other than TNA wrestling, we were the number one show on Spike and probably still hold that position. We were very proud of that and the people at Spike TV were phenomenal and were really great to us. Kevin Kay really championed the show, Sharon Levy who headed the network was really amazing because she had a very Male sense of humour. At times there were fights but I have so much respect for her because she was fun and knew what she was doing.
Joshua: Why did they move you to Midnights on Friday?
Paul: At that time a lot of new people came in and a lot of the people who championed our show had moved on. This is my understanding. I think they were trying to rebrand the network and were trying to bring in shows that had their thumbprint on it. Even though the old shows were successful they wanted to leave their stamp. So they moved MXC, and we still killed the competition. Everywhere they moved us we still got great ratings. Our reruns would get numbers like 0.9 which most cable shows would kill for in their first run. Then they moved the show after midnight to 1 or 2 AM and then their argument became, "Well no one is watching the show, Paul" to which I would say "Yeah, It's on at 3 o'clock in the morning, what do you expect?". It was a futile argument because I could kind of tell they were ready to move on to new stuff. They really wanted to do just Reality shows like all of the other networks and now they're getting into more scripted stuff. One of their orders at the time was: We don't to do any more comedy. I thought that wasn't wise but understood that they had a different direction in mind. But that was the moment that killed the momentum and ultimately killed our show.
Joshua: I know the answer to this but I want to get it on record. There is a rumour that MXC only ended because you ran out of footage. Is that True?:
Paul: Wrong. We did 96 shows. We had enough material to do 240 episodes, because the original show had 140 hours. We knew we couldn't use every moment but that's how much material we had. I always wanted to do another season with Spike and do "The Lost Episodes". I wanted to do an uncensored version as well and at one point everyone was gung-ho about the idea of doing an MXC movie. Much like the Bevis and Butthead movie, that sort of thing.
Joshua: An MXC movie?
Paul: Which I thought would have been fantastic. But we never got that, once they moved the show it lost its momentum. But we've continued to distribute the show worldwide through Hulu and Magnolia DVD. It's made a lot of money in the after-market.
Joshua: You're show was so popular. I don't understand why there aren't dozens of other Dialogue Replacement shows? I would think that would be cheaper than other shows.
Paul: At the time Spike came to us and secured some footage thinking that it was easy to do what we did and asked us if we wanted to toy with this show. We didn't know what they wanted from the show and it came out that they had a better deal with a different company so they decided to run with it themselves, which we were fine with. And they made the mistake of going Japanese. You know giving him a funny Japanese name and an over the top Asian accent. You do that once, the joke's over. So if you make jokes like that and write material on top of that, it becomes a joke on top of a joke and it cancels itself out. I think that's what everyone tries or tried to do at the time. They go for the obvious. The reason we succeeded is because we never went for the obvious. We created a different world and we didn't corner ourselves into that Japanese bubble which would limit our material. Other networks called me at the time and said they were thinking about doing something similar and they wanted to know how we did it. To which we would ask:
"Why weren't being called to produce it."
"Well we have people in place who we think can do it and we just want to know how to do it."
"You know do know they pay us a lot of money to do it ourselves? So why would I tell you how to do it unless you want to hire us to do it?" and that happened a few times. It took us a long time to create that show and make it as good as it was. We'd have to cut the show from 140 hours, We then had to write it to time, the material has to fit the mouth movement, it has to be funny, we then have to voice it, then add additional voices, then add sound effects. There were so many layers to the show that if we did have to make a change, it would be like pulling an onion skin. We would have to remove 50 layers to change 5 seconds. It was really difficult. We made it look easy but it wasn't. Everyone really worked their butts off on that show and loved it.
Joshua: Thatís good to hear considering what I've heard happened on the other show you created: Super Big Product Fun Show.
Paul: That show was for G4. They came to us with this material. I don't remember the name of the show but the material was called Batsu games, which means pain. It was kind of like Japanese Jackass. They had a few episodes and gave it to us. We decided to make it a product testing show and I wanted to call it "Batsu Boys". We fought tooth and nail with G4 to not make it Japanese, but the made it Japanese. They called it "Super Big Product Fun Show", they wanted Asian Accents, they gave it a Japanese sounding theme song and they put it on a block of other Japanese Shows. We kept saying "This is not a Japanese Show. Yes the Imagery is Japanese but it is not a Japanese Show. It will die a cruel death if you put it as a Japanese show with other Japanese Shows. It has to stand alone." They completely disagreed with us and it killed it. I've since talked with some of the people at G4 who were there at the time and they've since said "You were right. We should have listened to you." But the president at the time thought it would be funny to make it a Japanese show. We said: "You came to us because we have a certain amount of expertise, we've done this before. We don't know everything but we know how to work this genre." But we knew right from the get-go that if they were going to insist on doing it this way that wasn't going to last long. They didn't allow us to create a parallel universe for the show like MXC. I think that hurt the show. The show had a better title, it had a lot of potential but after working on hundreds of different shows I can tell you that every time we've listened to a network executive and done it their way: it has died, every single time. Because they really don't get it most of the time and they try to put you in that cookie cutter role, whereas we've always tried to do something that was breakout.
Joshua: I remember it vaguely and I don't think many people saw or remember it.
Paul: Yeah, We really didn't talk about it much at the time. There were some shows that were funny but in terms of the show overall after all the systematic changes...the phrase "A Camel is a horse made by committee" that's what that show was.
Joshua: A lot of other Japanese shows came out in the U.S around that time. Things like Ninja Warrior, I survived a Japanese Game Show, Hole in the wall. Do you think MXC played a part in those shows coming to America?
Paul: I think MXC had everything to do with those shows coming to America. We brought a certain awareness to those shows. We knew for years that a lot of Japanese shows were outrageous but we sort of just left it there. Well then here comes MXC with outrageous games and suddenly the audience is laughing. People realized "Hey maybe there's something here". So they started paying closer attention to Japanese formats. With I Survived a Japanese Game Show, They combined cultures and as such they became neither fish nor fowl. They tried to be all things to all people and really how many masters can you serve. So I think they watered down the presentation and for some reason they didn't have the legs to stand up for long. Also they tried to combine formats when they probably should have taken a format and just made it their own, but I don't know that's just my opinion. Though there were some great efforts, but a lot of those shows were outrageous for the sake of being outrageous. There was no honesty on those games. But on that note look at Shark Tank. Paul Gilbert brought the original show it was based on to us and to show you how smart we are I said "I don't know what to do with this. I don't think it will work." Shows you how smart I am. It's a great show but didn't have the vision to see where the show could go. There was the show "Silent Library" where people did outrageous things in a library. I thought it was funny but it seemed like it would have been better as part of bigger show. There were funny things about it but it didn't make it. There was a lot of Risk and Liability those shows. The Japanese stunt games were really cruel with things like putting a bag of live bees on some guys head. They were really dangerous.
Joshua: Yeah they really cracked down on those shows in the early 2000s and shows like that don't exist anymore.
Paul: Yeah the Lawyers caught up with the shows.
Joshua: Fair Enough. I spoke with Larry Strawther and he said that there were talks about doing a version of MXC shot in the United States.
Paul: We did the Almost Live special in Florida and we had talked about doing more specials. But at that time Spike wanted to own that format. There were a lot of legal obstacles at the time. We never had any serious discussions about doing permanent version in the states because the Vic and Kenny characters were so popular and we didn't know how to do it live without them.
Joshua: Did you ever see the American Pilots for a Takeshi's Castle show?
Paul: Yeah it was Storm the Castle. I saw that one several years ago. At the time I didn't know it was taken from Takeshi's Castle because I wasn't aware of Takeshi's Castle then. I just knew it was based on a Japanese stunt show. Vin De Bona created that show and he gave us a nice compliment: A note from him saying "Congratulations, you figured it out".
Joshua: Is there anything you ever wondered about Takeshi's Castle that I might be able to answer for you?
Paul: Not off the top of my head. At the time I probably had a lot of questions about the show. I will say that probably the best period of the show was when Beat Takeshi was in a motorcycle accident and was deformed so they used a paper mache head as his character.
Joshua: I always heard that he was in Jail at the time.
Joshua: Yeah he was arrested for vandalizing a Tabloid Magazine that published photos of him.
Paul: We heard he was in hospital. But I don't know for certain. And then the character that played Guy got arrested for frequenting whore houses. Kenny went on to become Govoner of one of the prefectures in Japan. And of course Beat went on to become the Clint Eastwood of Japanese Cinema. One of the funniest things for me was going to see a Bruce Brown surf film and while were waiting there was a preview for a shogun film starring Beat Takeshi. He has Grey hair and is acting very serious and stern and in the back of the Theater I hear someone say "Woah, It's a Vic Romano". That was a great moment I loved that so much. Another story like that, my son went to university of Honolulu and while he was there he and some friends went to a strip club. So they're having a great time drinking and looking at the dancers when he hears the MXC theme. Suddenly all the TVs in this place start showing MXC and the room comes to a standstill. Everyone starts Cheering and all he said he could remember was looking in the distance at MXC while a pair of breasts comes into his view. It brought a tear to his eye and he said "I am so proud of my dad". Okay, I'll take that.
Joshua: Thank you for doing this interview.
Paul: Well I really enjoy your enthusiasm for the show.
Joshua: Well your show did ruin my life.
Paul: I'm glad to hear that. I hope it ruined it in a good way.
I would personally like to thank Jose Chung and Paul Beyta for all their time spent on this interview, it was definitely appreciated. This interview may not be posted anywhere outside Takeshi Kingdom or Keshi Heads without permission.