Six top unscripted players — also including Mike Darnell, Jane Lynch, Guy Fieri and Nick Cannon — unleash on lazy reboots, what scares them most about making these shows (hint: A-list celebrities) and the rise of reality TV star turned presidential candidate Donald Trump: "It's the thing where people feel like, 'He's just like me, I know him, I've seen him on TV, he speaks my language.'"
That a conversation among six of reality TV's top players would wind its way to Donald Trump, himself a former reality TV star before segueing to presidential politics, was all but inevitable. Warner Bros. unscripted and alternative TV president Mike Darnell, 53, credited the relationship Trump established with his audience over several seasons on The Apprentice for his current, and hugely controversial, political run.
But it was Shark Tank personality and self-made billionaire Mark Cuban's admission that he wouldn't rule out becoming the genre's second presidential candidate — "Anything is possible," said Cuban, 57 — that got the group excited. "I'd vote for you," Hollywood Game Night host Jane Lynch, 55, professed, with Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' Guy Fieri, 48, adding to laughs: "I'd be in the cabinet." They were joined by Nick Cannon, 35 (America's Got Talent), and LL Cool J, 48 (Lip Sync Battle), for a discussion that also hit on contestant psych evaluations, the responsibility that comes with making kids shows and the reality TV trends that really irk them.
What makes somebody an ideal reality show contestant?
NICK CANNON A fearless mentality.
LL COOL J Yeah, people who don't take themselves too seriously.
GUY FIERI Or people who've had a lot of coffee — maybe even had some booze in their coffee. Those are my favorites because they let go.
JANE LYNCH We give them drinks on Hollywood Game Night. We've got celebrities and then we've got regular people, normies, and for them it helps if they're not starstruck. It loosens them up, but then sometimes … we've had to cut people off.
MIKE DARNELL I don't know if you guys know this, but almost all of the contestants on these shows go through a psych test, which goes from a one to a five. Five is the worst. They'll say to me, "Well, this guy is a four and a half," and I'm like, "Great!" (Laughter.) The closer you can get to a five, let's get them on the air. [Of course, it depends on] what show you're doing. If you're doing The Bachelor, you want them to be crazy. Even the talent contests, the more open and emotional, the better. And there's a breed that's meant to be on these shows anyway. It's very rare in my career that I've had someone show up and I go, "Too much."
What does the psych test entail?
DARNELL It's a written test and a verbal test. There might be some drawings on it, I'm not sure. We've had ones and twos, they're OK. Generally, you've got to have threes and fours. (Laughter.)
MARK CUBAN A psych lady is on-site all the time, literally sitting there [on Shark Tank] because some of the people who come off are just destroyed. There have been people who walk off screaming and crying.
FIERI Do you guys give counseling at the end of it?
DARNELL We always had a psychologist on set. All the Idols, everything. Just in case.
CUBAN Yeah, we're sitting there and we'll just hear them wailing.
CANNON And you don't have four X's on your show in front of thousands of people [the way America's Got Talent contestants do].
CUBAN Millions of people! But remember, these people come on [Shark Tank], this is their dream, they put their whole life into this. Every penny that they have is gone. And they may be out of business, they may lose their house.
DARNELL That first few hours right after, that's the hardest part. But usually a day, two days later, they're OK. They know they're going to be on TV.
CANNON There are people who are built for this. People who are fearless, who are like, "Hey, I'm here to be on TV, and I'm here to play on."
FIERI And get everything out of it.
CANNON Especially on America's Got Talent, there are some people who actually really believe that they are talented, but they're not ...
CUBAN Those are the best, though, because they're authentic.
CANNON Yeah, but those are the ones who psych has to be a little delicate with, and I have to be delicate with, because I'm not there to make fun of them. But it's like, clearly, you playing straws is not going to win you a million dollars, but that's all they know, and that's all they have. So it's a delicate balance of, all right, these people are almost at a five, but they're still human, and you want to handle them with respect.
If you could be a contestant on a reality show, which one would you choose to appear on?
DARNELL I wouldn't.
CUBAN I was on Dancing With the Stars, and it was one of the best things I've ever done — and one of the scariest things I've ever done. Walking out there in front of 22 million people, having to do a f—in' waltz or the quick step or whatever? I was terrified.
Did being a contestant impact the way you judge?
CUBAN I understood more what a contestant goes through because you just have to wing it.
FIERI That's how I got into TV, The Next Food Network Star. And I don't watch a lot of TV. As a chef and a restaurant owner, I'm spending all my time in the kitchen. But all my buddies had seen it, and they said, "You're going to be perfect for this." I think the only reason they wanted me to do it was to see me go on and get voted off. I don't think I would've done it had I seen the show. But I did it, and I won, and that's how this whole thing snowballed. It definitely gave me a different perspective, because you see how people are putting their lives on the line.
What scares you most about making these shows?
LL COOL J Because our contestants, for the most part, are A-list celebrities, what scares me is the idea of them walking away feeling like, "LL Cool J ruined my career." (Laughter.)
Do you feel like that's happened?
LL COOL J No, but there've been some contestants who haven't won, and I don't think they were necessarily happy about it. They have careers, so they weren't going to fail a psych test or about to jump. But when you're dealing with people at a certain level, obviously they want to win. Successful people like to win.
FIERI I'd like to come on your show and just bomb. If that's available, I'm your guy. (Laughs.)
CUBAN Do they care about winning, or is it just, "Did I look stupid?"
LL COOL J It's both. A lot of times you look stupid because you lose, or that's what they think. But they don't realize that people are just so happy to see their personalities, to see how much fun they're having.
What's the most frustrating trend to have emerged in recent years?
FIERI Ringers. In food competition shows, we have people who have been on multiple shows, and then they come in all, "I know how production works and I got these ..." And you're like, "Ohhh boy."
LYNCH In reality in general, it's the lowest common denominator type thing that we're trying to appeal to, and the freakier, the better.
CUBAN What's wrong with that? (Laughs.)
DARNELL I was going to say. … For me, the worst trend is no innovation. I'm not going to name the network that I used to work for [Fox]. But there's a lot of going back to stuff that was 15 years ago or 12 years ago, and if anything gives the genre a bad name, it's that sense of laziness. You feel like, "Oh, this is just Survivor or Idol done for the 18th time."
CANNON I consider myself a creative, and I'm always in these people's offices, like, "Yo, let's do something completely different." But they're more likely to greenlight stuff that's worked on another network with this small little twist. I remember trying to convince the people at MTV to do a hip-hop improv show. They were like, "What the hell is that?" I had to go out with my own money, shoot it and then present it, and then they were like, "Oh wow, this is great, this has never been done on TV before." Hundreds of episodes later, it's OK, and now you see all these other people trying to do what we did.
What can you no longer get away with on these shows that bums you out?
DARNELL The difference is when I was at Fox, I was the buyer, and I was the only person willing to buy those shows. Now I'm selling, and I have those ideas but no one will buy them. (Laughs.)
CANNON There's no you on the other side.
DARNELL Right. I'm still happy to get successful TV shows on, but that edgy, controversial stuff is very difficult to show right now because … I'm not there.
Lifetime's UnREAL depicts reality TV producers as a heartless bunch, to put it mildly. How accurate is the portrayal?
CANNON I've been in those positions where it's like, "Man, they're trying to depict you this way or that." And it's on shows that I've produced. I'm like, "You work for me. You're trying to get some information out of me that I'm going to kill in the edit anyway." (Laughter.) But it's this mentality of, "We're creating a story," and they're not thinking about the person a lot of times.
LL COOL J I agree with that, but then once you sign the deal …(Laughs.) It's like, "You did sign that deal, right? You did agree to that salary right?"
CUBAN Yeah, and you were so excited when you signed it. As long as that check clears, right?
FIERI You sold your soul!
LYNCH That's the expectation people going into reality now have. They'll become instant celebrities and think that should be monetized. Like the Housewives franchise. They're not really doing anything.
LL COOL J Some people are gifted at capturing value.
FIERI I tell my contestants, "When you come on here, do not plan on winning because one of you will win and three of you will go home, and I don't want you to be caught up in this." And then I tell them, "I want you to remember this: Win or lose, you will watch this show, and I do not want you to be embarrassed by how you behaved. So be yourself." And we try to edit as real as possible, but you know there's always that thread that might get picked up by a producer who wants to make more out of it.
DARNELL You've got to make it dramatic, interesting …
CUBAN On Shark Tank, that's the part I hate the most because the reality is it's always crazier than what the producer is going to come up with. They try to manufacture some stuff, and I go nuts. "We're going to do this pickup, we're gonna do a follow-up, and I want you to walk in and look at this display of T-shirts like it's the best display of T-shirts." And I'm like, "I'm just going to walk in and ask how business is," because if I'm walking in going, "Ohhh my God," it's ridiculous.
CANNON With [MTV's] Wild 'n Out, we are there to humiliate them. But there's a line, and I'm like, "Oooh, I gotta control all these crazy young comedians." I remember one time Kanye [West] was on the show, and before he was like, "Yo, don't mention anything about this. (Points to his face.)" This is when he was young, so [he didn't want] anything about the car accident and his face.
LL COOL J And they went right there?
CANNON Literally, the first thing. A comedian grabbed the mic and was like, "Your face looks like a chipmunk, and I heard it's from being Jay Z's punk," and all this stuff. (Laughter.) But Kanye handled it all like a professional and then destroyed them right there. It's a classic episode. I didn't know if Kanye was still going to be my friend after that. If he would've lost, it probably would have been a different story, but he murdered everybody.
How much a part of your job is about trying to coax talent —oftentimes your friends — to come onto your shows?
CANNON It's the worst part of the job. They hire these people called talent bookers, and I don't know what they do. On Wild 'n Out, which I created, I'm the producer, and after this is over, I'm going to beg LL to come and do the show. It's a fine line because these are your friends, but then everybody's looking at you like, "This is your show and you said this is your buddy, what happened?"
DARNELL And they've got a lot of people in their ear telling them not to do it: "That's a big mistake, don't do that."
Did anybody tell you not to host?
CANNON All the time. When they offered me the job on America's Got Talent, I was promoting a film at the Sundance Film Festival.
CUBAN Hey! (Laughs.)
CANNON They were like, "You're promoting a film, and we're trying to win awards. Tell me one award-winning actor you know that hosts a reality show." I was like, "I don't care about all that. I wanna do what I wanna do and have fun."
One genre that's found success of late is kids' shows, Mike's Little Big Shots being a primary example. For a long time, kids had been off-limits. Does the trend give you pause or is Hollywood responsible enough to be cautious with kids?
LYNCH I hope so. Because when you're over 18 and you step into this stuff and you're an idiot, that's one thing. But when you're just a kid, you've got to be careful. Kids and animals — don't do it.
LL COOL J Hopefully their parents have their best interests in mind and have some experience.
LL COOL J Because a dadager or a momager with no experience can be as bad for your career as a great manager can be good for your career. But there are a lot of protections in place on the TV side to make life really good for kids. Now, if you're talking about music? Listen, you're coming in, your kid will be in a hammock, going back and forth, "Look Mommy, look what they gave me as a gift." (Laughter.)
CANNON I get sad when I see these kids and they don't want to be there, they want to be playing.
Do you encounter that, Mike?
DARNELL The nice thing about Little Big Shots is that we decided not to make it a competition.
Was that at one point considered?
DARNELL No. From day one, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. When I went over to Warner Bros., one of the shows I was put in charge of was The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She would do these interviews with these kids who had some skill, and then they'd do the skill. The day after, they'd have millions and millions of hits. I'm like, "Oh shit, this is working." So I said to her, "I think I can sell this to primetime." She was already busy, and it was hard for her to commit to doing a primetime show, so I immediately thought of Steve Harvey. I waited a year and a half to get him because I knew he'd be perfect for it. He has a warmth with the kids, and you can feel that he's getting comedy, but they feel so much joy with him. Interestingly, some of the kids we got are kids whose parents wouldn't let them go on other talent shows because they don't want them to be hurt. [With Little Big Shots,] they're just happy to be there. But there were a lot of people when we started selling it who were nervous that because it wasn't the competition, no one would come and watch it.
Nick, would you let your kids be on a reality show?
CANNON Absolutely not.
DARNELL What if they said, "I really want to do it, Dad"?
CANNON I'd say, "There's a great school play that you can get into if you want to be a singer." (Laughs.) I want them to explore other things. Clearly, they can be on TV; clearly, they can go into any studio they want to. But I want nuclear physicists. I want them to strive for something because all these other kids who want to be singers or actors, that's a dream for them.
LL COOL J My first music that I did when I started, I was 16. My first film, I was 17. That isn't 11 and 10, obviously, but it's still really young.
CUBAN I bet you didn't think you were really young, though.
LL COOL J Oh no, I was on top of the world! (Laughs.) Hollywood, compared to the music industry, is unbelievably disciplined. That sounds crazy until you're in the music industry, then you understand ...
CUBAN If you thought the music industry was bad, [you should see] the basketball industry. [Cuban owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.]
Mark, would you ever do Shark Tank Kids?
CUBAN You can't because what are you going to say, "That idea sucks"? And you've got to be honest. The worst thing we can do is tell somebody they have something good, and then they go out and put everything they have into it and it's horrible.
DARNELL I picked up MasterChef Junior before I left Fox, and I said to Gordon [Ramsay], "The only way this is going to work is if you treat them like adults." But there's a fine line. I did American Idol Juniors, which almost no one remembers because it was only one season, and you had to be so nice that there was no show there.
LL COOL J Lip Sync Battle for kids is coming soon. So tell me, what did you do wrong? (Laughter.)
DARNELL No, MasterChef Junior works, you just have to be cautious.
What's harder to stomach, a bad review for a scripted show in which you're acting or a reality show in which you're ostensibly playing yourself?
FIERI The first thing I was told when I got in the business was don't read anything.
LL COOL J If you live for the compliments, you gotta die by the criticism.
CANNON It's interesting because when people judge art, you take it a little more [seriously]. If a reality show gets canceled, you'll be like, "Eh, it's a reality show." I've done several reality shows that have only gone one season, and people just forget about it because it's like, "Oh, that was a reality show." If you do a scripted show or a film that tanks, people are like, "Oooh." They even exile you sometimes.
DARNELL I've always said, if you get a good review in a reality show, you've done something wrong.
LL, hosting Lip Sync Battle precludes you from participating in the battles. But if you could, who would you challenge and what song would you choose?
LL COOL J First of all, I wouldn't tell you which song I'd do because my competitors would be watching and then they'd know. (Laughs.) But what I'd love is to see some world leaders on. Like, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton go at it, singing "I'm a Soul Man" or something.
CUBAN Why don't you invite Donald Trump to sing, "I Wanna Be a Billionaire." Because you know he does, right? (Laughter.)
LL COOL J Oh man!
In Trump, we have the first reality TV presidential candidate. What are the skills required of a successful reality star that he's been able to parlay into politics?
CANNON Transparency — or the appearance of transparency. It's the thing where people feel like, "He's just like me, I know him, I've seen him on TV, he speaks my language."
CUBAN Nobody thinks "Donald Trump is just like me." (Laughter.)
LYNCH I think what they see is the bully on the playground who's saying: "I'm going to make sure nobody kicks your ass. You hang out with me." And so they're like, "We get to hang out with the bully."
DARNELL I also think there's a thing about reality TV where people feel like they know you. When you're an actor, you're playing a role. It's different, there's a wall up. This guy has spent 14 seasons …
CANNON In everybody's living room.
Mark, there have been rumors that the GOP tried to draft you as an independent to run against Trump. Any truth to them?
CUBAN It's a different world now — it's not so much that [people are] for Donald, it's that they're all against what's going on in Washington, and they're looking for an alternative. Now, unfortunately — or fortunately depending on where you're at — it's Donald, and Donald plays to his strengths. I call what he's doing the Seinfeld campaign, as in the campaign about nothing, because all he does is scream and yell. I've gotten into battles with him on Twitter and TV, and he's just so easy to f— with because he's got no sense of humility.
LYNCH Or humor. None. Zero.
CUBAN Right. So in terms of me being contacted and all this, it's true, but it's like, they know that I don't give a shit. There's nothing he has that I want, and I have no obligations. I'm independent, I haven't given money to either party. I can say what I think and do what I feel.
What are the chances you'll be our second reality star candidate?
CUBAN Anything is possible. If you were to ask me four years ago, I would've said, "Hell, no." But given what's going on and given how people feel about everything … I'm in a position where if I wanted to invest in myself to do something, I could. If I wanted to get people behind me to do something, I could. It's just a question of whether I could have the greatest impact there or doing what I'm doing.
LYNCH I'd vote for you.
FIERI I'd be in the cabinet.
CUBAN The liquor cabinet, right? (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.