'Dancing With the Stars' Showrunner Conrad Green: The Exit Interview (Q&A)
The departing showrunner sat down with THR to discuss what "in jeopardy" really means (nothing!), the transformation of ballroom bad boy Maksim Chmerkovskiy and the legacy of the show.
It's only appropriate that the most prominent point of interest in Dancing With the Stars showrunner Conrad Green's office is the dazzling studio mock-up of the All-Stars trophy, outfitted specially for season 15 with crystals instead of mirror shards — a far cry from Kelly Monaco's season-one trophy, which fell apart. "The very first one we made was a wooden lampshade with a mirror ball stuck on it," remembers Green, who's been happily inhaling spray-tan fumes since day one on the job back in 2005. "It was every bit as bad as it should be."
Beyond any reasonable person's expectations, the little ballroom reality show continues to sit pretty (and scantily clad) as one of the most watched series on TV in its 18th season. Following Tuesday's finale, Green will begin work on Fox's upcoming Utopia, a yearlong unscripted social experiment from John de Mol that Green says he couldn't turn down. "It feels much like when [Dancing With the Stars] came out," he says. "It's nice to try and do something that could change the game a bit — if it works."
Green's replacement, former DWTS producer Rob Wade (The X Factor), will join the executive team of Ashley Edens and Joe Sungkur. "Ashley and Joe are brilliant — a lot of the energy of the show has come from them — and Rob's a very good producer, so I think it's gonna be in really safe hands," says Green.
The reigning sparkle-sorcerer of Planet Mirrorballus sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss what "in jeopardy" really means (nothing!), the transformation of ballroom bad boy Maksim Chmerkovskiy and the legacy of the show.
Last week's big drama was the "Olympians in Jeopardy" shocker that hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews kept repeating. How do you determine who is presented as "in jeopardy"?
Well, sometimes the people in jeopardy are the next-lowest-scoring people, and sometimes they're completely not. Usually it's whatever we think is best for dramatic effect.
How often is it the real bottom two?
Probably less frequently than it isn't. But sometimes it is. And when you get to the end of the show, that's much more likely. It's quite interesting being able to do results throughout the show and then have an elimination at the end, and I feel like we've got it better this season, how to make one whole show work. Putting people in jeopardy allows this sort of narrative to play out in a more understandable way at the end.
Will you put couples in jeopardy if you notice they're wildly outperforming the others in dancing or in viewer votes, just to shake it up?
We'll do it for all kinds of reasons. You normally put people in jeopardy because it's plausible they could be. Last week, it was plausible that Meryl [Davis] could have been in jeopardy because she had a bad week in scores the week before, which was unusual. So she'd probably be a bit worried. But essentially there's no particular rationale behind it, beyond what would enhance the narrative.
Moving on to a more organic narrative twist: The biggest treat this season has been the profound character awakening we've seen from Maks!
Maks took a break from the show, and I think he came back in a really good frame of mind — much more open to the process, and much more sort of willing to be vulnerable himself. I think he's found, "OK, I can be positive, and Meryl's there for me, and producers aren't trying to stitch me up."
Is this Maks' best partnership yet?
It's the best I've seen him since he was with Mel B, probably, and I think there's an even more kind of poignancy to these routines. It's been brilliant. He's so present, and obviously she's a really good dancer, but there's such a magnetism to her dancing. Every week, she gets it on the nose. And his choreography has been mind-blowing this season. Watching the intensity of his dancing and her matching him — it's everything as a fan of Maks you've wanted to see.
Did you have any idea Maks and Meryl would have such incredible chemistry?
We were all sort of surprised by Meryl. She's a very tough and very emotionally sensitive person, so she's worked really well with Maks, and what would often be speed bumps in any other relationship have turned out to be positives. You always hope something like this might happen, but you never have any idea. I'd never met Meryl before; [she and her ice-dancing partner Charlie White] were in Sochi when we cast them. It's one of those things where you think, "Well, that could work …"
Were you quite intent on casting Meryl and Charlie as a packaged deal?
We wanted to try and get both because we thought it would be an interesting dynamic to have two people who've been together suddenly separated in that way, and to see how that played out. But you can only go for a story if there's some element of truth to it, and with Charlie and Meryl's relationship, it just wasn't there, that sense of competition. They're both rooting for each other.
I was disappointed we didn't see much character-driven footage from Charlie throughout the season, along the lines of the hilarious pep talk he gave himself in the mirror last week. Just when I realized how much I loved him, it was too late.
Well, we try to pull the most entertaining, best or most revealing stuff. It's not like there are amazing bits of footage we leave on the floor in order to make a package that doesn't reveal much. Some of the funniest moments don't always play out in a rehearsal package. It's like Maks' "Sex on a Stick" — you can't replay that in a package, but you can play that in a results show at great length.
Do you think it's between Meryl and Amy Purdy for the win?
I think they're two really strong contenders. James [Maslow] is a dark horse, though. When you look at just the sheer quality of his dancing, it's just amazing. Then you've got Candace [Cameron Bure] — yes, she's an outsider, but then look at how a lot of those have done in the past. She's got that feisty thing where she keeps hanging in there. All the others are either Olympians or have some kind of background in this, so she feels like the everywoman in the cast. I always think that person has a head of steam behind them. But yeah, it does feel like Meryl and Maks and Amy and Derek are two of the standout stories to see.
Does Amy's disability allow her to be judged and scored at a different standard than the others, who might not get to spend time sitting on a stool or a table?
Derek did a jazz dance on a table with Amber Riley too. With jazz there aren't really any rules, are there? It's very much open. I think Derek's worked very cleverly around what Amy's limitations are so that she always looks spectacular, which is the job of any choreographer. And his choreography's been within the set of the things you need to see in those particular dances. So I think it's pretty valid the way she's been scored and judged.
Derek mentioned the quickstep is a "traveling dance" and, by contrast, in previous routines Amy hadn't used much of the floor. Was Amy's dance order for the season intentionally chosen so she could get the easier ones?
Well, normally, to get through the whole show, you have to do pretty much all of them. I think there's one or two that you might not do. And we usually try to give people the ones we think they're going to succeed at. Again, Derek's worked within acceptable ways of doing a certain dance; he just hasn't used traveling in a lot of them. And that is a valid thing to do — just not in the quickstep. So that's why the blades came out for that one. This week, they'll be doing the freestyle and the salsa.
I think I smell a few more 10s.
You know how many 10s there are this time of the season. People will boo if you give a 9 at this stage.
Speaking of long-forgotten numbers, do you like the way head judge Len Goodman sometimes delivers his 7s with a jaunty "Seh-VEHHHHN!"?
I love it.
Has anyone ever instructed Len to say it like that more often, just for the laughs?
No, we don't tell the judges to do anything. Recently Len read the transcript we keep of what they say each week, and he was stunned at how many times he said, "I'll tell you this," so he vowed to quit using that particular verbal tic. He was horrified at himself. But we never tell them what to say. They've got their own voices on the show.
How long do you see Dancing With the Stars running?
It's hard to tell. If you'd asked me that question five years ago, I'd say I didn't think we'd be here now having this conversation. This has been a very strong season, and it feels like the show's got a robust audience who's very fond of it. For a few more years, I hope. The problem is, we're burning through celebrities quicker than they replenish.
Has it become that much more difficult to cast?
Yeah, because there's not an endless amount of people out there. There's a lot of people who'd like to do it, but think they'd be terrible at dancing. There's a lot of people who can't give up three and a half months of their lives. There's a lot of people who don't like the idea of being judged. So it's harder to cast people for a show like this, given the physical intensity of it and the fact that it could be a bit more of an embarrassing experience than other shows, which just hire them to "be a celebrity" with a much shorter time commitment. So yeah, it's tricky, getting the cast right. Deena Katz has done an amazing job with that over the years.
Did Sean Avery have any idea what he was getting into?
He'd watched the show and was familiar with it. I think he's actually a really funny guy, but his humor is harder to rein in in those short bites. You find with a lot of comics on this show that their personalities don't quite shine as much as when they're not in control of the timing. In packages, you need to just be very natural. So someone like Adam Carolla was brilliant because he's just naturally conversationally funny.
You've been ruling Planet Mirrorballus since its bizarre cosmic inception. Is it bittersweet to end this fantastic voyage?
It is sad. I feel like I've seen the show grow from nothing to this great big thing now. It's brilliant when you meet people in the audience and you see the joy and delight — they've come from all over the country and you've made their year because they've got to come watch it. When you realize how much people enjoy it — and it's such a positive show, ultimately — it's heart-wrenching.
Being in the audience really is like entering a different time and space in which enthusiasm rules.
You get whipped up! That's what we try to do as a show — that's why seeing some of the more negative comments about it can be a bit soul-destroying. You're trying to make something that's genuinely joyous and fun and positive and exciting. I think we all feel proud. To think about some of what Maks has done this season, or some of what Derek's done, or Karina, or Cheryl — it's pretty cool to be able to bring back this kind of old-fashioned, theatrical showy performance to TV and actually prove it can work in the modern world.
What kind of negative comments frustrated you the most?
When people write in that they think we're fixing the votes. Have you ever seen the Broadcast Standards people? They go around checking every vote that comes in. So the idea that we're sitting here, the evil puppet masters, saying, "That judge should say that to Maks" and "This judge should give a 7" — it's like, why would I care? And if I did care, why would I have Derek win every f—ing time? Know what I mean? It'd be a much different show if I could control the destiny of everyone. It isn't a big conspiracy. This isn't the Derek Hough Conspiracy Society. It's a dance show.
What will you remember most? Like, if someone said Dancing With the Stars out of context, which moment would flash in your mind?
Probably Marie Osmond fainting. I didn't want to be the person that had someone die on my watch on TV. I actually thought she'd had a heart attack.
Okay, what about some more pleasant memories?
I always remember the Mario Lopez-Emmitt Smith rivalry at the end of season three — that was a moment when the show was kind of essential viewing. Something about the battle of those two in the final, they were so clearly defined types of dancers and personalities. But there are so many highlights. My favorite dances are always the Argentine tangos, or those sharp-lit ones. Dramatic. Classic. I think Classical Week was my favorite show. So many people were like, "It's a terrible idea," and I really stuck my neck out on that one. And I felt like it really delivered. The production quality and everything — it felt like a magical night.
Classical Week was the best! I love any sort of visual dramatics, especially when the cameras zoom in to reveal passion.
Yeah, I like that ones that've got intensity. Like the tango Maks and Meryl did earlier this season, where he just sped up, and she was keeping up, and he's this huge masculine guy and she's this tiny gorgeous femme — those moments. I'd still never proclaim to know anything about dance, but I do know when something's brilliant.
Moment of truth: Could you distinguish between a salsa and a samba?
Yes. As long as there was a samba roll in it.
Dancing With the Stars airs Monday from 8-9:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 9-11 p.m. on ABC.
Sundance: On the Scene