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You’ll see all you need to know about Spike’s Lip Sync Battle the moment you step backstage at CBS Radford Studios. To your left is a heavily antlered deer head wearing a red fedora. Straight ahead is a fully stocked bar that seems to have run away from its Sunset Strip home. Over in another corner is what only can be described as a Lip Sync Battle Hall of Fame, featuring everything from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s futuristic cop suit from his “Rhythm Nation” performance to the money shorts Josh Gad donned to perform “I Touch Myself” as Donald Trump.
Lip Sync Battle isn’t so much a competition — it’s nominated for an Emmy in the structured reality category — as it is the country’s funkiest nightclub.
“This show is really just about us putting magic into a world that could use a little fun,” explains LSB host LL Cool J at the show’s Aug. 6 taping with guests America Ferrera and Amber Tamblyn. (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants reunion/face-off — Ferrera used the hashtag #duelingsisters in an Instagram post about the day — will air after the second season kicks off in October.) Adds co-host Chrissy Teigen: “The celebrities who come in to perform are excited. So we want their experience to be as authentic and fun as possible. They’re devoting themselves to the show, so the least we can do is return the favor.”
This is the place, after all, where Anne Hathaway swung, Miley-style, on a wrecking ball, where Channing Tatum danced as Beyonce and where Gordon-Levitt channeled his inner Janet Jackson. So you’d expect the set to feel like a party. Still, what began as a celebrity segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has turned into “a pure old-school comedy/variety extravaganza,” explains executive producer Casey Patterson. “It’s a unique ask. People aren’t coming here to just sit on the couch and tell stories for seven minutes. We’re all about being loose and funny and committed to the joke all the time.”
Guest celebrities usually get at most 90 minutes of prep before performances, almost always done in the rehearsal space backstage that is strategically located right next to the bar — “for those who are a bit nervous,” says Teigen. There is a fair amount of pressure for a show that could just as easily take place in your living room. There are no second takes on a performance.
“Nobody who comes on takes this lightly, especially post-Channing and Beyonce,” says Patterson. “But the most important thing is to not try to be perfect, whether it’s the performance or the show itself. We give everyone a lot of creative freedom to do what they want, but we don’t want anything to be perfect. That takes away the fun.”
It obviously has been a successful formula, resulting in an Emmy nomination that took some by surprise. “It was unexpected but exciting,” says Patterson.
Plans are underway for a kids version of LSB and even an app. But will LL Cool J ever compete? The admitted musical chameleon — “I know everything from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead to the Smothers Brothers” — is coy about the possibility: “I don’t want to say what song I’d choose. I don’t want to give future competition a leg up.”
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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