How NBC Passed on Jimmy Fallon's 'Lip Sync Battle' and Gave Spike a Hit Show
The 'Tonight Show' host's home network passed on the pitch for the unscripted show, which has become a cable ratings smash.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When NBC's The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon and actor Dwayne Johnson began duking it out with renditions of "Jump in the Line" and "Shake It Off" on the April 2 premiere of Lip Sync Battle, one couldn't help but wonder: How did this show end up on Spike TV? More to the point: How did it not land on NBC?
After all, Lip Sync — which bowed to 2.2 million same-day viewers, making it the Viacom-owned cable network's biggest unscripted launch — features such top stars as Anne Hathaway and Anna Kendrick squaring off as they do on the popular Tonight Show segment. But what NBC brass did not expect when the network passed on the pitch from producers Fallon, Stephen Merchant and John Krasinski more than a year ago is the degree to which the segment would capture the zeitgeist, never mind the caliber of talent who would agree to take part.
NBC already had bought a Make Me Laugh-style project from Fallon, with whom it has a rich deal, when the host came back with Lip Sync. "There was a feeling of, we're not just going to buy everything Jimmy brings us," notes an insider. Plus, the concept at the time seemed small. "It felt like a segment within Hollywood Game Night rather than its own show," adds a second NBC source. Alternative and late-night chief Paul Telegdy and NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt opted to pass. The project then was pitched to a few NBCU cable channels including USA and Bravo, which passed as well. USA took the closest look but is said to have been fearful of the premise's sustainability and Fallon's level of involvement. Emma Stone had not given her now-famous Tonight performance of "All I Do Is Win" at that time, and the format remained a work in progress.
One of the project's lesser-known producers, Jay Peterson of Matador, suggested Spike, where he had done business with executives including Casey Patterson. "They aren't the natural first stop on this kind of thing, but I knew that they were trying to turn a corner and rebrand a bit to get away from The Ultimate Fighter and become a general entertainment network," Peterson says. Patterson, now executive vp talent development and production at the Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, saw promise where others hadn't. "It was less of a fully baked show and more posed as a question: Do we think that this can be a half-hour show versus just a killer segment on The Tonight Show?" she says. "We said yes in the room because this felt like a fresh, amazing take on variety."
The bet paid off: Patterson not only helped solidify the format but also brought in co-hosts LL Cool J and Chrissy Teigen and go-to comedy director Beth McCarthy Miller to helm all 18 episodes. And though the franchise is so associated with Tonight that it can be jarring to see it on a network that isn't NBC — just as it would be to see Jimmy Kimmel's "Mean Tweets" or David Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks" airing anywhere but ABC and CBS, respectively — producers note that it was Krasinski who created the bit. He and Merchant were road-tripping two years ago with Krasinski's wife, Emily Blunt, trying to drum up things for Krasinski to do during a Late Night appearance, when their silent takes on "No Diggity" and "All Night Long" morphed into an idea. (Fallon, careful not to upset his full-time employer, has used his show and Twitter to promote the Spike series but has kept a much lower profile when it comes to press.)
The task of snagging stars to participate fell to everyone involved. That Merchant, Krasinski and Fallon would be participating made it that much more appealing, and Kendrick and Johnson were early and influential yeses. Patterson downplays the challenges that came with securing clearances for the songs, which include Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" (performed by Hathaway) and Jennifer Lopez's "Booty" (by Kendrick), noting that they were positioned as tributes performed by superstars who love the artists' work. In fact, in certain cases the artists, including Lopez, agreed to cameo. The only major holdout: Madonna, who OK'd her work but declined to appear. Says Patterson: "We were all a little heartbroken about that one."