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.
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.