How Funny or Die Made a Comedic Reality TV Competition About Weathermen Actually Work
The Funny or Die empire continues to expand its reach, this time partnering with producer Mark Burnett for a brand new reality competition series that promises to deliver America’s next great weatherperson to the masses. Do we really need another reality show, or another television weather personality, for that matter? According to TBS, who picked up the show to air Saturday nights at 11 p.m., the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” After watching the first two episodes, I think they might be on to something. America’s Next Weatherman — which features Matt Oberg (The Comedians) as host, alongside memorable weathercasters Jillian Barberie and Johnny Mountain in the role of expert judges — premieres tomorrow night. I talked to FOD’s Director of Development for Film and TV, Joe Farrell, about the new series and the task of balancing funny and fervent in reality TV.
I just watched the first two episodes of America’s Next Weatherman. It took me a while to figure out if the show was real or not, which I think will be fun for the audience. Can you tell me about the early stages of development for the show?
About two years ago we had some executives that work with Mark Burnett come to Funny or Die. They said, “We’ve always had this idea that we’ve laughed about at the offices with Mark. Is there a way to take what he and the company are so known for — which is shows like Survivor and The Apprentice — and still deliver on the tropes of those shows, while sort of poking fun of the archetypes that we’ve become so accustomed to, whether it’s immunity, vote-offs, endurance challenges, stuff like that?” The idea that they always sort of laughed about was, “What if we tried to find America’s next weatherman?” That, in essence, was three minutes into that meeting. By minute four, we knew at Funny or Die that this was something we would want to work on, because it had the sort of mileposts that we look for in projects. We love things that feel familiar, but at the same time can illicit that, “What? Is this real? Did that really just happen?” I think that goes back to the spirit of Will (Ferrell) and Adam (McKay), who founded the company. Will just did that Lifetime movie and The Spoils of Babylon, projects where you wonder if it could be real or not. From the very earliest developments, we did two things: we wanted it to be fun and hopefully funny, but we also knew that it had to be real. The contestants had to be real. The prizing had to be real. We were putting them in a fishbowl where the stakes were going to be very real for them. These are twelve people who really want to be weather forecasters and meteorologists. We could put them in heightened situations, but there would be no laugh or wink in the actual doing of what they had to do.
Let’s talk about some of those situations. One of the challenges was holding a weighted microphone with pins on the bottom over top of an inflated balloon for the longest period of time. It sounds really simple, but it ended up being hilarious. They also had to deliver a forecast during a simulated hurricane, which from a physical comedy standpoint was gold. What are some of the other challenges that we’ll see over the course of this season?
What the tried to do was look at — while still keeping this grounded in a sort of comedic reality — what weather people or newscasters have to do in their jobs. They’re going to do a lot of field reporting. They’re going to do what is called the “walk and talk,” the iconic out-in-the field kind of thing. We would take something like the walk and talk, or what does it look like to be dressed as a newsperson, what does the wardrobe have to look like? We would look at each of the things required to be a successful newsperson and say, “Okay, how can we push this into the competition reality?” Suddenly, holding a mic becomes an endurance challenge. Dealing with the elements becomes a hurricane where you have to stay on your feet. Everything was pushed in that direction. One of our favorite early ones, which I think shows up in Episode Three, is, “What does your news headshot look like?” “What is it like to maintain your news smile,” becomes a very amusing endurance challenge where we try to see how long someone can hold their smile while we do surprising things to break their attention. All of these things we tested on ourselves as producers to see how tough they really are. It’s a testament to the contestants and how much they want it that they almost always tripled in endurance time what we could do.
What’s in it for the contestants? What does the winner stand to benefit?
Most of them are either current weather forecasters/meteorologists, students, or weather fanatics. This would be their dream job. The prizing is that they would receive $100,000 and would be able to do the national weather on CNN’s New Day, which is their morning show. For many of these people, especially the professionals, they’re in small, local markets and — as cliché as this has become from movies like Anchorman — the chance to go national and be seen nationally is still something that many newscasters never get a chance to do. It was key in the development of this show to have the prizes be something that would be very attractive to the contestants. I remember Jillian Barberie saying, “I would take that prize!” Especially for people starting out in their career, it’s a very real and advantageous prize.
There is definitely an Anchorman element on the host side of this show. You’ve got 4KAST News, a simulated news studio focusing on weather. Matt Oberg is the host and his delivery really reminded me of Anchorman. Were the contestants told that there was going to be a comedy element to the show, or was that part a surprise to them?
It was all a surprise. They were aware that Mark Burnett and Funny or Die were working together. The savvier of them who knew of Funny or Die probably knew that there were going to be fun elements. But as far as Matt, he was just introduced as the host and lead anchor of 4KAST News. It was one of Mark Burnett’s earliest notes and brainstorms when he said, “With Survivor I took people to a deserted island. With The Apprentice I took people into the boardroom. On The Voice we have the spinning chair in a sort of music studio. The world of this has to feel like local news.” So we try at every point to make the contestants feel like they’re in a local news station, from the offices, to the newsroom, to the green screen experience. We tried to create that world. Yes, it’s comic, fun, funny, and not super serious, but there was no scripting of the contestants. There was no telling them what was going to happen. We tried at every moment to have everything be a surprise, especially since there was a real prize and we have to adhere to actual game rules.
Your editors deserve a lot of credit, because they found humor in some of the most amazing spots in this show. Being weather nerds and part of such a niche interest… the core of any type of subculture is filled with the most interesting personalities. Like a lot of reality show contestants, some of these folks have a little bit of an over-inflated ego, or a type of mild delusion that allows them to push through and pursue their dream. The way the editors caught those moments is one of the reasons that I thought the show might have been scripted. There are lines so funny that I thought, “Somebody had to have written that.”
I know. We were so thrilled. Personally, as a producer, I’m so excited. I think they key comes down to casting. I think you’re dead on. We found people who really want this. I look at my own dreams, or everyone’s individual dreams. If someone told you that for a couple of weeks, or months, you have to go through some fun crazy challenges and be on TV and at the end you have a 1-in-12 shot of getting what you’ve dreamed of your entire life… we have Ron Hilliard, who is a news intern living in his parent’s basement in Detroit. We have Christina Faraone, who is an admitted weather nerd. We have a beauty queen. We have all of these people who couldn’t be more different, but all want the same thing. When you put them together, it just sort of clicks. We didn’t’ have to work too hard. Of course, with Matt Oberg and the comedy element, that was definitely thought about. He’s an amazing improviser and his ability to not wink for all that time was astonishing. But it really comes down to finding people who want something and giving them a way to get it.
Mark Burnett has done more serious reality shows. They always have funny moments, but never set out to be comedic. You mentioned that you’re poking fun at some of the tropes of those shows and local news and weather. Was there any hesitation on his part about anything you set out to do?
I think a key note we received from him — in addition to wanting the world to feel legitimate — was that casting is where these shows live or die. Finding heroes, people who want it so badly, real characters. There were people who auditioned who just wanted to be on a TV, but not weather people. We really wanted people who legitimately wanted this. I think that helps. There was also a good marriage of our two companies wherein, as much as we put these people through their paces, at no time do I feel like this is mean, that we are being exploitative, that we are making fun of people. I really feel like this a celebration. That was important to Mark.
There was one challenge where the contestant has to report from inside of a glass box full of flies. Even in that kind of Fear Factor-ish event, it remained lighthearted. The contestants seemed to really be having fun and down for the challenge.
To your point, when we designed that challenge, we watched tons of news blooper clips where someone is in the field and a fly goes in their mouth. There was that famous clip of the weatherman with the cockroach in the studio. We tied that challenge to something that could actually happen. On the other hand, we are sort of poking fun at the Fear Factor genre, but in a way where we aren’t going to make people vomit and cry.