Over the last three seasons of The Masked Singer, executive producer Craig Plestis has seen “the most bizarre pitch in television history” translate into one of TV’s biggest hits—a show that is as challenging to produce as it is fun to watch.
Based on a popular South Korean format, the reality singing competition features celebrities singing covers of well-known songs, while covered in elaborate costumes that conceal their identities. Each week, panelists Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke try to identify the person behind the mask, learning their true identity only when they’re eliminated.
Hosted by Nick Cannon, the series earned costume designer Marina Toybina an Emmy nomination last year, for her incredibly memorable work—and this year, The Masked Singer broke into the category of Outstanding Competition Program. Bringing Plestis his first nod, this recognition speaks to the fact that the show is here to stay.
For Plestis, the greatest challenge that’s come with the show has been maintaining the secrecy of the contestants participating in it. Below, the executive producer explains the approach the Masked Singer team has taken to keep their guessing game alive, over the course of each new season, as well as how he’s navigated new production challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, he teases an “even bigger” Season 4, which will air this September, and his current plans for spin-offs, including The Masked Dancer and I Can See Your Voice.
DEADLINE: The Masked Singer has become a pop culture phenomenon, since its debut stateside. Could you have foreseen how popular it would become? And why do you think it has resonated to the extent that it has?
CRAIG PLESTIS: When I first pitched it to Fox, I knew it was a hit in Korea and a couple of other, smaller markets, like Thailand. It was number one; it was on fire over there. You never know 100% if it was going to be as big over here, but I knew there was something special. I knew it was going to do well. I didn’t know it was going to be the number one show on TV, at that point, I can honestly say, and I don’t think anybody did.
When we pitched it to our current panel—Robin, and Jenny and Ken—I said, “It’s going to work. Trust me.” And they got it. They loved the idea behind it. But we didn’t really know it was going to work.
There were a lot of people we talked to in the first season, to be on the show, and they said, “Eh, I’m not too sure. This is kind of weird. Call me up in Season 2 or 3, when it’s working, and then I’ll let you know.” But it’s nice that the initial cast that we had underneath a mask, as well as our panel had the confidence to be part of this, at a time when it was the strangest pitch in television history, when you think about it. “We’re going to take celebrities, put them behind these bizarre masks, make them do dance routines, and you have to guess who they are. And by the way, we can’t even promote these people at all, like you do a normal show.”
So, it was very strange. But luckily, the guessing game is it. I think that’s part of what makes the show as successful as it is. It’s just a fun guessing game that all of American can partake in. Plus, it’s a family-friendly show. This is probably one of the few, or last shows on television where people can watch it all together, from eight to 80, and just have fun, and guess away.
DEADLINE: What were your goals, heading into the show’s third season?
PLESTIS: I think Season 3 was to make sure we had some unexpected talents that you didn’t normally see in television, and I think you obviously saw that, with Sarah Palin coming out and doing “Baby Got Back.” Of course, that was right when the pandemic hit, and a lot of people say that that was the precursor to the pandemic. But it’s just looking for incredible moments, and trying to upgrade all of our performances, and make it larger than life, and just have some incredible outfits.
DEADLINE: Can you explain the logistics that go into pulling this show off?
PLESTIS: It’s really one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever worked on. I’ve done America’s Got Talent and a lot of other game shows, but the secrecy element is unlike anything on any other show. I always say, “If you want a really good job on The Masked Singer, it’s not in talent relations, or anything like that. It’s on the security team.” That’s probably one of the biggest departments we have, because we take it seriously, how [contestants] get onto the lot from different cars, and the way they’re masked, and how no one can talk to them. When they come to the lot and get in their trailers, they have to switch into “Don’t Talk to Me” T-shirts, and no one is allowed to talk to them, and everyone who goes through this, all the celebrities, will talk for hours about how it’s almost like being in a top-secret club or something, a sleep-away camp at the Pentagon, where the security is so top-notch.
We really do take it seriously across all platforms, not only with our crew, who do NDAs, and have lots of conversation about security. But we also just don’t tell everybody on our crew who the celebrities are. It really is an honest truth. Our panelists do not know; our hosts do not know; our director does not know. Our lighting crew, everybody. There’s only a handful of producers on our team that knows, as well a handful of people at Fox. So we really want to keep that experience for America, too, that guessing game, alive as much as possible.
DEADLINE: To my understanding, it’s actually become increasingly difficult over time, to keep contestants’ identities a secret.
PLESTIS: The first season, we really took it serious, but no one knew we were even going to be on the air. We were like, “Oh, we’ve got to put all these security measures in place,” and it worked out great because we got our sea legs for Season 2 and 3.
For myself, I went over to Thailand, as well to Korea, before we started shooting our first season, just to see their security measures. The first time I was there, on the set, I saw all these people in these black cloaks with these weird masks on. I go, “Are they part of the show?” And they go, “No. Not part of the show.” I said, “Who are they? Guests?” And they said, “That’s a manager of that creature, of that mask. That’s the husband of another one.” So I learned, right on, that even if there’s someone who accompanies the celebrity, they also have to be disguised and go through a whole secrecy program.
Because in Hollywood especially, if it’s a manager that comes in on the set, they represent 10 famous people, and it’s like, “Okay. Now I know it’s one of these 10.” So there’s a lot of learning that I got from them, and that was a really eye-opening experience for us.
But it gets difficult. We really monitor that people not bring in cameras. We had one episode last season where one of our security guards caught someone filming our show, during a taping, with a camera that they hid on their body and brought in, and we eliminated that footage and escorted them out. But luckily enough, the people who’ve attended our shows are really loyal super-fans. They love the show, and we really try to make them feel special when they get here, that they’re part of a select group. We tell them, “Tweet all you want when the mask comes off. But just please be part of the sister- and brotherhood that we’ve built here, and keep the secret.” And so far we’ve been really lucky.
DEADLINE: What is it the process like, in terms of getting your contestants’ performances ready for air?
PLESTIS: It’s a lot like other shows, but you have a cumbersome outfit that, no matter what we do, it’s hard to see in it. It’s sometimes hard to breathe, especially some of the more ornate, Met Gala-type ones. It creates a whole other burden for the artists, so we have to make sure that it doesn’t go on too long, that they can get fresh air and get out of their outfits as much as possible, but still up the ante. This show is all about being over-the-top and having these larger-than-life spectacles on display. It’s not about just having someone come out and sing a simple song. It’s all about extra lighting, and our background dancers, and everything else.
The great thing is, everyone who puts on these costumes, by the time they get into the second episode, they are in the game to win. They want to spend as much time as possible, and even some incredible, big names we’ve had will work overtime. They ask, “Can I come in early? Can I do this? Why can’t I do this another time on the stage?” So it’s nice to see that sweat equity, that everyone’s after our Masked trophy, versus just wanting screen time.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your plans for The Masked Singer Season 4? How has the reality of COVID-19 factored into them?
PLESTIS: Next season’s going to be even bigger, which is surprising to say with the pandemic going on. We have it cast, and we have some incredible names that I wish I could tell you right now, but I can’t, and the show’s going to be incredible. It just takes a lot longer to do these shows, I have to be completely honest. Something that would just take an hour on a normal production day may take five hours. We start a lot earlier in the morning, and we go a lot later than we have ever done on any other year we’ve done the show.
That’s just the cost of doing something during the pandemic. But the great thing is we’re getting it done, and we’re going to have a wonderful show. There’s going to be some reinventions of things that I don’t want to say it’s because of COVID, but it’s kind of influenced by it. But it’s created decisions that I’m glad we did, that may make it even a better show, because we’ve had to be more creative this cycle, and with what we can do with our time. I think it pushed all of us, as producers on the show, to be even better and more creative. I don’t really want to say anything positive about the pandemic, but it did push us to be better creative producers overall, and you’re going to see that. You’re going to see that with the stage performances, in what we’re doing this cycle with the clue packages, with who we have as our contestants. And also, we have some of the most incredible outfits, this season that’s coming up, that we’ve ever had.
DEADLINE: The Masked Singer has fostered a couple of upcoming spin-offs, as well as live tour, which was temporarily sidelined due to COVID. What can you tell us about these projects, and your plans going forward?
PLESTIS: The live tour will come back once the restrictions are lifted, so we’re looking forward to whenever that day happens. As for I Can See Your Voice, I’m looking forward to getting that on air. Ken is our host on that show. He’s just so incredible, and I can’t wait to bring that to life, and have America see it when the time is ready. As for Masked Dancer, we’re hoping that will see the light of day at some point in time, as well. We’re working on some creative right now, as to what that would look like, so stay tuned, and we’ll have more updates to come.
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