Officially they’re called “The Red Balls,” or “The Big Balls,” but they actually look like the tops of huge mahl sticks—you know, those poles-with-a-knob-on-the-end that painters press against the canvas to avoid smudging their oils. The idea—or, more exactly, the “idea”—is either to prance across the Balls in one go (should you be lucky enough to have the gait of a ten-storey giraffe), or else realize your human limitations and bounce gamefully off the first or second, thereby taking your obligatory dip in the murky brine below. Whatever the technique, there’s really no way past the impediment of Big Red Balls; you just have to suck them up and move on.
Welcome, then, to “Wipeout,” ABC’s hit reality/comedy/obstacle course show, back now for a third season. The formula is simple: Hurl contestants through the air, slam them into crumpled question marks of human snarge, and splatter them almost continually with paint and what looks like fake diarrhea; so besplattered, the adventurer must swim to the next challenge, where it all begins again. Given that I’m no fan of many of the constituent elements of this TV show—diarrhea, swimming, and piercing visions of painful human contortion are three that spring to mind—how is that when 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, comes around, I herd myself in front of the TV like a sheep just desperate to be shorn of all intellect and taste?
In conversations with friends of mine, I have heard various arguments. One friend said that it was simply part of an American tradition of slapstick comedy, that what we enjoy in “Wipeout” is what folks enjoyed in Buster Keaton movies or the Keystone Cops. Still another argued it wasn’t a solely American tradition at all, and I will say that I almost put my hand over my friend’s mouth when I realized she was going to say “Wipeout” and “Comedia dell’arte” in the same sentence. Because “Wipeout” really isn’t that. Keaton et al. were professionals—their stunts were choreographed within an inch of their lives (literally), and their pratfalls may have looked like visitations from a mischievous maker, but they were nothing of the sort. Contestants on “Wipeout” are to professional physical comedians what amazon.com commenters are to Michiko Kakutani.
So what is it? It’s certainly not a sense of connection with the contestants. Yes, they are shown to us, and given names, but to call their introductory “bios” caricatures does a disservice to doodlers everywhere. They are merely serfs, interchangeable stereotypes who take their lumps for the common good, which here comes to mean the propagation of the belly laugh. In a recent episode we got, amongst others, a sort-of cowboy who could sort-of ride a unicycle; a “church lady” (much snark was thrown at her for that, oddly); and a man with glittery things attached to his face and a “Glee”-like outre-ness to his bearing (all to signal, in case we were in danger of missing it, his presumed love of the same sex). For all I know or care, the gay guy won, or it may be that he also finished second, or ninth, or dead last—it doesn’t matter—these are serfs.
Then there are the co-hosts. One is John Anderson, a well-respected ESPN sports journalist by day, and the perfect foil to the other John, Henson, a veteran comedian and former “Talk Soup” host—a man who might have made Mother Teresa a tad short-tempered, with his way-too-perky eyes and his catchphrase that ends each episode (“Good night, and Big Balls”). Recently, on a “Wipeout” blind date-themed special, Henson appeared wearing a powder-blue floppy tuxedo about three sizes too big. (Think David Byrne in Stop Making Sense, only without the funk, or the laughs.) At the end of the intro, he handed Anderson a red rose; we 10 million viewers secretly wished he’d ram it up Henson’s nose. Alas.
Then there’s the co-host, the “gorgeous Jill Wagner” as she’s described on the ABC website. According to the same source, did I know she keeps a dream journal? (I did not.) What I do know is that she is possessed of a mouth so wide it could be one of the “Wipeout” obstacles. You feel for her, too: While the two Johns are comfortably snarking up in the booth, poor Wagner has to stand in the chilly night with the hopeful contestants who have just finished their final rounds, praying as each does that the next person doesn’t beat their time and make them superfluous, not to mention not $50,000 richer. They both look frozen, Wagner and paint/shit-splattered supplicant, out there in the Californian wilderness, making chit-chat, wondering if it was worth it.
And yet, here I am, counting down the minutes to 8 p.m. twice a week. I know ABC isn’t showing a Jacques Tati movie, nor even Steamboat Bill Jr., the Buster Keaton film where the façade of a building falls on him and he’s perfectly positioned to the very spot where the empty upper window frame lands. But isn’t it true that sometimes we just want to turn our brains off and enjoy a spectacle of inane falling? These faceless people—soaked and painted and hampered by big red balls—inadvertently make the starfish shape as they tumble, or get pummeled by a wall of boxing gloves, and never once are we challenged to do anything other than laugh at their safe misfortune. We all tend to think too much, in any case. I’m sick of thinking, and this show simply doesn’t let me. It’s the difference between chess and NASCAR—once in a while you want to enjoy the fact that you know Queens Gambit Declined; other times, you want nothing more than to watch fast cars going round and round. I’m tired; I had a shitty day; I’ve got the accumulated weather of a lifetime of compromises, loss, and dulled hope—and here, right here on this Samsung, people are Icarus-ing and getting back up and falling all over again. Best of all, I’m a parent, and nothing makes me happier than watching my children laugh until they’re fit to expire. There, that’s really why I love “Wipeout”: I’m snuggled up on a couch with the two greatest people on the planet, and the three of us are breathless and teary-eyed, knowing that what goes up must come—oh ... oh ... OH!—down.
Luke Dempsey is the author of the memoir A Supremely Bad Idea, and the editorial director of non-fiction for Ballantine Bantam Dell, a division of the Random House Publishing Group.