By DERRIK J. LANG
POMONA, Calif. — There’s a problem on the set of “Fear Factor.”
The squirming leeches that are supposed to stick to a pair of production assistants who are testing a gross-out challenge keep falling off their nearly nude bodies before the wormy critters can be chewed up and swallowed. Inside a control-room truck parked outside a barn on the site of the L.A. County Fair, the show’s producers scramble to save the slimy stunt.
Instead of couples taking turns dipping into a chilly tub filled with the blood suckers, the producers quickly decide that only the bikini-clad female halves of the teams will be submerged in the leech-infested water, and their male counterparts will be tasked with yanking the creatures off their teammates’ skin with only their mouths before the pair gorge on leeches.
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When the actual contestants tackle the slimy gag, it moves swiftly and without issue, well, any issue that would concern someone responsible for the likes of “Fear Factor.” The bloodcurdling screams, violent vomiting and emotional breakdowns that ensue during the leech sucking-and-eating exercise delight the admittedly twisted producers inside the control room.
“When we do a stunt like today, I feel it’s as good, if not better, than the gross stunts that we did in the past,” executive producer Matt Kunitz said unapologetically during a break from filming earlier this year. “We made the right call because the girls were all freaking out. If the guys were in the tub, they would’ve been stoic about it, and it would’ve been boring.”
It’s been five years since Kunitz and his team last worried about ways to freak out reality TV contestants, and time doesn’t seem to have hindered their mission for tension-building sadism on the over-the-top NBC contest. (Kunitz and most of his colleagues have been working on the splashy ABC obstacle course competition “Wipeout” for the past three years.)
“Fear Factor” debuted in 2001 and promptly became a popular guilty pleasure, long before such trashtastic fare as “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Ratings eventually dwindled though, and after a series of gimmicky installments, including Miss USA and military editions, “Fear Factor” slithered away from NBC after six seasons in 2006.
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Network executives approached Kunitz about resurrecting the show last year when “Fear Factor” reruns airing on the horror-themed cable network Chiller, which is owned by NBC Universal, kept sucking in viewers. The revived “Fear Factor,” which begins Monday on NBC at 8 p.m. EST, will be broadcast in high definition but will feel familiar to viewers – same logo, format and host.
“Fear Factor” ringmaster Joe Rogan likened coming back to the show to waking up from a coma. In the five years since “Fear Factor” left the airwaves, the in-your-face actor-comedian and Ultimate Fighting Championship color commentator married his longtime girlfriend, became a father of two daughters, covered his arms in tattoos and joined Twitter.
“If it was a good show and it paid good money, but the environment sucked and it wasn’t fun, I probably wouldn’t have returned, but it’s such a fun crew,” said Rogan. “It’s like 80 percent of the same crew from before. Also, I think I’d probably be sick if I was watching it at home and someone else was doing it.”
Outside the barn in a nearby parking lot, stunt coordinator Pat Romano and his team are busy constructing the next challenge, which will feature the contestants strapped to the front of a cement mixer as it barrels down the road, plowing through breakable walls, stacks of boxes and feather-filled crates, while contestants grab flags off the obstacles.
Romano, who worked on “Fear Factor” the first time around, said he tests and tweaks such challenges with his crew months before arriving on location. He noted that technological advancements over the past five years have allowed his team to construct bigger stunts that are safe enough for the average person to attempt without being killed.
“Everything is more computerized now,” said Romano. “Our limit to pull someone through the air used to be 100 feet and to drop them was like 10 feet, but yesterday we pulled someone 600 feet through the air and dropped them 150 feet. There was no way that we could’ve done that six years ago. It basically means we’re just always trying to top ourselves now.”
The series’ eight new episodes don’t tinker with the established “Fear Factor” format: four pairs of contestants will take on such stunts as searching for flags through a flaming tower, driving a car sideways through a semi-truck and devouring varmint-filled burritos. The team who best completes the final challenge will win the show’s $50,000 grand prize.
“It’s a challenge,” said Kunitz. “The audience should be able to tune in and feel like they haven’t seen this before, but it’s still `Fear Factor.’ Ultimately, if we’re having a good time on set, and Joe is having a good time, then the audience is going to have a good time when they’re watching at home. If we’re bored, we’re not doing something right.”
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