Nothing guarantees a laugh like watching people trip, slip and fall.
At least that's what ABC is counting on with the reality competition "Wipeout", premiering tonight (8 ET/PT). In each episode, 24 people of all shapes and sizes compete for $50,000 by running a course filled with obstacles designed to knock them into mud pits, spin them until they're dizzy and then knock them down again.
Placing people in harm's way for laughs is also a time-honored ratings-getter on Japanese TV, one that has been gaining momentum in the USA for several years, particularly on cable shows aimed at young male viewers. But "Wipeout" executive producer Matt Kunitz likens "Wipeout" more to "Fear Factor", which he produced for NBC.
"'It's America's Funniest Home Videos" meets "Fear Factor". We create the moments rather than waiting for someone to slip and fall," Kunitz says. And unlike "Fear Factor", viewers with delicate constitutions don't have to worry about people eating spiders or sitting in a vat of snakes. "There's no grossness, no violence, drugs or sex," Kunitz says. "Just good, clean fun — except for the mud."
The show has an arsenal of 60 stunts to throw at challengers, different ones on each episode. Some, such as Big Balls, in which contestants try to run across a row of giant, bouncy red balls without falling off, prove to be so entertaining that they become show fixtures.
Among other arenas:
•The Sweeper. Perched on a pole, contestants must jump over a rotating arm that gets faster and higher until it knocks them over.
•Dizzy Dummy. Six people get strapped to a spinning mechanism and then run a short course.
•The Dreadmill. Contestants run on a 40-foot-long treadmill, which goes up to 15 mph, while leaping over inner tubes and opening up doors in their path.
•Sucker Punch. It's like Whack-a-Mole if the mole were doing the whacking: Contestants run along a wall from which fists pop out and sucker-punch them.
Although the cash prize waits for one exceptionally agile person each show, the course is designed for failure, Kunitz says. "We want only a 5% success ratio, because this show is about wiping out."