The behind-the-scenes action on “The Masked Singer” sometimes looks more like an episode of “Get Smart” than a top-rated talent competition series.
Producers of Fox’s unscripted primetime hit go to great lengths to keep the identities of the celebrity contestants secret during production, “Masked Singer” host and executive producer Nick Cannon said during at wide-ranging interview with Variety that also touched on his previous gig as host of NBC’s summer staple “America’s Got Talent.”
“We were dealing with quarantine before the coronavirus,” Cannon said of his work on “Masked Singer. “All of the secrecy is so inconvenient. Everyone is kept so separate in their own little areas. I can’t see the talent. They arrive in secret locations.”
Cannon doesn’t know the identity of the celebrity sweating it out under the elaborate costume until it is revealed at the end of the wacky sing-off series. That’s partly because of the strict FCC rules that govern the competition elements of the series. But it’s also because Cannon wants to experience the show just as the audience does — trying to guess who’s under the mask from clues dropped during their performance.
“It wouldn’t be as much fun if I knew who it was,” Cannon said. Because the show is a hit, he’s been inundated with requests from friends who want to be on.
“Masked Singer” is expected to begin production on its fourth cycle on Fox later this year. The craziness of the concept — celebrities dress up in over-the-top costumes to compete in a singing contest — appealed to Cannon. He wasn’t looking for another network variety show to host after he ended an eight-season run on “AGT.” But the audaciousness of “Masked Singer” made him take the leap. The show was a surprise success from its debut in January 2019.
“I was really meticulous about what I would want to host again in the space of nonscripted variety since I had done it on the biggest level with ‘AGT.’ I didn’t want to jump in and host another talent show,” Cannon said.
In the early days of “Masked Singer,” Cannon’s single biggest concern was safety for contestants trying to perform while wearing heavy costumes. “From the very first day I was on pins and needles hoping that no one falls off the stage in those costumes,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s departure from “AGT” made headlines in early 2017 after he asserted publicly that he believed NBC was preparing to sanction him for making edgy jokes about the show and the network in the Showtime comedy special “Stand Up, Don’t Shoot.”
In recent months, former “AGT” judge Gabrielle Union has been publicly critical of what she described as racism and other problems on the “AGT” set. Cannon said he remains “unapologetic” about his decision to leave the show, but he is also quick to observe: “I was never upset with any individual at NBC.”
Cannon added that he still “loves ‘AGT’ ” but feels the complaints voiced by Union reflect “a truly systemic issue in my mind.” Cannon said he had deep concerns about the way contestants were treated once they were voted off the show.
“Everybody’s so caught up in making this massive great television show that they forget there are humans and feelings and cultural concerns,” Cannon said. “In making a show that big a lot of times the machine can get a little too big and people forget that there are people involved. Once you hit them with those four X-es, they’re shattered.”
Cannon said he often tried to give post-performance emotional support to contestants who were overwhelmed by the experience. He’d remind them of his own story of breaking in to Hollywood as a warmup comic when he was a teenager.
“I would tell them ‘Don’t let that (‘AGT’ ouster) effect you. Don’t let that stop you. This is just one moment. This doesn’t mean anything about you or your gifts or your talents,’ ” Cannon said. “Sometimes it takes a Gabrielle Union to remind people, ‘Yo, there’s humanity going on here.’ “
(Pictured: Nick Cannon on ‘The Masked Singer’)