As a bitter, haggard wordbeast (thanks Jeffrey) of long standing, I love words (or hearing myself talk, opinion varies); if you want to know how I feel about them, read Henry’s cricket bat monologue from Act II of Stoppard’s The Real Thing (too-brief snippets of which may be found here). It’s a natural that I would be drawn to the wordamancy practiced regularly by Jerry Holkins, what with his punctuation and long words. But oddly enough, Holkins is only one of two master wordbenders at Penny Arcaded Industries.
In contrast to the playfulness of language that is the hallmark of Holkins, Robert Khoo is precise: he wields words like a mirror-bright Masamune blade, separating those that shade away from his intended meaning until only the exact information he wanted to convey remains. Alternately, the words are used to construct the perfect degree of opacity that he requires in the situation. So when I had the opportunity to talk about Strip Search, the webcomics reality-TV competition that will form the next season of PA: The Series, I could feel him choosing words with utmost care, answering and deferring questions so as to simultaneously share information and not give away more than necessary.
The continual peppering of his responses with You are free to infer that and I’m not saying that and Ahhh, I really want to tell you but I can’t right now formed a delicate process of invito, derobement, parry-riposte, esquive, and remise, and many lines must needs be read between. Some of what I have for you today is definite, some of it is conjecture, some of it is maddeningly vague; some dealt with the nature and logistics of a reality competition, some with creator’s rights, and some on how the project took on a life of its own. All of it was fascinating.
Let’s start with the purely factual elements, much of which matched my speculations from about six months ago: about 1000 people applied to be part of Strip Search, and found themselves in a process not unlike the Khoo-designed hiring gauntlet, which you ought to familiarize yourself with. The initial applicants were filtered down to about 300, then 100, then 40, 20, and finally 12 via a process of skill and personality tests, phone and video interviews, and background checks. The very thorough process had the dual purpose of finding contestants that would be able to have a successful webcomics career, and also to avoid what Khoo called The Puck Situation.
For the younger folks out there, round about the third season or so of MTV’s The Real World, a housemate named Puck made himself into a pain in the ass of such monumental proportions that he was thrown out by the other residents (who included a pre-fame Judd Winick and AIDS educator Pedro Zamora). This is reassuring, as it underscores that the purpose of Strip Search is to find the person most suited to a lasting career, not to manufacture drama out of interpersonal conflict. So if this is maybe the first reality show that hasn’t sought to fill 40% of its contestants with undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder cases, who are they?
Khoo described the final twelve as all having the ability to create very good content, and saw the purpose of the selection to find elements in the contestants that were unique. Ultimately, each person had those unique characteristics, but to find such via phone or video interviews is very challenging. Khoo summarized the process as First tier: Could you work with us? Second tier: Do you have ability to actually do the work, talent to do it, and can you do it without driving us crazy?.
The choice of twelve contestants was possibly the first place where the Strip Search concept evolved away from its original intention; the initial pitch called for ten contestants, but operational considerations dictated that twelve would be the minimum number that would actually work. By “operational considerations”, we mean “the mechanics that make a competition show work”, more on which in a moment.
Asked for details on the contestants, Khoo would divulge very little: they ran the gamut from definite fans of Penny Arcade to those who were indifferently aware of PA, but didn’t read it. Their own webcomics tended more towards humor than longform story-driven, not because Khoo, et al, felt it was more likely to succeed (in the show and as an ongoing career), but because it tended to fit the format of the show better. By coincidence, six men and six women made the cut. The youngest is 20 and the oldest 38. Having signed their contracts¹ and landed in Seattle, they surrendered all means of communications with the wider world and were locked in a giant mansion. While there would be outside trips for various challenges, they would not get away from the audio/video crews or each other for the duration².
Okay: challenges. With one exception everyone in the PA office watches a lot of reality TV, that exception being Khoo himself, who doesn’t watch TV. Fortunately, he had the able assistance of Josh Price, who watches an insane amount of reality TV and was able to educate Khoo on the rhythms and structure of competition entertainment. Khoo’s background in designing the the PAX Omegathon means that elimination competition is not new to him, and he was able to leverage that experience into the particular forms of televised competition. Khoo also credited his past running large projects as preparing him for showrunning duties, but says what was probably most helpful was the bachelor party³ that Khoo arranged for PA VP Mike Fehlauer.
Exactly what those challenges were, Khoo picked his words very carefully. He allowed that the majority of challenges had a purpose of relating to some skill that would make for a good webcartoonist, whether direct or indirect. He elaborated with two challenges that were not used in the show: asking the contestants to find the best travel deal for a convention would be a directly-relevant skill, while determining who could talk to a group of people and have them like (as on a panel at the convention) would be an indirect skill. Asked if there were any unique challenges or elements not previously seen in reality competitions, Khoo would only say to watch what they did at The end of every day.
Despite all the planning that went into designing the show, there was a significant amount of re-planning during production. Khoo said that they hadn’t anticipated How connected some us would become with the art that was created in the show, and it made us re-think the structure of the show while we were on it. He’s promised more thoughts on that once the show is running and the outside world is closer to seeing the time when the original plan was modified.
The hosting for Strip Search hasn’t been announced, but Khoo says that It will make sense. Likewise, judges aren’t being divulged, but he did say that judges were drawn from both inside and outside the PA offices, and that the judges were Always contextually appropriate to the challenges. Mike and Jerry have a role in the show, but not as a Tim Gunn-type mentor (asked if there was a Tim Gunn role on the show, Khoo said Not 100%).
With a few hojillion hours of footage, the task of cutting down into episodes (not to mention crafting a coherent story arc, a new challenge for PA:TS) was most likely considerable, as Khoo says the final number of episodes isn’t yet finalized. While the episode run time of 10 to 12 minutes (possibly as long as 15 if necessary) is pretty set, the season could run 26 to 35 episodes. It would be very difficult to frame an entire challenge in so short a runtime, and Khoo confirmed that there will not be an elimination in each episode. Curiously, he also was careful not to say that episodes would run weekly, leaving the possibility of multiple updates per week. He did say that Strip Search will launch in Q1, wrapping up by the middle of the summer4.
Naturally, that prompts the question of whether there will be another season of Strip Search; Khoo says that there hasn’t been a decision about further seasons yet, and I would speculate it wouldn’t make sense to have another until about the time that the first winner was finishing up the in-house year. If there will be further seasons (and Khoo’s excitement at all that was accomplished with the first season indicated more seasons would be just as exciting), I’d expect them to be interspersed with full seasons of “regular” PA:TS.
The thing about Penny Arcade is, somebody there will have an idea and what might have been a one-off project blows up huge. It doesn’t become an ongoing project because the staff wanted to make it bigger and better; they find ways to make it bigger and better because the project has already taken on its own life: a simple meet and greet has become an intercontinental series of gaming expos; a reaction to a shock jock’s denigration of gamers has become a multi-million dollar charity. Judging from Khoo’s carefully chosen words (both spoken and unspoken), Strip Search grew in the making, and the showrunners may have had as much of an unexpected ride as the participants.
Or maybe not — you can never tell with that guy.
¹ Regarding the contracts, Khoo would only say that Strip Search is, to his knowledge, the only creative-based reality show explicitly avoiding any claim on what the contestants/winner create. We don’t own anything they make; the contract grants us a license to use the art on the show, but nothing further. They explicitly own 100% of their work, that was very important to us. Although Khoo would say nothing further, we may surmise that there is a very strong NDA component.
² Khoo would not say how long the contestants were locked in that mansion, whether eliminated contestants were released to go home or kept with the production, or even if the competition is entirely finished. There is precedent in the creative end of competition TV for finalists to be sent home for a period of time to work up a portfolio for final judgment, which may or may not be happening with Strip Search.
³ Go watch those episodes to give yourself a feel for the sort of challenges that Khoo may have dreamed up, because he wouldn’t give even the barest hints on any of them. Also note that Holkins refers to Khoo as “a depraved madman”.
4 Khoo was emphatic that Strip Search will not intersect in any way with their other mid-summer event, PAXAus, as the logistics of trying to tie them together would be — and this is a quote — “crazy”.