Never doubt this: Robert Khoo knows how to build anticipation; with approximately three minutes of rough cut of Strip Search episode #1, I had a feel for the show, and the all-important contestants (or “The Artists”, as Strip Search dubs them) meeting each other scene (bright and early at 7:00am on a recent December morning in Seattle) about to start, Khoo stopped the playback of the video.
That’s all I can show you he said, his tone expressing deep regret while his facial expression showed that if he’d gotten my attention, he wasn’t really regretful at all¹.
Khoo invited me to meet with him and Penny Arcade designer (and Strip Search producer²) Erika Sadsad over the weekend to talk about the show; the screening was a surprise to me, and despite the fact that it was incomplete (graphics were all placeholders, the voiceover is still to be finalized), I was struck by how slick it looked. I’ve seen first episodes of reality programs that broadcast on actual TV channels that didn’t look as polished as the start of Strip Search did. So how much can you learn in three minutes?
- The twelve contestants got their smiling pose intros, singly and later in a group (with giant cutout standups of their self-drawn avatars)
- The house they were put up in is frikkin’ gorgeous
- At least one challenge might relate to being a webcomicker only tangentially, as there was about a half-second of footage at a go-cart track³
- As previously noted, there are tropes that show up in reality show after reality show because they work; watching Mike Krahulik solemnly intone, Yours is not the strip we’re searching for made it official: this is a real show, not playing at a show.
Quick aside: Sadsad noted that there had been some support for the much less serious Abandon strip! as the elimination catchphrase, but it was rejected as being too flip. Seeing what The Artists put on the line (both giving of their time and revealing themselves without knowing how they would be ultimately portrayed), it was decided that the production would have to treat them more respectfully than that. Khoo echoed this, noting especially how Krahulik hit a particular point where his respect for The Artists became a major influence on his participation. The dynamic between The Artists and The Creators (that would be Krahulik and Jerry Holkins) shifted from showrunners/showrunnees to something more peer-oriented; as Sadsad put it, That was when Strip Search went from playing house to being a house.
The nature of how people will be portrayed was a major theme of our conversation; as Khoo put it, The Artists have become very publicly friendly and respectful towards each other, but he noted that they haven’t seen the footage that’s being cut down for the episodes. Khoo stressed again the desire to not try to stretch The Artists into roles or create perceptions that weren’t true (and plenty of reality competitions have clearly tried to do exactly that; with creative editing, anybody can be made to look like a sociopath), that there wasn’t a team of writers trying to pigeonhole anybody into the tried-and-true roles of The Bitch, The Arrogant Dick, or The Antisocial Spoiler.
That’s an important distinction, given that “reality TV” has a reputation for constructing personal interactions and storylines out of whole cloth. Granted, some of these stories may be fictional (but boy do they have the ring of truth), but it’s absolutely true that the Writers Guild of America considers most reality TV work to count as constructing a story. Khoo stressed that the approach taken by Strip Search was at the documentary end of the spectrum that ran from Tell what happened to Get a bunch of footage and make shit up4. Nobody tried to adopt a villain role, so there wasn’t a push to create one in the production. Khoo also stated that while there will be no way to tell the entire story of what happened in the mansion, there was a natural narrative that emerged during filming.
Let’s expand on that thought a moment — there will be no way to tell the entire story because Sadsad reported there being a total of 62 days worth of footage, which will need to be cut down into approximately 36 episodes of about 15 minutes each. Nine hours total (which is actually on the order of what a season of a reality show would run) out of nearly 1500 means that all of the DVD extras in the world won’t capture the entirety of what happened. Still, Khoo opined that the entire process was Easier than PAX since once PAX starts, it has to stay in motion; Strip Search’s longer production timeframe allowed for changes to be made to make things adapt.
Asked about what kind of changes they would make to a (as yet, theoretical) second season, Khoo and Sadsad mentioned putting the various challenges closer to the mansion and building in break days in the production, as the filming was one continuous block. That was actually a telling detail because they hadn’t been willing to say how long production took in December; but combined with an earlier statement that challenges each resulted in one elimination, that there were no “no-elimination” challenges, that gives a lower duration of about two weeks production, assuming one challenge per day. A careful investigator might look at the twitter- and blogfeeds of the twelve Artists for the month of December, looking for when they stopped posting and taking that as corroboration5.
Other information of note:
- Consistent with his last interview with Fleen, Khoo would not say that there is or is not a winner picked for Strip Search at this time. He did ask that everybody keep in mind that given the winner will have a year in residence at Penny Arcade, so production of Strip Search could be considered to go for quite some time under any definition.
- “The Puck Situation” was avoided in the sense that Nobody put their hand in the peanut butter. Khoo spent months of due diligence, digging up entire electronic lives on The Artists6, but that it wasn’t really possible to know who they were until they’d arrived and were interacting in person.
- The challenges were designed to produce a winner with the ability to make a successful career of webcomics (and it was repeatedly stated that any of the twelve could have plausibly won the competition; there were no sacrificial Artists), but asked if the process had also been successful in choosing somebody that the Penny Arcade family could get along with for a year, Khoo stressed the responsibility that PA had towards the winner. We will do them right. People put their necks out there and trusted us; we didn’t tell them shit. They didn’t know what the show would be like or how we would make them look. For taking that risk, Khoo is determined that the reward is as good as he can make it.
- Strip Search will have a dedicated site, in large part constructed to eliminate what Sadsad finds annoying in the sites of other reality shows. There will be polls, bios, extra material (like the art created in each episode and a showcase for the Artists), but it will also be possible to visit without getting spoiled on the front page as to who won or lost a challenge. The material will be presented by episode, will a separate section for those who have seen it. The launch should be in the next week or so, at StripSearch.tv (it’s currently showing a placeholder).
- Strip Search will run twice a week, approximately 18 weeks, which I speculated means a three episodes per challenge structure: one to set up the challenge, one to show the work, one for judging and elimination. Add in some interview cutaways and reactions, that gives an even dozen challenges in 36 eps, neatly mirroring the Artist count. As expected, Khoo refused to confirm or deny this speculation, so I guess we’ll all have to watch to find out for sure.
¹ This is somewhat of a recurring theme when talking to Khoo; if you ever have the opportunity to interview him and you ask a question that is slightly leading and he replies … Sure. Why don’t we say ‘yes’?, please note that he has not actually answered in the affirmative. He is asking for reasons to not confirm whatever you are asking, and he is enjoying that bit of obfuscation immensely.
² Asked what “producer” meant, Sadsad noted that she had been logging events in the house, helping with the logistics of filming, and Put about 2000 miles on my truck ferrying The Artists to and fro. It was a series of 16 – 20 hour days for however long the production was going on in Seattle, a time frame that neither she nor Khoo would divulge.
I should also note that self-described Principal Beep Boop Engineer at Penny Arcade Kenneth Kuan was also present for what must have been a mind-numbingly boring hour and a half, as he hadn’t worked on Strip Search and professed a strong dislike for reality programming in general. Thanks for putting up with me, Kenneth.
³ Khoo also made a throwaway reference to pitching The Artists off a bungee tower, but I don’t think he was being serious.
4 Kuan had expressed that a considerable amount of his antipathy towards reality shows stemmed from a feeling that the shows
he had seen in the past forced an identity onto people rather than portraying them as they actually are.
5 The data-mining is left as an exercise for the reader, but should you start digging, consider this: Khoo was willing to discuss one item that he had previously decline to answer directly, namely that eliminated Artists were kept in town until production was done. The second house was dubbed The Afterlife, and when it was suggested that this residence was stocked with booze and hookers of various genders, Khoo found the notion amusing but did not directly deny it.