TKO: Total Knock Out interview: Showrunners Holly Wofford, Jane Y. Mun talk Kevin Hart’s new CBS game show

TKO: Total Knock Out 
is CBS’ new high-energy, obstacle-course themed game show premiering on Wednesday, July 11 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time after Big Brother. If you love summer fun mixed with a little bit of star power, there are plenty of different reasons to watch. The series is hosted by Kevin Hart and comes via prolific executive producer Mark Burnett; the basic premise every week is seeing contestants survive a series of obstacles while other participants battle to eliminate them. In the end, the winner is going to win a rather generous prize!

Beyond the scenes, Holly Wofford (Survivor, American Ninja Warrior) and Jane Y. Mun (The Sing-Off, America’s Best Dance Crew) are the two showrunners working to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and to make sure the show has the right balance of competition and craziness. We had a chance to speak with them recently about the basic premise for the show, working with Hart, and also if they are open to episodes featuring stars of other CBS shows in the future.

CarterMatt – How far along was the show in development when you both came on board?

Wofford – I joined as soon as prep got started. The show was actually developed internally by a couple of our executive producers over at MGM, Steve Hughes and Sean M. Kelly.

Mun – We love them, by the way. They’re awesome and were great partners with us creatively. They also helped us really execute the show.

Wofford – As soon as the show was developed format-wise, we were brought on board to prep it and carry the torch through [post-production].

Mun – Officially, we both came on in March.

What were your desired goals for the show when you came on? Did you have a tone you wanted to achieve? To me, TKO is somewhere in between American Gladiators and Wipeout.

Wofford – Tonally, this show is all about the fun and all about the funny, period. It’s a family-friendly show — bring the kids and get ready to laugh, because that’s what TKO is all about. It’s an obstacle competition show, but we like to say that it’s more than that. It’s an obstacle course meets dodgeball on steroids.

Ultimately, we have five contestants who are regular, American people — they are nurses, policemen, school teachers, my neighbors and yours — they take on this course that is possible to get through. However, what makes it harder to get through are our battle stations. One at a time, each contestant takes on the course and tries to get the fastest time while the other four are firing projectiles at them. When I say projectiles, I’m talking about dodgeballs, I’m talking about frisbees that are three feet wide. We have these 18-pound ‘spikeballs,’ which is what we’re calling them, and then we a sweeper, which is a huge broom that looks like a huge triangle coming at you. It’s a massive set piece that is ready to sweep you off your feet. These four contestants are manning those battle stations and trying to knock the runner down.

Ultimately, after they’ve all run the course, the fastest through the course wins $50,000. The cool thing, though, is that you don’t have to finish in first to win some cast. Second, third, and fourth [place] also win a handful of cash. It’s only the last-place finisher who doesn’t take home anything; they leave the party empty-handed.

Mun – For us, the secret sauce of TKO is our host. Kevin Hart. He’s a star that does Jumanji for kids and The Secret Life of Pets, and he also has a movie coming out in Night School with Tiffany Haddish. [Kevin Hart] is our stamp that is going to make TKO so different from other obstacle courses. It’s super-fun, and I think one thing that MGM and Mark Burnett, with CBS, wanted to do is take the obstacle-course idea from outside and bring it inside. We have this crazy set that is elevated nine feet above the floor so we can have our fall pits. It was a gigantic undertaking.

People have asked Holly and I ‘how long have the two of you worked together?’ — Holly and I have worked with Mark at different times in our careers. Holly is known for Survivor and American Ninja Warrior … She is amazing with obstacle courses and really respected in the industry — a trailblazer in that field. I came in through MGM and Mark because I’m done awards shows and live shows. What was so exciting was to work with Holly in this cool capacity, and having Mark bring two showrunners from different worlds [together]. It was almost like an arranged marriage (laughs). We could either love each other or hate each other, but we love each other! It was just awesome.

Take me through the moment when you’re seeing the course for the first time — how exciting was that, and how much did the crew just want to start running the course?

Mun – Every day, we had everyone from camera guys to grips to even us wanting to run the course! I think that’s what makes our show special — an average person with normal build could do the course. It’s aspirational, inspirational, and doable. What makes it difficult is not the course itself; it’s the battle stations.

What’s the role of Kevin through all of this — is he a narrator, a commentator, an interview, or kind of all of the above?

Mun – He does it all. He’s our host, he’s our color-commentator, and he has a segment called Background Check where he interviews and gives an in-depth profile on all of the different contestants. It’s really fun and it’s a way for us to meet the contestants through Kevin’s eyes. We don’t have any other secondary host; it’s Kevin who owns the show from start to bottom. He does an amazing job.

What’s the casting process like for the series? Are there very specific people that you’re excited to have on the show?

Wofford – We threw a wide net, but to be honest with you, as soon as we said ‘Kevin Hart is the host’ we had a lot of people really interested in coming on the show. Being a first-season show it’s sometimes difficult to find the right people or to get a lot of interest. As soon as we announced Kevin Hart, our phones were ringing off the hook and our email inboxes were overflowing. We had a tremendous response.

Mun – What’s amazing is that we have a director who has a son who is seven years old, and he was like ‘I want to blast you, dad!’ He was so excited about getting into our ball-blaster and blast his dad off the course. With this show you do have generations of people who want to be involved, who can sit down and watch it together and want to do it. Who hasn’t gone to a Fun Zone or trampoline park? It’s a fun pastime for parents and their kids to get out and release some energy.

I like to claim that there is a CBS extended universe where you see a lot of different reality stars who jump onto a lot of different shows. I know we’ve seen that with Big Brother and Survivor contestants doing other game shows in the past. Is that something you’d be interested in doing here?

Mun – I think in future seasons we could have a lot of cross-promotion and extend into the CBS family, for sure.  We actually had two Big Brother legends come on the set and have a little bit of fun. (That was for promotion as opposed to an episode.)

It would be so great to get some of the NCIS cast over or [people] from some other CBS scripted show. We need five people to come over and do the show. Anyone who has a little bit of a rivalry could have a great time.

Are you are already starting to think about things you would want to do for a season 2?

Wofford – Absolutely. That’s the benefit of coming out of a first season — you take a look at what worked really well and you find a way to amp it up for a future season. We’re already doing that. We’re looking ahead and thinking ahead. We love this show and we’re super-excited about it, but we’re already looking to take it to the next level.

Thanks to Holly and Jane for their time! You can see a first-look preview at TKO: Total Knock Out featuring Hart below.

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