Why are so many hilarious comic actors suddenly hosting game shows?

As Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg take the reins of a new baking competition, Kevin E G Perry examines the comedy-star-to-game show-host pipeline

Friday 03 December 2021 09:57
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<p>Andy Samberg and Maya Rudolph are the hosts of a new baking show</p>

Andy Samberg and Maya Rudolph are the hosts of a new baking show

In fairness to Andy Samberg, you can’t accuse Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s leading man of being disingenuous about his reasons for swapping sitcom stardom for hosting duties on the US series Baking It. Asked in the first episode of the new competitive baking show about what it was that convinced him to take the job, Samberg initially attributes his decision to the chance to be reunited with co-host Maya Rudolph, with whom he’d briefly worked on Saturday Night Live. Moments later he offers up another, blunter suggestion: “And the money, make no mistake!” As Rudolph snickers beside him, Samberg adds, somewhat unconvincingly: “But the baking also will be an added bonus.”

Rudolph and Samberg aren’t the only big names of American comedy to have recently made the leap to hosting a competition-based game show. Flick through the channels and you’ll soon be able to spot Arrested Development’s Will Arnett smashing Lego designs with a baseball bat on Lego Masters, Pitch Perfect’s Rebel Wilson putting dog stylists through their paces on Pooch Perfect, Scream Queens’ Keke Palmer devouring tasty sculptures on Foodtastic and Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy overseeing elaborate home renovations on The Great Giveback. Clearly, the comic actor-to-game show host pipeline is only hotting up: Whoever snaps up current SNL star Pete Davidson to take over the Cilla Black role in a reboot of Blind Date is going to make themselves a lorra lorra money indeed.

In the case of Baking It, it’s easy enough to understand how Rudolph and Samberg landed the plum gig. Airing on NBC’s streaming service, the show is a direct spin-off from Making It, a competitive crafting show that premiered in 2018 and saw artists, woodworkers and designers competing for the coveted title of “Master Maker”. It was hosted by beloved Parks and Recreation duo Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, who probably didn’t have to audition: the series was co-produced by Poehler’s own Paper Kite Productions.

For this year’s baking-based spin-off, Poehler and her fellow producers went in search of a similarly hilarious double act who could keep the show moving while sprinkling a few laughs over the serious business of making cakes that don’t look like cakes. Rudolph was hired first, and one of the show’s executive producers Nicolle Yaron told Mashable that Samberg was hired specifically for the chemistry he could bring to their double act. “We were thinking about all the people that Maya has great relationships with, and that we like to hang out with, and that Amy loves, and Andy came to mind. So he came in, and I mean, they’ve known each other since SNL,” said Yaron said. “The three of them have a long history and a real chemistry, and it was so much like what we wanted the show to be, which is about togetherness.”

Certainly, Samberg seems more interested in hanging out together with Rudolph and trying to make her laugh by blurting out vaguely risqué lines about “master bakers” than he does in whether the contestants themselves can get a rise out of their cakes. If anything, Samberg’s lack of interest only improves his hosting ability. As viewers watching something as decidely low-stakes as a baking competition, we like to see someone who’s not afraid to roll their eyes and puncture the air of competitiveness from time to time, lest the whole thing become as stale as week-old pound cake. Will Arnett, who presumably landed his gig on Lego Masters thanks to his winning role voicing Lego Batman in both The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, is an expert at undercutting the whole enterprise just enough so that it doesn’t feel like we’re just watching him shill plastic bricks. In one episode, he welcomes back viewers from a commercial break with the tongue-in-cheek line: “We’re back! No more adverts, no more companies trying to present their products in a fun and imaginative way… Welcome back to Lego Masters!

As to why Poehler’s Paper Kite Productions would want to get into the business of creating shows like Making It and Baking It in the first place, that’s a simple question of production company economics. Compared to scripted comedies, unscripted game shows are much cheaper to create and produce but can still bring in big primetime TV money. This can then be redirected to fund the passion projects that they’re actually really invested in. In Paper Kite’s case, that includes critically acclaimed shows like Broad City and Russian Doll as well as movies like Poehler’s recent coming-of-age comedy-drama Moxie. There are plenty of examples of this business model in Britain too: Zeppotron, the production company Charlie Brooker set up with colleagues from The 11 O’Clock Show, produces popular, low-budget panel shows like Would I Lie To You? and 8 out of 10 Cats which bankrolled the early seasons of Black Mirror.

Competition shows, then, have perhaps become the televisual equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s famous “one for them, one for me” movie-making axiom, a productive way to balance commercial work with personal projects. They’re also clearly more attractive for A-list talent than the more traditional role of gurning, perma-pleased ‘game show host’, a position that sits barely a rung above used car salesman in popular culture. The new crop of hosts have made a clean break away from that archetype, undoubtedly inspired by the genre-defining work done by Mel and Sue on The Great British Bake Off. The duo, who themselves first got their TV breaks as comic actors on French & Saunders, have influenced a whole swathe of hosts with their easygoing bonhomie and ear for innuendo. As they say in baking circles, it’s about time those two got their flours.

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