In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Anyone in their 30s remembers Singled Out, MTV’s innuendo-heavy dating show. Initially hosted by Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy, the show matched up college-age singles by virtue of bra size, hula-hooping ability, and how well their raunchy perfect date puns synched up. It wasn’t a science by any means, but viewers ate it up, with MTV ordering five seasons between 1995 and 1998, when the show went off the air.
While both Hardwick and McCarthy have answered hundreds if not thousands of Singled Out questions, there’s still not much information out there about what actually went on behind the scenes of the show. How did the show recruit its 50 muscle-bound dudes and flare-clad gals? Were any real love connections ever made? And why did the show always send its winners to Catalina Island? Mark Cronin knows the answers to these questions. Initially hired as the show’s head writer, Cronin was promoted to showrunner for its second and third seasons and saw Singled Out through its glory days. He talked to The A.V. Club about packages, spring break, and Singled Out’s dirty little secret.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with the show?
Mark Cronin: The show was pitched to MTV by a pair, Burt Wheeler and Sharon Sussman—Wheeler/Sussman was the name of their company. They pitched a show called Skin Deep to MTV that was, essentially, the core of Singled Out. You’d have 50 single men and 50 single women and the first round was eliminating them by physical attributes. You’d have a grid of, like, “over 6-foot-2,” “under 5-foot-9”—kind of direct and literal. And then a round kind of like The Dating Game where the picker—which was what we used to call the bachelorette or bachelor—would put the people who got through the first screening through a series of little tests, and then a final game that was actually very different than what we ended up with.
So they pitched that and MTV loved it, but they wanted it to be more MTV—maybe not so straightforward. Lisa Berger was the executive at the time and she brought in Gary Auerbach to help the Wheeler/Sussman group turn it into a more MTV game show. Gary had worked for MTV before. He was my good friend and we’d worked together with Howard Stern, believe it or not. So when he was brought in as an executive producer along with the other two for the pilot, he brought me in as a writer.
I was the head writer on the pilot. That’s how I got involved, and that was shortly after they had started the pilot process. Then, as a head writer, I really helped contribute to what that show became. We came up with this idea to make the board more fun than just straight-ahead statistics, then came up with those category names. We also did some playing around with what was possible in round two, and then, of course, inventing the “either or” of round three.
Chris Hardwick was involved very early; I think we were pretty sure he was the host right away because he was coming off a show on MTV called Trashed. He was experienced and young and he was funny and we really liked him; he was perfect for it.
It was a long process figuring out who his co-host should be and Jenny [McCarthy] was a frontrunner right away; it was just that the Playboy baggage was difficult to overcome. She was actually the Playmate Of The Year at the time she was auditioning, so MTV was a little skittish about the issue. But she was just so good—she was so good at doing it that she beat everybody else out for the job despite what the conservative objections might have been.
Anyway, we made the pilot and the pilot did well both internally and in testing, so they picked up 65 episodes for the first season and I was the head writer for that first season under the three executive producers Burt, Sharon, and Gary. Then, after the first season, they all left. They all went off to do other things, so Lisa basically gave the show to me as the creative head of the show and to a woman named Nancy McDonald as the physical production side of the show and we did it as a team. So we did the show for the next two seasons, which I believe were the highest-rated seasons of the show, quite frankly.
AVC: Sixty-five episodes seems like a lot to do in a season.
MC: I was personally involved with doing that three times. It went on two seasons after I left with Carmen Electra instead of Jenny, but I wasn’t involved with that production.
I was there was for almost 200 episodes. It was a lot. And imagine how many kids that was because you had 100 an episode.
AVC: And you couldn’t repeat the kids? Or could you?
MC: Well… we would do two shows with one audience so we’d get 50 women and 50 guys. Sometimes we’d get slightly less than 50 of each—just as long as it looked good up there. It had to be in the 40s because anywhere below 40 starts to look sparse. There were some shows where we had the full 50 and 50, but it was hard to recruit for that show because kids had to come in the middle of the day out to North Hollywood and, you know, we had to have 50. They had to be single…
AVC: You had to ask them how big their packages were…
MC: Exactly. They had to confess.
AVC: Did they get anything from it? Did you pay kids an extra rate or give them parting gifts?
MC: Nope, that was it. They just came and gave their time to be on TV, I think.
We used to have this crazy van—the Singled Out van—that had speakers built into the sides and MTV and Singled Out logos all over it. It was beautiful, actually. We had this really funny driver who used to drive this thing down to Venice Beach to recruit kids and tell them where to go. He would drive some back to the studio and put them on the show; we were almost kidnapping people and putting them on the show.
Since we did two shows with one audience, we’d tape two shows in a row with the 50 single guys and 50 single girls and anybody that got to the second round we’d rotate out and bring in some fresh people to replace them, but if you got eliminated in the very first round, you had a second episode where you got another shot. And then we’d just spread those out over the air dates, so if you watched the show, you’d never recognize the same people twice. That’s the secret of Singled Out.
AVC: How did you amp up the contestants? A lot of them weren’t 21, so you couldn’t just ply them with alcohol.
MC: Nobody was drinking, but they were pretty amped anyway. We’d play loud music. Jon Ernst—the fourth cast member named “Piano Boy”—he would come out and play for them and DJ for them. The noise in the studio would never stop. We would also totally sugar-load them. We had an enormous amount of free candy and soda and stuff so when they came they were totally jazzed up. We also warmed them up and did comedy for them, because it was an important part of it that everyone felt like it was a party. But, listen, it was 50 single guys and 50 single girls so it was a party already.
AVC: You didn’t keep them separate in the back, right?
MC: No, everybody hung in the backroom. It was a really great atmosphere for the kids. We probably created more love connections in the parking lot and in the greenroom than on the show.
AVC: I don’t know if anyone got married off of Singled Out, unfortunately.
MC: Yeah, I don’t know either. I don’t think so.
AVC: I was watching an episode recently and one of the categories was “package.” The girl picker, of course, went right for package. Then Chris says, “Do you want a Kentucky Derby horse or a Kentucky Derby jockey?” and the she’s like, “I want that horse.” How did you get all of these guys to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got a pretty small dick”?
MC: There were some categories where they kind of got looked at and it was decided. I think in the early days you’d asked them to admit it, but we had some other criteria, like the people signing them in would look them over. Especially for package, the people looking them over—we’d ask them, “Could you see anything? Do they have tiny hands?” Tiny hands and no bulge; that would put you in the jockey category.
AVC: I was wondering what 19-year-old would admit to being average.
MC: Because it’s a TV show, you kind of want the payoff to be on TV, and it’s not really fair because for the women, the secondary characteristic is bust size and it could just be assigned, so we tried to make it semi fair by trying to judge the guys cosmetically.
AVC: That makes sense.
MC: If that’s at all fair. I don’t know.
AVC: Singled Out was popular from its inception, but it really became a cultural juggernaut.
MC: I think Saturday Night Live did a parody of it. It was in Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion. It kind of struck a nerve at the time, absolutely. I used to say that the main appeal of Singled Out and the broader philosophy of MTV was that the people watching MTV want to see themselves. That’s what Club MTV was, that’s what TRL was. They wanted to feel like they were a part of it and feel like they were looking at people just like them on TV. So Singled Out was perfectly in the sweet spot of that philosophy. I used to say we could have done the same kind of show and been just as successful if we had just stuck a camera in the middle of the room and had 100 kids walk around the camera for a half an hour. Really, the fun of Singled Out was watching people walk by. You know, who was cute, who was not; who’s goofy, that’s a cool haircut, what is she wearing? That was a big part of what the show was.
AVC: Did you pick the contestant from the pool of people or were they screened separately?
MC: What we called the pickers were screened separately. Lynne Spillman, who was the person in charge of all the recruiting the thousands of kids we’d recruit every season—she went on to become the casting director of Survivor and she’s gone on to have one of the most successful casting careers in Hollywood, at least in reality television. She’s one of the most sought-after casting people and she was my casting director and head of casting.
She had one system for finding the bulk contestants and another system for finding pickers. And pickers were always kind of recruited or found because they had great personalities, and that’s not to say that she absolutely recruited from the pool. If we had a big group, she would talk to everybody. And if she found a great personality, she would sign them up for a future episode all of the time.
AVC: What were the prizes on Singled Out? I remember a lot of day trips to San Diego.
MC: They were always day trips because we weren’t going to chaperone, so there were no overnights. The Catalina Express was a big one; we’d jump a fast ferry and go to Catalina for the afternoon then come back again. We had a big selection of side prizes; we had Airwalk shoes, snowboards, skateboards, and bikes. We had a lot of good trade outs flagged as part of the prize packages. MTV, in those days, was on top of the world. Everybody wanted to be a part of it, everybody wanted to be a part of the show. So we had an easy time loading up the prizes and we’d give stuff away to the kids in the audience and play little contests during the downtime. It was fun.
AVC: What was the writing room like?
MC: It was a group of people, like 70 percent guys, 30 percent women and it was a quota system. Every day, every writer had to write, I believe, 10 round-one categories—which were the funny little category names—and 10 round-two tests and then something like 30 round three “this or thats.” Then every day they’d turn them in. In the first season when I was the head writer, I’d go through them and check off the ones we were going to throw into the show and cross off the ones we didn’t and just do that everyday. It was fun and it was a great room.
Neal Brennan was one of the writers on Singled Out. He went on to create the Chappelle’s Show with Dave Chappelle and is now a very successful sketch comedy directors and executive producer. We had [Jason] Venokur, who went on to become a writer on 3rd Rock From The Sun and we had [Dave] Polsky, who went on to create shows for Nickelodeon. I think he still writes for My Little Pony. Steve Freeman now writes children’s stuff for Disney. I think everybody went on to an interesting career in entertainment from that room.
AVC: Did you have guidelines? Did you have to say “that’s too dirty” or “make it dirtier?”
MC: I don’t think I ever said “make it dirtier.” You know, it’s natural for the writers to push the boundaries and my first gig was writing for Howard Stern, so I didn’t really have that well-defined line that you’d cross over. I don’t think we had any standards and practices issues. MTV at that time was pretty free-wheeling and loose, but we’d debate things like whether we’d have the package category. We didn’t have it the first season, I don’t think. It was something I pushed for and people were like, “Well, nobody will believe it” or kind of like what you were saying about, “How are they going to admit it?” But it was important to have the category. It’s bad enough for the poor women that we’re judging them on their breast size so we have to balance that somehow.
AVC: And it allowed the pickers to be more…
MC: A little racier.
AVC: A little racier or to talk about sex in a way that women don’t normally talk about sex on TV. It’s always like, “I like sweet gentlemen. I want a guy like my dad.”
MC: Right. This was more direct. We also put muscles in as a category.
Listen, the whole first round was supposed to be—I mean, we opened up to “career path” and that kind of thing, but it’s meant to be about very straightforward physical attributes. The original pitch was Skin Deep. Let’s get the shallow stuff out of the way, then get deeper after that. Make your first impression, like at a bar. When you walk in, you’re not going to walk up to guys you’re not attracted to, and what you’re attracted to is not career ambitions or anything like that. It’s “how do they look?” or “are they tall enough?” or what you like.
AVC: How did the show change from season one to season three?
MC: That’s a good question. I do feel it changed. It definitely evolved. The season one to season two evolution was pretty big. We changed what the board looked like. It turned into that big bed headboard with the cherub on the front. We started pushing a little bit; we made a bunch of cold opens, for example. We tried to do some little bits of sketch, and comedy was included in the show. In fact, in the second season we hired Vince Vaughn to act in some of our sketches. He was not known at all in those days, so we paid him $150 a day to come down. He was a friend of ours and he did some stuff for us.
So we tried to do little comedy bits and we had little celebrity cameos and things like that, so the show evolved and that involved new categories in round one. And I think we did some pretty good comedy with Jenny in round two. We really had a talent on our hands with Jenny and were using her to our absolute advantage because she was such a great personality and an improv talent and we built beautiful scenarios for her in round two.
I do feel like, after a while, after you get into the fourth and fifth season, it’s been done over and over and it’s hard to find new places to take it and they really doubled down on characters. They threw a lot of characters on the show. They had Bob The Angel and they had Bob’s son and I don’t even know it all. They had all these crazy stories, like a semi soap opera going on with the hosts. I don’t know if it was successful, but it was an attempt to stretch the bounds of the show since the show itself might have been getting tired.
The big thing we put in for season three was the golden ticket. That format innovation was good and actually added to the quality of the show, I think. It was a big thing at MTV to reinvent. They felt very strongly that the show should evolve and not stay stagnant and that every season should evolve and rotate talent in and out.
AVC: They’re trying to snag 15-year-olds who, two years later, at 17 might like totally different stuff.
MC: That’s the hard part about MTV. It’s very hard for them to keep up with the demographic and what they’re in to. They felt strongly that we had to work hard in rotating ideas and changing the format and freshening it up. I did it all three of the seasons I was on it and they continued to do it after that to get pretty far up field.
AVC: Did you get to go to Spring Break?
MC: Oh, yeah. Actually, the first season we were at Spring Break. Oh, God, it was horrible—it was in Panama City, Florida.
AVC: Chris Hardwick talks about it when people ask on the Nerdist podcast and he makes it sound like it was not fun at all.
MC: It is not fun at all. It looks like it was fun because it was by the beach or something, but it’s really a horror scene and, in general, Spring Break in Panama City is a horror scene.
AVC: It’s probably hard to avoid drunk people. I guess if you’re filming at 10 in the morning, you can get people before they’re wasted.
MC: We used to tape during the day and, I mean, I can’t speak to whether our kids were drunk at that Spring Break, but I think they weren’t because we pretty much had them under control. We’d get them, like you said, at like 10 in the morning and hold them all day while we shot the day. And we certainly didn’t give them any alcohol, so they were probably pretty sober for our show. Not the audience, though. Our audience at Spring Break was a mess.
AVC: Do you have any good stories from filming the show? What was the craziest thing that happened?
MC: I’m sure it had something to do with Jenny, because she was such a trip and so funny and she was always on. I remember she used to just eat fast food and she was so skinny, but all she would eat was Burger King and we’d just have to bring a constant stream of Burger King drive thru to her. We had a PA whose job was pretty much to keep bringing her burgers and she’d just plop down on the ground on the dirty studio floor and eat the burger off the wrapper on the floor. She was crazy. She was such a dude. She was really a trip.
AVC: Why did you leave when you left? Did you go to do something else?
MC: Well, I left after the third season. I’m trying to remember exactly why I left. The main thing I had done was as a team and then Nancy was going back to New York and I think there was a question of whether she was getting promoted above me. And since I was the creative head of the show, I didn’t feel like I should have had to work for my partner. So I guess I kind of got a little mad at the idea of that, so I felt maybe it was time to move on.
So I left and it all worked out. It was a good time to move on because then I moved on to do Big Deal, which was a network game show. That was a very good experience. It was a much bigger budget and much bigger production—a much more complicated show. I never looked back, really, but at the time, it was kind of a political reason why I left.
I don’t know how much you know, but I went on to found, first, Mindless Entertainment, which went on to do lots of game shows and Dodgeball for GSN and Cram and The X Show for FX. Then later I teamed up with Cris Abrego and we founded 51 Minds and that was The Surreal Life and Rock Of Love and Flavor Of Love and Charm School and, like literally, spin-off after spin-off. It was amazing. It was a great run. Now I do Below Deck on Bravo, which is doing really well. And I still have the game show. I have Idiotest on GSN, which I’m very proud of. So I never left game shows.
The great thing about game shows as opposed to reality shows was that they’re shot in a studio on a schedule and the schedule usually ends around 7 o’clock at night, whereas the reality shows are shot who knows where. If you’re lucky, it’s in a mansion, and if you’re not lucky, it’s in a bus or somewhere and the show never stops taping. The people get up at 8 in the morning and start taping them and they don’t go to bed until 4 in the morning and you can’t stop the whole time and there are always emergencies and drunkenness and unprofessional behavior and all kinds of stuff. So there’s something really nice about game shows where they’re professional.
AVC: How many episodes of Singled Out did you shoot a day?
MC: We got up to five. It was two in the morning and two in the afternoon and I think, in the third season, we got to two in the morning and three in the afternoon just to try and keep the budget down.
AVC: It seems like it was a low-budget show. I mean, you watch it now, and the board is very clearly just pieces of paper in frames.
MC: It was. There wasn’t much to it. The set was very simple.
AVC: It’s good that Chris and Jenny have gone on to do so well.
MC: I’m so proud of them. [Sarcastically.] It was my training. It was me, I trained them.
No, they’re so great, especially now that Chris is back. Jenny has always been in and out of the public limelight, but Chris was not in the limelight for a little while and now he’s just on top of the world. He’s got one of the most successful late-night franchises and the Nerdist is blowing up and Talking Dead is the highest-rated non-scripted show on television. It’s crazy. He’s a mogul.
AVC: Singled Out wasn’t on for a long time, but I think it made a mark.
MC: It was just five seasons. Five seasons in about three years, I think. But it was of its time.
They actually tried a new pilot for it about four years ago. MTV did another Singled Out pilot; I was not involved and it didn’t go to series. But every once in a while, someone talks about reviving it.
AVC: Now everyone would have cell phones and computer screens and hashtags.
MC: Exactly. Really they should have a camera and have kids just walk around. It’s not that complicated.
AVC: They have this thing that’s popular in Northern Europe called “slow TV” where you’ll look out of a train window for like 90 hours or something. It’s basically the same thing.
MC: Listen, I think MTV should try stuff like that. I don’t think the psychology has changed. That’s what YouTube is, that’s what Vine is: kids looking at kids. That’s what Instagram is; they spend all this time trying to find pictures of themselves and each other and I think MTV would be wise to do shows like that. Listen, Club MTV—there was no concept there. It was basically American Bandstand. You’d just play music and watch the bands. I think they can go back to that. I don’t think that’s changed.