The Key To ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Becoming A Smash Hit? It’s Not The ‘Lips’

By all accounts, Lip Sync Battle is a smash hit. The show boasted the highest-rated premiere in Spike TV’s history, and, during its inaugural season, consistently drew in millions of viewers each week. What’s made its success that much sweeter, though, is the fact that the show was a total risk from the get-go, an experiment of sorts that could have just as well fallen victim to low ratings, as many new programs do. After all, it’s a full-fledged series built from a small Late Night with Jimmy Fallon bit.

In fact, as the audience watched Fallon and The Rock take the stage to duke it out during its debut episode, LSB’s producers and executives were backstage holding their breath. But something about the show’s fresh approach struck a chord with people. While most of the TV world seemed to be heavily invested in gimmicky programming, those behind LSB sought to engage an audience in a very different manner.

Imagine a musical competition that didn’t rely on wild prizes and point systems. Imagine a show that didn’t impose all kinds of sick Inception-style games featuring convoluted round folded up into an even more convoluted round. LSB was up for the challenge.

“Your instinct as a producer is to overproduce, overthink,” explains Casey Patterson, who – along with John Krasinski, Jay Peterson, and Stephen Merchant – serves as an executive producer on the show. “Your instinct would be to add more, to make it more complicated because you can.”

Instead of being caught up by flashy special effects and high stakes, the braintrust behind LSB took a good, hard look at what they were trying to bring to the table. They realized that all they needed to be was themselves. That is to say: simple, honest, and, most importantly, human.

“We know what’s entertaining about the show,” says Patterson, “and that’s seeing those great performances, so we built the format around that idea.” This minimalistic mentality was greatly inspired by internet culture and the way in which people share content on the web. Patterson elaborates on that point, saying, “We were very interested to see if we could build the format — just the format itself — in such a way that you would be consuming it on TV pretty much the same way you’d be consuming it online. Meaning no filler — just straight to the good stuff, right to the performances.”

Often times plowing through the internet’s deluge of video clips and replays can be a trying and detached experience, like a weird bet with oneself to see just how much #content you can stuff into your pupils. LSB is not just interested in churning out things left and right, however; it also wants to make a sincere connection through its material.

Thankfully, LSB’s basic, core concept, along with Patterson and her crew’s willingness to let that concept shine, makes this possible. Speaking to the barebones premise, which sees celebrities leave it all out on the stage as they lip sync their favorite songs in a silly, flawed, and ridiculously impassioned way that you or I would, Patterson notes warmly, “There’s a lot of humanity in this.”

Indeed, more than music or celebrity star power, LSB is offering up quite a bit of intimacy that’s sometimes lost on Hollywood. Instead of The Office’s quirky Jim Halpert, viewers get the chance to see Krasinski as himself be Tina Turner for 90 seconds; rather than watch The Devil Wears Prada’s Andrea Sachs character try her hand at “Wrecking Ball,” folks at home have the opportunity to witness a truly raw side of Anne Hathaway that they may not have ever seen before.

Though they’re technically called “battles,” many of these moments are anything but vicious showdowns. Instead, they showcase these celebrities — folks who make a living out of acting, taking on various personas, and putting on a face for the cameras — as mere mortals, as real people. It all feels like something of an unmasking, only far less dramatic and infused with the kind of personal yet fun, feel-good entertainment that seems increasingly hard to find on TV.

Much credit for fostering such an atmosphere goes to Beth McCarthy-Miller, a comedy director whose credits include an 11-year stint on Saturday Night Live, and whose specialty is coaxing stars’ out of their comfort zones. The guests’ ability to select any song of their choosing similarly plays a huge part in this process — probably more than people think. As Patterson notes, it’s essential that these celebrities feel at home, relaxed enough to let it all hang out. “We thought it would be really important to put no limitations on the music,” she says. “It makes it an expensive proposition, but it’s the show in its absolute best form. You’re getting to know these celebrities through their music taste.”

As anyone who’s ever zeroed in on a potential mate based solely on their musical preferences knows (I am so very guilty of this), artist/song choice can be a crucial indicator of one’s personality. So, when Anna Kendrick busted out her “Booty” and The Rock decided to “Shake It Off”? Well, not only was it damn cool to watch, but pretty damn telling in a way.

Six Battles You Must See

The Rock “Shake It Off” (Taylor Swift) vs. Jimmy Fallon “Jump in the Line” (Harry Belafonte):

There’s a reason this particular battle has nearly 20 million views: Mr. Dwayne Johnson. There’s just something so, so magnetic about him. From the subtle brow to his bounce, the guy is an absolute pro. “He knows his fans so well,” says Patterson, adding, “You saw his wrestling showmanship in that too. He absolutely knows how to command the crowd.”

Anne Hathaway “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus) vs. Emily Blunt “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin):

Just when you thought you knew Hathaway… here she comes with a devastatingly honest performance, which she produced herself, as Patterson notes. “That was a brave move and she’s fully committed. She had it in her head, she knew which lyrics to choose, where she could be dramatic and what would work.” The executive producer added, “We were all in awe of how far she went with it.”

Will Arnett “Everything Is Awesome” (Tegan and Sara, The Lonely Island) vs Alison Brie “Bang Bang” (Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj):

How can you say no to Gob Bluth in a freakin’ Lego-fied performance? Also, as fun as the original “Bang Bang” music video was, it probably could’ve used Brie’s extra spice and swagger.

Anna Kendrick “Booty” (Jennifer Lopez) vs. John Krasinksi “Proud Mary” (Tina Turner):

Krasinki swaps his slick suit for a shimmery, totally Tina dress, and Kendrick shakes what her mama gave her with Jenny from the Block herself. Need we say more? Patterson calls Krasinski’s performance pure “art,” and dubs Kendrick’s “so brazen.”

Terrence Howard “Brick House” (The Commodores) vs. Taraji P. Henson “Material Girl” (Madonna):

Even when in competition with one another, everything looks so natural. “They have such a fantastic personal chemistry and history,” Patterson comments. “They have this great Sonny and Cher vibe.” Also, give it up for Howard getting down like Rick James!

Terry Crews “A Thousand Miles” (Vanessa Carlton) vs. Mike Tyson “Push It” (Salt-N-Pepa)

It’s hard to put into words how entertaining Crews is here. So, I’ll just quote a past write-up we did on this battle: “At this point, ‘A Thousand Miles’ no longer belongs to Vanessa Carlton — it’s now a Terry Crews jam all the way. I’m sorry, Vanessa.”