Convincing an MTV exec to greenlight a couple of Celebrity Deathmatch shorts seemed like a herculean task. Turns out that would become the first of many battles to get “Celebrity Deathmatch: The Series” on the air.
It was the Fall of 1997 and we were hard at work on the third of three Deathmatch shorts – Howard stern Vs. Kathy Lee Gifford. By “we” I’m talking about myself and one other animator, Greg Pair, handling the all of the stop motion duties. We worked out of 1633 Broadway, home of MTV Animation and puppets were being fabricated up the street by Karl Paolino Studios. To say that the puppets were of an inferior quality would be an understatement. They were fabricated using cheap foam latex that was filled with air bubbles and wire armatures that broke constantly. In addition, the puppets had unusually long “gorilla” arms that were off model and looked nothing short of ridiculous. But we made do with what we had, happy to finally bring our “clay boxing show” to life and often working late into the night to make our deadlines.
We were exhausted by the time we completed the Howard/Kathy Lee fight but we were also filled with a feeling of accomplishment. The battle was an awesome spectacle, with puppet Howard eventually melting Kathy Lee with one of his infamous toxic farts. The “melting” effect was accomplished using a combination of sculpted clay, a few sets of clay replacement bubbles and a heat gun. (We used the heat gun to slowly melt away Kathy Lee’s clay “skin” to reveal a prop skeleton underneath and the results were awesome.) As we were packing up for the day we were approached by Animation President Abby Terkuhle who had a big announcement: MTV’s annual Superbowl Halftime Alternative, “Butt-Bowl” starring Beavis and Butt-Head was being scrapped this year and they were in need of a replacement. The good news, This year it was going to be “Celebrity Deathmatch: Deathbowl ’98.” The bad news, The Superbowl was only a few weeks away and we didn’t even have a concept.
Deathbowl ’98 would be a huge opportunity for me if I could actually pull it off. So how could I say no? My one condition was that the main event would have to be very simple to execute, with no more than two celebrity combatants in the ring and of course referee Mills Lane (who by now had become part of our regular cast). Naturally, the network totally ignored my two puppet limit and instead came back with a counter proposal: “We’d like you to animate the two biggest musical groups of the year -- Hanson vs. The Spice Girls. We think audiences would be really excited for that.” The boy band pop sensation Hanson and the British “girl power” group known as The Spice Girls made for a total of EIGHT puppets, all required to animate simultaneously in complex, hand-to-hand combat. I knew I was in for a lot of sleepless nights ahead. “Okay,” I said finally. “But I have one more request. At the end of the battle no one will be left standing. Not Hanson, not The Spice Girls. I’m going to kill them all.” This time, the network agreed.
Greg and I started animating in December of 1997 and worked straight through Christmas that year. Our backs ached from constantly reaching under the tabletop ring to secure the characters. And we developed rashes on our arms from the abrasive sandpaper that doubled as the floor of the miniature arena. Puppets broke. An amazing sculptor, named Patrick Zung, joined our team and created a beautiful, lightweight version of one of the Hanson boys out of hard foam for a complex flying shot. I accidentally stepped on it.
But frame by frame, shot by shot we were getting it done and as we began to see daylight we were teased by the feeling that our little clay boxing show might be something special. In a brilliant strategic move, World Wrestling Superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin was tapped to promote the Deathbowl special. Howard Stern was talking about us on his infamous morning radio show. We even hired announcer Michael Buffer to recite those immortal words: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” But the moment I knew we really had something was during a visit to the local mall. It was the day before the Super Bowl and I was enjoying some much needed down time with my wife, Melanie. We noticed a collection of teens hanging out near the food court in a heated conversation. As we got closer we realized they were talking about Celebrity Deathmatch.
On January 25, 1998 people all over America switched their channels to MTV during half time to watch the two biggest pop sensations go toe to toe in the squared circle. Zack Hanson took a security gate to the face. Sporty Spice got ripped in half, becoming “shorty” Spice. And then, to everyone’s amazement but mine, a lighting rig came crashing down from the rafters, decimating both the Spice Girls and Hanson. In a dramatic twist we revealed that a chainsaw-wielding Marylin Manson took them out. (It was later reported that the Hanson brothers cried when they watched the special with their family.)
In spite of this “claytastrophe,” or perhaps because of it, our network debut was an undeniable success. Deathbowl ’98 became one of MTV’s highest rated specials. And yet, Celebrity Deathmatch was still not greenlit for series(!) Hard to believe but the battle for Celebrity Deathmatch was not yet won…