Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to the man behind The Masked Singer, executive producer Craig Plestis, about keeping the celebrities’ secrets and how the team is accommodating COVID-19 in Season 4, coming this fall.
“You got five hours—I’ll talk about The Masked Singer for five hours,” said Craig Plestis, executive producer of The Masked Singer, on a phone call on his way to the studio to work on the new season of the FOX reality competition series.
Yes, the show—and the masks—must go on, and he spilled some details to me about Season 4 without spoiling who the celebrities are of course. We also talked about the show earning its first series Emmy nomination.
The Masked Singer is the new kid on the block in the Outstanding Competition Program category, going up against veterans like Nailed It!, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Voice, and Top Chef, but how many competition shows have singing frogs in zoot suits, World War II fighter pilot rhinos, Shakespearean T-rexes? Okay, maybe just The Masked Singer and RuPaul’s Drag Race, the latter depending on the mini-challenge.
Awards Daily: First nomination in the Outstanding Competition Program category. How does it feel to be nominated? Were you surprised?
Craig Plestis: For myself and all of my producers and team, we’re just so blessed and happy that we were nominated, especially this year when there was one less nomination to be had [the category moved to five nominations, as opposed to six, this year]. So we feel very, very lucky to be honored this early in our seasons.
AD: To be honest, I was surprised you weren’t nominated last year. The show’s such a phenomenon. Season 3 came to a conclusion during the pandemic. What was it like working around that?
CP: It was an exceptional challenge, especially for the hosts who host the show, when everyone was locked down in their house and to set up the equipment and the communication. The good thing is that shows can get done, but it just takes a lot of extra effort and also a very dedicated team. The great thing about The Masked Singer team is that they all love the show like you. They’ve worked so hard just to make it come alive. Not only Season 3, but also Season 4. We’re very lucky just to have such dedicated individuals, working to make America entertained.
Also, what I like to think about with the pandemic is, I hope at least—we were there at the start of the pandemic and I hope that we’re going to be there at the end of the pandemic in Season 4.
AD: Yes, I would agree with that. You guys filmed everything ahead of time, that was probably beneficial.
CP: Yes, we were very lucky. There was a little bit of a cusp area that we had, but we were lucky, which is great because I really believe about The Masked Singer is that it’s an island of TV where families can watch together. There’s so much divisiveness in the world and also on other shows; this is one of the last few family-friendly shows that’s on television, where everyone can just sit on the couch and argue who’s underneath the mask. It’s a lost art, to be honest. Everyone wants niche programming now, but this is the one time that people can come together and be a family, and that’s really lovely. I watch online every week when our show airs, and I follow the blogs and all the tweets just to see what people say, and they’re just so happy that we exist and make their lives sane, to get away from the news cycle.
AD: It is such an escape. What is the casting process like for these celebrities? I’m sure the first season was probably experimental, getting people that might not want to do it. But I bet now you’re flooded with people who want to be on the show.
CP: That’s a really good question. First season, I would say, yes, it was difficult. But we were lucky. I went around and showed a lot of different celebrities, saying it’s a huge hit in Asia, and you’re going to wear these wacky outfits and it’s going to be a gigantic spectacle. A lot of celebrities turned to me and said, “Craig, call me in Season 2 or 3 when this is a hit. I’m not sure about this.” We had so many people in Season 1 who believed in it right from the get-go, as well as our hosts and panel. When they first saw it, Jenny [McCarthy] said, “I want to do it. I don’t care if my manager says I can’t do it.” Robin Thicke loved it from the get-go; he plays games with his son where they try to guess who the animated voice is. There’s something that each of them connected with. Ken [Jeong]—thanks to Ken’s mom, he’s on our show. The King of Masked Singer [original version of the show in South Korea] was his mom’s favorite show. His mom made him do the show, so I say thank you.
AD: (Laughs) That’s so funny. I can’t imagine the show without him. Even though he doesn’t get anything right!
CP: I owe her a gift basket. But now, we’re very lucky we’re on the radar, after being America’s No. 1 show for three seasons. Obviously a lot of celebrities love the show, but what’s great is a lot of celebrities’ kids love the show. We’re getting contacted by a lot of celebrities’ whose kids love the show who want to be on the show. That’s really nice, because it comes from a genuine place where they want to surprise their kids. They don’t want to tell them. We’re in a really, really lucky stage right now with the course of the show’s lifespan.
AD: I feel like the hints in the clue packages aren’t trustworthy. I’m thinking of Paul Schaffer and Martin Short—I really thought he was Martin Short! Obviously you want to keep the secret of who’s behind the mask. How much care does the writing team put into drafting those descriptions in the clue packages? What is that process like?
CP: That is an extremely lengthy process. Here’s what I can say honestly: Every clue is honest, but it also could be misdirected toward another celebrity. But when you drill down and go to each individual clue, it’s actually for that person, so you could misinterpret it to be about five other people, but it’s always designed around that one person.
We go through a very lengthy process. If it’s on Wikipedia, we try not to do it. First season, we looked at Wikipedia and did some stuff, and people picked up in two seconds who they were. So we dive deep, we interview them, we listen to every podcast, read every book they’ve written. We try to find nuggets of facts that only they would know. It’s harder to uncover some of the truths. It’s literally like a mystery novel. The docs I have on each person, especially this person—who they are, what makes them tick, what makes them cry—I could write a book, it goes that much in depth.
The great thing is that all of the celebrities want to be an open book as well; they want to play the game and make America guess and don’t want to make it an easy guess. So they’ll disguise their voice a little bit or walk differently. Ricki Lake used to touch her heart, and that’s how Robin Thicke figured out that Ricki was the Raven. We’ve learned as we go along each season that America is really smart. Each season is a learning curve, but we just have such dedicated celebrities, especially this season, who really want to sing outside of their genre and express undiscovered talents that they have.
AD: You obviously want to keep their identities secret. What kind of precautions are put into place to make sure that the singers’ identities aren’t revealed? Do they have special security? I always wonder if the judges might run into them in the hallway.
CP: They will never run into anyone. I honestly say, the best job on The Masked Singer is to be on the security team, because there are more people there than any place else. We have a bible of how to do the security on the show, from how they get to the studio, what they have to wear, how they have to hide every piece of their body, their skin, who they can talk to. When I talk to the different celebrities when they join the show, we tell them (right now via Zoom) there are five people here, and that’s it—that’s the number of people who will know who you are. There’s only a handful people at the network who will know, our director doesn’t know, our panel doesn’t know. We really keep it a top secret. When they are rehearsing on the set, they wear over-sized sweatshirts that say “Don’t talk to me.” Because we make sure that even by chance if a PA or lighting person comes up and they don’t know if they’re a celebrity, everyone knows to keep away from them completely. It’s really a bizarre world we create for the celebrities, and it’s really a unique experience that only they have. They love it in the end, because they’ve never experienced anything like it on any TV show or in anything they’ve ever done before in their history.
AD: Sounds like you’re already practicing social distancing with those strategies.
CP: Yeah, if you want to practice social distancing, come to The Masked Singer. It’s the best place to be as a celebrity. First of all, we originated the whole idea of masks way before everyone else.
AD: Yeah, you did. You guys are sooo ahead of the time. I want to wear one of your masks as my mask.
CP: Our motto now is: The Masked Singer—we protect your identity and your health.
AD: Speaking of COVID, what kind of new precautions are you putting into place when it comes to filming? Are you working on Season 4?
CP: We’re doing everything we possibly can do to protect our celebrities as well as our crew. So there are many guidelines that the state has and I like to think we go above and beyond that to make sure everyone’s safe and has a great time. It comes as an expense; it’s not cheap to do this. But it’s important to make sure we bring this show. I strongly believe, this fall, America needs The Masked Singer. We’re going to have crazy politics going on, crazy stuff in America; they need their Wednesday retreat even more so this season than any other time in history. I would say for myself and my team, the whole pandemic has pushed us to be even more creative than we have ever been on any season beforehand. We’re trying new things out that we probably never would have tried had we not had this pandemic, and it’s pushed us creatively. You’re going to see that with the clue packages this season and the staging.
Season 4 of The Masked Singer airs on FOX this fall.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.