How ‘The Masked Singer’ Thrives on the Freedom to Be Zany: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want’

TheWrap Emmys Magazine: Executive producer Craig Plestis says there’s no such thing as too weird when it comes to the hit Fox show

A version of this story about “The Masked Singer” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When searching for celebrity contestants for “The Masked Singer,” executive producer Craig Plestis has two rules. Number 1: Even if the show is taped, contenders have to sing live. “It’s in the rules,” Plestis told TheWrap. “I tell them that.” Number 2: “I only want people who will have fun going underneath the mask. They shouldn’t do our show if they’re not going to have fun.”

After seven seasons, the singing competition that features, yes, people warbling from beneath head-to-toe costumes, is certainly giving audiences their fun. The show originated in South Korea, and since its 2019 U.S. debut, it has been a steady ratings hit for Fox, averaging about 4 million viewers. Part of the attraction is the wild concept: From behind outlandish disguises that have included a frog prince, a taco and a beach ball, celebrities with varying degrees of vocal skill compete for a panel of celebrity judges who try to guess the singers’ identities while they, in turn, try not to get kicked off. Nick Cannon hosts.

Season 7 contestants ranged from Dog the Bounty Hunter and Kirstie Alley to Cheyenne Jackson and Teyana Taylor, who won. The show’s rabid online fan base dissects clues about the performers and helps breakout moments go viral — like in the April episode when judge Ken Jeong walked off the set after Rudy Giuliani was revealed as a contestant.

For Plestis, there’s no such thing as too weird when it comes to putting the show together. “The great thing about “Masked Singer” is, compared to other singing shows, we can do anything we want,” he said. “I mean, we’ve had a gigantic baby singing ‘The Flintstones.’ Especially since it is a broadcast show, if (people are) flipping around the stations and figuring out what to watch that night, we want tomake sure our show is sticky. We want to make sure when people bump into our show, if they don’t know what it is, that they go, ‘What is that? That is so weird and bizarre and bonkers.’ We’re always trying to push the envelope.”

After contestants are locked in, the race is on to design their costumes and get them in the studio for rehearsals. Even the most skilled performers are in for a challenge with a mask blocking their vision and throwing off their balance. And of course, there’s the secrecy of it all. It’s not a perfect operation, considering there have been leaks (two big recent ones were Giuliani murmurs and an unfortunate tweet that named Taylor). But “The Masked Singer” generally manages to keep the identities of all contestants under lock and key — not just from the public but also from the judges and other competitors. “It’s literally a military operation.” Plestis said.

Well, maybe not literally, but the production team goes to great lengths to hide performers’ identities. “Everybody has to wear ‘Don’t talk to me’ sweatshirts. They all have visors. You can’t see a bit of skin at all. That’s where the magic happens. So we want to make sure that that’s what makes it special, unlike any other TV show in the history of TV. It’s all the secrecy. It’s all this dance that goes around to make it happen.”

The anonymity makes the show more interesting for the audience, but it also does something special for the famous competitors who are used to living under a very public eye. “I think there’s a magic that happens when people sing from underneath the mask,” Plestis said. “You can see them smile. You can see them cry. It just goes through the mask, and you can feel it in the room when you’re watching it.”

Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.

Jill Greenberg for TheWrap