Actor Dan Cortese has spent his lengthy career as a fast food pitchman (for Burger King), an abusive hunk (on "Melrose Place") and a "mimbo" (on a classic episode of "Seinfeld") but his career comes full circle tonight when he hosts the new ABC reality competition series "Crash Course." The Pennsylvania native first made a splash as the host of the popular "MTV Sports" in 1992 and now finds himself back in the role of host along with comedian/actor Orlando Jones. Taking a breather from commentating on the extreme car stunts done in "Crash Course," Cortese talked to our Jim Halterman about the comedic elements of this show, whether he himself would try the stunts and what role still gets him the most recognition.
Jim Halterman: How did "Crash Course" lure you back into the hosting chair?
Dan Cortese: I had a meeting with Arthur Smith, whose show it is, and he did a hell of a job pitching it. He had asked me why I had stayed away from hosting things and basically, my first show that I ever had was "MTV Sports" and what was so great and refreshing about it was there was nothing else like it on television and I basically got to do and say whatever I wanted. And for a guy coming from an improv background it was fantastic. "Crash Course" actually has the same elements and Arthur pitched it in a sense that there isn't anything like it on television and he said, "We just want you to be you and have a good time." Then I found out Orlando Jones was involved and it just really sounded like something fun and entertaining to do and it was sort of a way for me to get back to those roots... and when I'm hosting something I don't want to read off a teleprompter and none of that was involved in this.
JH: And what is the format of the show?
DC: I keep telling people at ABC - they keep pitching it as a car competition show - and it is but I keep saying it's so much more than that. Orlando and I both agree that it's a comedy. I think that what's good and, again, refreshing about the show is that we don't take ourselves seriously whether it's the show itself or he and I and everyone is out there having a good time. It is a competition in the sense that you have five teams of two who have existing relationships whether they're best friends, husband and wife or co-workers. What makes the show a little different is that you get to know the people within that first act and you get to basically pick who you're going to cheer for or who you're going to root against. The way that it's cut together and the freedom that we're given to say whatever we want to say... there is a lot of humor that comes along with it. It's all wrapped up in a car crashing little bow where these people are getting to do stunts. I mean, we have stunt men on the show who have worked for 20 years who say "We never get a chance to do this and here you are you're a 19-year old girl that's in the car with your brother that's going to drive your car 70 mph, hit an inversion ramp, it's going to explode, put your car upside down and you're going to slide 120 yards on the roof. We never get to do that!" You add those "Fast and the Furious" elements into a show where you're getting to know these people... it's mindless entertainment but it's a lot of fun to watch. People might say, "Why should I watch this?" and I say, "Why do people slow down to look at a car crash on the side of the road?" It has those elements except it's a lot more fun.
JH: And the teams are playing for a cash prize, right?
DC: $50,000 at the end of every episode. It's not a continuous game where if you win you keep going on. We have five new teams every week.
JH: The relationships are definitely as entertaining as the stunts and competition. Does that bantering and bickering take some of the pressure off of the contestants?
DC: I think it does take some of the pressure off the people but Orlando and I actually interact with the people in the car. We can hear them and they can hear us. We're talking to them sometimes before, during and after the event. When Arthur pitched the show to me he said, "If I wanted to make a show just for guys I'd make cars blow up. I'd watch that but I want my wife to watch the show" and so that element of getting to know the people and getting them in a familiar environment - the driver's seat - you get those reactions. And you put them in heightened situations and you get real natural responses from people.
JH: The stunts are ultimately dangerous. Are there safety experts on site just in case?
DC: [Laughs.] There are... I'm sorry that I'm laughing... but we have a safety crew of over 20 stunt people that have tested these events and the producers have tested the events to make sure everything is okay. All the cars are purchased and specially fabricated but the reason I'm laughing is that the contestants... obviously, look, the show is called "Crash Course" so you're going to crash into something but they aren't told of the events until they get ready to do them. In the event of the car flipping from the inversion ramp, they bring out the teams and tell them what they're going to do and then they are sequestered except for the one team so you never actually see the event until you do it as a contestant. The thing is that with that event they will tell them everything except that when you hit the ramp it blows up. And they have to bleep so much of what you hear these people saying when they hit the ramp. They think the car is on fire or something went wrong and it's awful to put people through that situation while they're sliding on the roof of their car but it makes for good television.
JH: Have you yourself tried any of the stunts?
DC: I'm up for it and when we shot the pilot that was actually going to be a part of the show that we were going to do the stunt so we could explain it but then ABC legal came in and said, "No." But they did say after we were done with the initial six that, "You guys can try something now." Sure, now that we're expendable and you can get rid of us! That roof slide... I don't know if I would do that. That to me... unless I'm actually seeing the guy put in the bar in, I don't know. I'm like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha. I'll stay on the boat and the others can get down with the sharks.
JH: Is everything between you and Orlando totally improvised?
DC: Yeah, we just basically call the event in our voices and I believe Orlando is the first commentator/host that openly cheers against people and tell them to their face, "I really don't like your attitude. I hope you go home. I like these people better than you." He's sort of the voice of the audience, as well. There is some ADR we go in and do afterwards to make sure the show is tracking but they let us write our own material in there as well. On paper, this show is not as good as when you actually see it.
JH: What do you get recognized for the most since you've done a little of everything? "Melrose Place" or "Seinfeld?"
DC: I was on "MTV Sports" and we had just won an Emmy, we were in 72 countries, we were their number one show and I didn't get recognized. I did one episode of "Seinfeld" which aired on a Thursday night. On Friday, I had to go to get a physical because I was doing a movie in Vancouver. I came out of the doctor's office and had five people stop me and call me a "Mimbo" and tell me to "Step Off!" So I was then versed in the power of network television as opposed to cable television. I still get recognized for "Seinfeld" but I also did the last season of "What I Like About You" with Amanda Bynes and Jennie Garth and I have an eight-year-old son that I take to school every day so the teenage girls and the moms recognize me and want to talk about that show. I'd say more than anything it is "Seinfeld."
JH: And you know that the CW is reviving "Melrose Place" this fall. Are you bummed that they killed off your character in the original?
DC: You know, Jess was evil. He could come back from the dead. You never know. Speaking of getting recognized for shows, that character I played on there was not a nice guy and there was an episode or two where my character beat up Daphne Zuniga's character and I had a woman one time on the street come up to me and spit at me and say "How could you do that to Jo? You're a bad person!" That show was pretty powerful itself.
JH: What else are you up to besides "Crash Course?"
DC: I'm producing a film with my producing partner, David Duchovny. We just got through our last revision on a script for the studio and hopefully by the end of the month we'll be attaching a director and move forward. I'm really excited about it. It was an idea that I had that grew into something else. It's a new avenue for me and a few friends asked, "Are you going to be in the movie?" and I said, "No, I want people to see the movie!" I'm going to sit behind the monitor with my headphones on, drinking coffee and telling people what to do as opposed to the other way around.
"Crash Course" premieres tonight on ABC at 9:00/8:00c.