I had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Alfonso Ribeiro who is the host of ABC Family’s “Spell-Mageddon.”
Below is the transcript of the conference call/interview that I, and other media outlets, had with him as he discussed his new game show and more!
Q: Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved with the show?
A. Ribeiro: I went in and they had called my management and my agents and wanted to see if I’d come in and be interested in reading or doing a screen test for the show. I felt like the idea was something that was really kind of interesting and intriguing to me. I definitely went in. I met with them. I did a little screen test to see how it all worked.
ABC Family and the producers decided, I guess, that I was the right one for it. We just jumped right in and we started filming, literally, like ten days later. It was a quick jump in, but something that seemed really exciting and fun to do.
Q: How familiar do you get with the contestants?
A. Ribeiro: You can only get so familiar with them, obviously, because it is a competition. You never want to give up anything or let them know what’s coming ahead or anything of that nature. You really are not allowed to talk much with them.
Obviously, our producers do a full interview with them. I have the paperwork on each contestant and kind of know their bio; the highs, the lows, why they’re playing, what they’re good at, what they do in their life. I have a lot of information on each contestant, obviously, before the show starts. We’re not really allowed to do too much interaction.
Q: What do you feel is going to set this game show apart from maybe other game shows?
A. Ribeiro: I think that we’ve obviously spent, at least for me, a lifetime of watching game shows, and ultimately it’s all about the competition. We’ve watched these spelling bees forever. The difference here is that it’s still a spelling bee but the distractions really kind of set it apart. It’s really a comedy show whereas most game shows is really simply about the game and how do you play it and who’s going to win. All of that still exists, but with the comedy aspect in terms of the distractions, the things that we are doing to these contestants are amazing.
We’ve got one game called Zapped where they’re trying to spell these words [while] we’re zapping them. Then we also have water that we’re shooting in their face and we’ve got a fire extinguisher going off on their back. We have blue icy slushes dumped on their head all while trying to spell; never knowing which one is coming next. The reactions of the contestants are priceless.
For me, what I really find that’s going to set it apart is the comedy of all of this. Obviously, this is on ABC Family’s comedy Wednesdays following Melissa and Joey and Baby Daddy. I think that the comedy aspect of this show is what’s really going to drive people to the show and keep people coming back week after week. It is really, really funny. Every episode that we’ve shot I’m laughing in the episode because I can’t do anything other than laugh. It really is just that funny. I think that’s what will set it apart.
Q: How do you go about preparing yourself to host such a show?
A. Ribeiro: You prepare yourself by listening. You ultimately learn how the games are played, what your part in driving the game, moving it along, keeping it moving. Ultimately, just being on your feet, thinking on your feet, ready for what’s coming up. It’s really a lot of ad lib. Ultimately, I bring us into the game. I take us out of the game, but in between while the game is being played I’m just ad libbing with the contestants. I’m rooting for them. I’m laughing with them. I’m laughing at them. It’s all kind of connected.
I don’t think that there’s really any preparation for this until you get in there and kind of see what it’s going to be and you just go with your natural instincts. I think that’s basically what I did. I just kind of went with whatever I felt in each segment. It feels like it really worked.
Q: What do you think it is about these spelling competitions that are intriguing to so many people?
A. Ribeiro: I think most of those spelling bees are with kids. Our show is very different. We have adults doing it. It’s the idea of there are words that we kind of know. The real spelling bees where there are words that we have no idea what they mean, the fact that these young kids are able to know what the words are, understand the meaning, the country of origin, all of those types of things; I think it’s quite fascinating.
What we do on our show that’s a little different is obviously we’re not taking words that people have never heard of. We’re taking words that people absolutely have heard and used and use in a daily basis and should know the spelling, but our distractions are what really take us in a very different way than those spelling bees. We’re having fun with these crazy distractions.
We’ve got one game where we have a dunk tank and we’ve got these kick balls and we’re launching these kick balls into the bull’s-eye. Every time it hits the bull’s-eye our contestants get dunked into literally ice cold water. We fill the dunk tank up with ice. Then we fill it up with water. We let it sit for 15 minutes so that it melts enough that it’s really just mostly super, super, super cold water. While dunking them into this tank while making them spell, the reactions are hysterical.
I think that people are fascinated with the spelling bee. When I got involved with the show, when I really saw the idea and kind of saw how it was being done I was like, duh. This is one of those shows were you go, this is an obvious television show. I think America, when they see it, will fall in love with it. I think it’s just so funny. It’s so much fun to watch. The contestants are having fun while having all these things done to them and it’s really cool.
Q: Do you think people are going to watch the show for the spelling since it’s a little more lowbrow?
A. Ribeiro: I disagree with the lowbrow aspect of that. Obviously, the spelling bees are maybe super brow versus being an everyday show. I don’t think it’s lowbrow in any way because we’re not spelling cat. We’re not spelling dog. We’re spelling psychedelic, psychology. We’re spelling words that some people have a hard time spelling if they’re not good at spelling.
It’s still difficult in many ways. It’s just not words that you’ve absolutely never heard of. There are words that you might be able to spell, but you might not also. The distractions are what really kind of keeps the fun of the show going.
Q: What is the age range for the contestants on here? Is there a particular age range that you really like to see on the show?
A. Ribeiro: Well, our age range is 18 and above. You kind of have to be an all-around intellectual, physical person. For me, I just want people who can spell. I want people who are fun and are of great energy and character. We’ve got some characters that are on the show. I think that is what makes great TV.
Just being a super nerd who knows how to spell and has zero personality; that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for those big personalities, big fun. Certainly we’ve got some characters on the show, but these are also people who have won spelling bees growing up. They are intellectual, but they’re physical too. We have a guy who plays semi pro football who’s on the show. We’ve got a great range of characters.
Q: What’s it like working with ABC Family compared to some of these other studios that you’ve been associated with?
A. Ribeiro: It’s always about the individuals. A channel, in general, is made up of a group of people. The people that I’ve work with at ABC Family have been wonderful. Obviously this is a short run so far. Hopefully this show goes on for many, many, many years and I have a long running relationship with them. The talent typically doesn’t really spend a lot of time with the network people. You spend a lot of time with the producers of the show and that’s who you really spend your day-to-day with.
Everybody at ABC Family has been wonderful, obviously under the Disney brand. I’ve worked with Disney as a director. A little bit of an actor but mostly as a director on Shake It Up, which has been a lot of fun. They’re a great company and there are a lot of great people. I have a lot of friends that work for the company and in my everyday life. It’s been really fun.
I’m actually really proud to be part of the ABC Family because one of the things that I’ve noticed looking back on my entire career is that most of the things that I’ve done have been shows that are designed for families to watch. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, even though it was in a different network, was a show that you could sit with your grandma, your grandchild, and everybody in between could sit there and watch an episode and enjoy it together. Most of the shows that I’ve done have really been that.
ABC Family is a network that is designed around that idea. It’s an adult network that kids can watch and adults can watch together. I think the family aspect is super important. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that in the last couple of decades. I think the idea of families sitting down together to watch television is a wonderful thing.
Q: Could you talk about game shows you watched when you were a kid?
A. Ribeiro: Even as a kid I sat down with my parents and we watched game shows when I was a kid. Every night at dinner we would watch game shows and then sometimes we’d turn it off and do our own game shows sitting at the dinner table. Family entertainment has always been important to me.
Dis411: How and when you did decide to get into acting?
A. Ribeiro: I started at eight years old in 1979. I was in New York and I auditioned for a PBS TV series called Oye Willie and I got it. It was the first audition I had ever gone on. I was really fortunate to land a role in my first opportunity. I’ve been working ever since. I’m 30 some odd years working and I’ve been very fortunate.
Dis411: Is there anything [acting, directing, hosting] that you prefer over the other?
A. Ribeiro: I love doing a little bit of everything. Growing up my dad was my manager and the thing that we always worked on in my career was the idea that if you had a basket of eggs you never knew which one was going to hatch and when they were going to hatch, but if you were capable of doing everything that was in that basket you were going to have the opportunity and a long career. That’s kind of what has happened for me in my career, obviously, dancing, singing and acting.
I’ve learned to direct so I’m directing mostly now. I’ve learned to host. I’m writing. I’m creating. I just believe that when you give yourself the opportunity to do many things you’ll be around a while. I’ve been fortunate enough to be good enough to work in all of those different arenas. It was a goal from the beginning to learn how to do it all.
There are very few, as they say, triple threats anymore, but back when I was a kid and before I was born that’s kind of what everybody needed to be. Now we have actors that just act. We’ve got singers who just sing. I grew up in a time when you kind of learned to do it all and I’m fortunate to be able to have worked in all of those arenas.
Q: Did you have a chance to try out some of those obstacles before the show started?
A. Ribeiro: I was smart enough to know that you don’t have to actually experience something to act like you know what’s going on. You see, that’s the whole acting thing. You don’t have to be a killer to play a killer, right. To be on a game show where they’re doing all these things to the contestants I’ve learned that it’s better to not do it but to experience it through their involvement. The only unfortunate thing was in one episode we’re shooting these kick balls at the contestants. This one kickball had a wonderful curve and it hit me dead in the face. So I’ve experienced it; not by choice [laughs].
Q: Did you have a favorite game show that you liked to watch growing up? If so, who was your favorite host and what was your favorite game show growing up?
A. Ribeiro: My favorite game show was Family Feud as a kid. Richard Dawson was my favorite host growing up because we watched that basically every night. That was the last show we watched before going to bed as a kid. I certainly loved him on that show. As a kid we just watched them all. I loved Dick Clark. He was awesome in Pyramid. I just loved them all. This is my second “game show” and I’ve enjoyed the role of host in this genre.
Q: What is your favorite distraction game that you’ve had on the show?
A. Ribeiro: My favorite is the Zapped. I absolutely love that one because the idea of zapping them as they’re trying to spell, it really does create the most comedy, I find, in every episode. The next favorite is the game that we call Shower Power. It’s pretty cool. We put them in a shower and there are all kinds of things happening to them while they’re trying to spell; getting soaked, getting icy blue slush dumped on their head. We have like a sprinkler system that’s just literally hitting them in the face the entire time. The reactions are awesome. It’s just brilliant. Those are really like two of my favorite.
My third would obviously be the dunk tank. When I tell you it’s ice cold water it is super cold. You put your hand in and within a few seconds you’re like okay, I can’t take that anymore. We’re dunking them fully up to their necks in this water. The screams that our contestants make while trying to spell is awesome.
Q: If you were a contestant on the show how do you think you would do?
A. Ribeiro: I would be smart enough to not be a contestant on the show. Spelling was never my strong suit as a youth. Our smartphones really make me look wonderful. This is not a show for me to be a contestant, which makes it perfect for me to be a host because I can certainly empathize with our contestants when they get a word wrong.
Q: What are some of the obstacles that they have to do?
A. Ribeiro: We’ve got “Head Banger,” which is basically when we get down to three contestants we put them in a machine that basically has a big hammer that comes down and whacks them on the top of their head. Do you remember that game where you had the frogs and they’d come up and you’d have to take the hammer and you bop it back down to get points? Well it’s kind of inspired by that. It’s hitting them in the head as it’s shooting up.
We’ve got pies in the face. We’ve got water shooting at them at the same time, we’ve got people off on the side shooting them with hoses of water. We’ve got fake fire extinguisher coming up right up from underneath them which is pretty crazy.
We’ve got a game where we put them on a board where we spin them around upside down and we’ve got these cannons that basically shoot food at them. It’s food hitting them in the face and in the body as they’re being spun around. That one is pretty good. That one is kind of where they go upside down. We’ve got one where they’re just going around and around in circles. We’re dumping honey on them.
It’s very physical. There’s a lot of physical stuff that we’re doing to the contestants as they’re trying to spell. In some of the rounds we put one contestant up there and they have to try to spell as many words in 60 seconds as possible while all of this is happening to them. There are many different games. Each episode doesn’t have the same games in them. There’s some that we do every time and some that we do differently in each show. We kind of mix it up a little bit.
Our final game is not a physical game, it’s just all mental. It’s sounds. It’s letters. It’s all going off in their face where they’re trying to spell the words thinking of the letters but the letters are being shown to them right in their face and sounds and all kinds of craziness going on. We’re coming at them in every different way possible.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment from the show so far?
A. Ribeiro: My favorite moment is actually in our opening game, which is Buzzed In, which is our obstacle course, we have this log that gets swung down from the ceiling. There was this one little blonde girl about 5 foot 2, that as she came over one of our humps the log came down and caught her in the chest and literally lifted her up off the ground, spun her over in the air and she landed on her back. She was safe. She was okay, but then it happened again. Then the next time she made it underneath the log without getting hit except she stood back up and the log came and wiped her out from behind the third time. So it was a great series of events that happened to this lovely young lady.
Q: How does it feel to be forever associated with Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air?
A. Ribeiro: It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. Obviously, the fans who have adored me and loved me and show me their love on a daily basis is flattering to say the least. It’s certainly wonderful to know that people have loved what I’ve done on that show for now over two decades. The curse part is when you’re literally at a urinal in a public bathroom and people walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder and ask you to do a dance for them it’s typically not a good time.
This happens to me often, which is the curse part. I always say, “You’re asking me to dance for you. I’m not just going to dance for everyone as they come up and ask me to dance.” It’s like, that’s not okay. At the same time, like I said, I take it in stride and I laugh with them about it because it certainly means that they’ve enjoyed what I did on that show.
Q: Do you still stay in touch with the cast members from Fresh Prince?
A. Ribeiro: Absolutely. It’s very funny because you’ll read in the magazines or whatever Fresh Prince reunion and I’m always like, “What reunion?” It’s not a reunion if you get together with your friends. It’s a reunion if the network picks up the show and does another episode or we do a movie. That’s a reunion; not us getting together, having dinner, and someone taking a picture and going, “Oh look, it’s a reunion.”
I spend time with Will, with Karen, with Tatiana. I see James Avery every once in a while. I was fortunate enough to actually direct Daphne Maxwell Reid on an episode of Let’s Stay Together, which is a show that I direct. So I get to see people all the time and it’s wonderful to see them.
Q: What other game shows that have aired in your lifetime would you like to take a stab at?
A. Ribeiro: To be honest, mine would be the dancing and the singing stuff. Those are the things that I enjoy more than anything. The Jeopardy stuff is not really where I’m at. I like to use my talents in some way versus my brain. I think there are people out there who are smarter than me. So I let them do those types of game shows.
I certainly enjoyed Price Is Right growing up and watching that show. I don’t do much shopping anymore. I’m fortunate enough my wife loves to do the shopping, so I would probably have a hard time with the prices now. The singing and the dancing shows were certainly shows that I’ve enjoyed. I did a show called Celebrity Duets that I actually won and won $100,000 for my charity. Those are the shows that I enjoy.
Q: How do you think Carlton Banks would do on a show like Spell-Mageddon?
A. Ribeiro: I think Carlton Banks would win Spell-Mageddon. Obviously, he was super smart. He was still relatively athletic. He was unwavering in his convictions. I think Carlton would’ve done very well on that show.
Q: I’m sure you’re a Disney fan right?
A. Ribeiro: Absolutely. I’m a fan of Disney. I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter who watches an awful lot of Disney. Obviously, I direct Disney channels Shake It Up. I’m a fan through my child in that way.
Q: Do you make it to the parks and things like that?
A. Ribeiro: Of course. We go to Disneyland and Disney World all the time.
Q: What is your favorite Disney character?
A. Ribeiro: Well, you’ve got to go old school. So you’ve got to go Mickey Mouse.
Q: Favorite Disney Park?
A. Ribeiro: I love Disney World because obviously it’s bigger. It’s greater. You’ve got everything. You’ve got everything that you could ask for out of Disney all there at Disney World.
Q: What’s your favorite Disney ride?
A. Ribeiro: My favorite Disney ride? It’s close, because I love Tower of Terror but I’m also a huge Space Mountain fan because Space Mountain has been around longer so as a kid I enjoyed it. As the new rides I do love Tower of Terror.
Q: What’s your favorite food or restaurant in a Disney park?
A. Ribeiro: Blue Bayou. Every time we go we certainly make a reservation when we go to Disneyland. We definitely go to Blue Bayou.
Q: What’s your favorite Disney movie?
A. Ribeiro: Favorite Disney movie would have to be my daughter loves The Little Mermaid so I guess I have to go with that one.
My questions are in blue!
Don’t forget to tune in to watch the premiere of “Spell-Mageddon” on Wednesday, July 24, on ABC Family!
Photo credit: ABC FAMILY/Eric McCandless