It’s a Saturday in November at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., when co-host Chrissy Teigen walks into the Lip Sync Battle conference room in a fluffy, white robe, carrying a cast-iron skillet twice the size of her head.
“I made tuna casserole,” she announces. “It has jalapeño chips on top.”
A minute later, Teigen’s co-host, LL Cool J, joins the fray. His contribution to the impromptu potluck? “Love and joy,” he deadpans.
Taping for season 4 of the popular celebrity competition series is underway. Somewhere near the vast soundstage, Kathy Bates is in hair and makeup, morphing from Oscar-winning thespian into a blinged-out Bruno Mars.
“She’s going full Bruno,” says the show’s executive producer Casey Patterson. “Mink, Versace, chains, bubble bath, strawberry champagne — it’s a jaw-dropper.”
Bates guests in one of this season’s 20 pre-taped episodes. But before the regular shows hit the air on the newly rebranded Paramount Network (formerly Spike), they’ll be preceded by a one-off special: Lip Sync Battle Live: A Michael Jackson Celebration, airing Thursday (Jan. 18). Neil Patrick Harris, Taraji P. Henson and Hailee Steinfeld will go head-to-head for LSB‘s gold-encrusted championship belt, each performing songs from the King of Pop’s beloved catalog with enough wigs, costumes, backup dancers and choreography to rival the American Music Awards — or, at the very least, the drag brunch at Señor Frog’s in Las Vegas.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch, it’s silly — not a lot of intellectual lifting,” admits LL Cool J. “But in times like this, it’s nice to practice a little escapism.”
This year boasts a new gladiator-style theater-in-the round set that doubles the crowd capacity to 650 people. If it now feels like a regular music venue, that was the intention.
“Todd [LL Cool J] was very involved in the redesign,” says Patterson. “As an artist, if you’re going big, you’ll temper your performance if you’re not met on the other side by fans with that same energy.”
“To have people like Fifth Harmony come on and see how loud that room gets is insane,” adds Teigen.
Fans can look forward to the four members of Fifth Harmony competing against each other in a highly touted season 4 episode. Also coming up: Boy George makes an appearance in a show pitting Rita Ora against Charli XCX, and there are themed events, including a Christina Aguilera celebration with Taye Diggs and Erika Jayne, and a Shania Twain tribute featuring a showdown between Derek Hough and Nicole Scherzinger.
Usually unflappable, Teigen admits to a few butterflies before Twain’s appearance. “Oh, God, that was intimidating, but [she’s] the sweetest person on the planet,” Teigen says.
LL Cool J believes that the best episodes spotlight stars who make themselves vulnerable in front of an audience. “It’s kind of fun to see celebrities squirm a little bit,” he admits.
As always, the show hopes a battle will go viral and ignite the internet. A season 2 clip of Jenna Dewan Tatum vs. hubby Channing Tatum has earned an impressive 46 million views. Jenna impersonated Channing as his stripper alter ego from Magic Mike, while he channeled Beyoncé from her Run the World (Girls) performance from the Billboard Music Awards (Queen Bey herself makes a memorable cameo at the end). A balls-to-the-wall season 1 spoof of Miley Cyrus on her “Wrecking Ball” by Anne Hathaway in tighty-whiteys has drawn more than 25 million eyeballs.
“That was all Anne,” says Patterson. “She went full Method, full Miley. That was Miley’s actual wrecking ball. At the time, we weren’t this big show. She was very brave, and she just went for it, and she really put us on the map.”
The show’s two hosts aren’t above sidling up to celebrities at parties and inviting them to appear on the show. That’s how LL Cool J booked the two surviving members of Run-DMC and how Teigen and husband John Legend snagged Stevie Wonder.
“Honestly, I don’t have to recruit that many people,” says Teigen. “I get people coming up to me saying that they want to be on the show. And that’s always fun to see at, like, the Met Ball.”
Since its humble beginnings as a comedy sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Lip Sync Battle has become its own cottage industry: 18 different incarnations of the show air in 120 territories around the world, a kids’ version — Lip Sync Battle Shorties — debuts on Nickelodeon this month, and Carnival Cruise Lines offers a Lip Sync Battle onboard experience. BET and MTV have aired branded specials, and the show’s YouTube channel and Facebook platform each have more than 2 million followers.
With increasing global market share, the program’s ability to clear music has also grown — as evidenced in the season-opening live show, which is produced “in consultation” with the Estate of Michael Jackson.
“We’re a comedy and variety show, and over time, people have seen that we’re never mocking,” says Patterson. “They see more of a tribute show.”
LL Cool J thinks the format is also a winning formula for entertainers. “Fans love you even more when they’ve seen you let your hair down,” he explains. “Every celebrity who’s been on this show has walked away improving their standing with their fans.”
Patterson concurs: “All movie stars want to be rock stars for a day.”