At first glance, the backstage area at Paramount TV’s Lip Sync Battle looks like a stylish, impossibly spacious cocktail lounge. Semi-circular black leather booths with gold trim dot the space, many occupied by dancers and crew enjoying a rare respite from the show’s breakneck schedule (two show tapings per day, each with multiple production numbers and set changes). There’s a pool table next to the LSB championship belt, displayed under glass like a museum artifact, and a bar with a massive, antique espresso machine. A flock of drag queens floats through, followed by guest Darren Criss and his entourage. A party-like buzz of chatter and excitement fills the room.
Elsewhere around the studio, it’s all business. Hair and makeup teams work furiously along one wall, getting dancers camera ready as the dancers run through last-minute choreography changes.
Such is the scene for Lip Sync Battle Season 5, says executive producer Casey Patterson, who notes that guests, who have included Eva Longoria, Snoop Dogg, Anne Hathaway and Shaquille O’Neal, frequently request changes to their sets, wardrobes and dance routines right up until the moment they start taping. “We’re just fantasy camp,” she says. “It’s like running away with the circus for a day.”
On Jan. 17, after four seasons on Spike TV, the circus-like atmosphere returns for its fifth season on the Paramount Network with the same formula that’s made it meme-worthy hit, ever since it debuted as a recurring sketch on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Two celebrity guests square off against each other in elaborately staged lip-sync performances, with the studio audience deciding the winner. As the high-energy exclusive trailer—set to Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s 1988 smash, “It Takes Two”— reveals, this year’s battles include Criss vs. producer Jermaine Dupri, tennis superstar Andy Roddick vs. his wife/actress Brooklyn Decker, actor Jason Schwartzman vs. Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Latin stars Lele Pons vs. Prince Royce, as well as the cast of Queer Eye, Andy Grammer, Molly Bernard and Nico Tortorella of Younger, and Serena Williams.
Returning are the show’s host, LL Cool J, and color commentator, Chrissy Teigen, both of whom show off their dance moves in the trailer.
Between show tapings on a recent Sunday, Teigen slipped away to enjoy some family time with husband John Legend, who brought their two kids by the studio to watch mom in action. LL Cool J, for his part, retreated to the green room to wolf down a corn dog (“I’m gonna be a little disrespectful to my workout,” he joked before digging in) and explain his continued passion for the show.
“The people that do Lip Sync Battle are really the fearless artists in the community,” says the veteran rapper and actor. “The ones that have the courage to come on the show and play, and don’t take themselves too serious — you’ll find that they are the ones that are more relevant, that [fans] are more passionate about. That’s why an artist like Beyonce will come on this show.”
Beyonce’s surprise guest appearance in season two, when she showed up as part of Channing Tatum’s hilarious, full-drag performance of her “Run the World (Girls),” was a turning point for the show. “We call it the Channing effect,” says Patterson. “The minute Channing did the show, everyone saw the potential that you could go way over the top.”
Since then, Patterson says guests have sought to one-up one another not only with their dance moves and lip-syncing skills, but with ever-more-elaborate set pieces and bigger surprise cameos — including this season’s biggest, Mariah Carey, who drops by her own tribute episode to watch Criss and Dupri let their inner divas run wild.
If Dupri is nervous about lip-syncing one of the many hits he co-wrote and produced for Carey in front of the singer herself, he’s not letting on. Before the episode’s taping, he’s chilling in his dressing room, watching football and giving the lyrics to his song a last look. Dupri says he learned “the key to lip syncing” from his many years on music video sets as a rapper, producer and label boss. “You have to actually voice the song while you’re performing,” he explains. “When we shoot [music] videos, that’s something we always tell the artists … if they’re up there like” — and here he silently mouths words — “it looks really weird.”
Not that looking weird is a concern for most Lip Sync Battle guests, who take full advantage of the show’s resourceful scenic artists and costume designers to insert themselves into the unlikeliest pop star fantasy scenarios. Last season, Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates went “full Bruno,” in Patterson’s words, channeling Bruno Mars in mirrored shades and leopard-print shirt. The year before that, basketball player Metta World Peace sang Katy Perry’s “Roar” in a Roman gladiator costume — and lost, to Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin and his even more outrageous embodiment of Fergie’s “M.I.L.F. $.”
Dupri doesn’t want to give away what he has in store for his big Mariah numbers. Nor do Younger’s Bernard and Tortorella, who aren’t even at liberty to say what songs they’ll be performing — except to note that the most difficult part of the Lip Sync Battle process was licensing the music.
“My big, big idea was not approved,” Tortorella admits a bit ruefully. But once his song choices were confirmed, he was amazed at how quickly everything came together. “They have such a machine built here,” he says. “All the kinks are worked out before we even show up.”
His co-star and LSB competitor Bernard agrees. “It’s so collaborative and so fast and so easy. I’m quite afraid of dancing and singing, so I feel like I’m gonna be living my dreams tonight of being a triple threat.”
Patterson’s fellow executive producer Jay Peterson says that’s the whole idea, to “create a moment” for each of the show’s guests to really shine. “They feel like they’re going on a roller coaster. They’re terrified when they go in to start it. And then they go and they’re like, ‘I wanna do it again. That was the funnest thing I’ve ever done.’”