Mike Darnell spilled secrets from his decades-long journey through the world of unscripted TV – including his work on the “Friends” reunion special, “American Idol” and “Hell’s Kitchen – during a career retrospective in London, U.K. on Tuesday.
He revealed he had been trying to put together a “Friends” reunion since joining Warner Bros. Discovery back in 2013. “I’m a huge fan of that show, almost everybody is,” he said. “And I came to Warner Brothers, it was the twentieth anniversary of that show, and I was like, “We’ve got to get this done. Why aren’t we doing this?’”
But Darnell, who is now president of unscripted television at the company, said that with neither the cast nor the creators – Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane – interested, the project never got off the ground.
“And then about five years in […] I started to try again and at that point HBO Max was kind of becoming a thing and somebody said this time Kevin Bright is sort of interested and then he got one of the cast-members, which was David Schwimmer, sort of interested and then it was a year and a half of negotiating,” Darnell said. “I won’t go into the detail but they made quite a lot of money from that special.”
“You’ve probably heard the lore of them negotiating like, they would all negotiate as a team during ‘Friends,’” he added. “The nice thing about them is they really love each other, truly do. That’s great. It also means every decision that’s made has to be [run by] between six of them, which it was. Very difficult.”
“So we pulled it off on the 27th and a half anniversary.”
Although no exact figures have ever been disclosed, the cast were believed to have been paid $2.5 million each for taking part in the special.
Darnell, who was speaking at U.K. TV conference Content London, also discussed some of the other projects he has worked on, past and present.
Telling the origin story of “American Idol,” Darnell said he “knew we had to get Simon Cowell” after seeing him in “Pop Idol,” the British version of the show. “I felt like he was the star of the show,” Darnell explained. “And what made it so different for me was not just about the [format being like one long audition], not the phone calls, but the mean judge, the frank judge, because all the other shows that had come before it, everybody was polite and nice even if you were bad and I knew that that was going to be that sort of thing that swung it. But even then we fought inside the company. ‘He’s too mean, little girls won’t like him.’”
Eventually those advocating for a “mean” Cowell won out, a decision Darnell said proved to be the right one. But he added that the real Cowell is nothing like his on-screen persona. “Simon learned the character. Underneath he’s kind of different,” Darnell said.
Comparing him to chef Gordon Ramsay, with whom he worked on “Hell’s Kitchen,” Darnell said that Ramsay was the real deal. “He was yelling at people [on the show], that was all real and it was crazy.”
The reality TV king also revealed that network bosses had asked Darnell to ask Ramsay, who cusses throughout the show, to say “friggin’” instead of “fuck.” “I said, ‘I’m not telling Gordon Ramsay to say ‘friggin’,’” Darnell recalled.
Darnell also talked about his upcoming show, “The Wheel,” with British comedian Michael McIntyre, which is set to premiere on NBC next month. He revealed that the network originally wanted to replace McIntyre, who hosts the British version, with someone better known in the U.S. “They wanted this American celebrity to host it,” Darnell explained. “The problem with game shows is every celebrity thinks they can host it but as you know it’s a skill. And if you’re not good at it, you can be a huge failure, even if you’re a big star. And so we worked on them for months, and finally convinced them to let us use Michael.”
Darnell added it was the right decision because “it’s in his blood, that show. He created it. He is really funny.”
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