It’s a big party with the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' star and Athens native front and center.
Karaoke since the 1990s has been a beloved (and sometimes reviled) avocation in the United States, performed in homes, bars and private rooms nationwide. It plays into the American urge to be the center of attention.
A new Netflix game show “Sing On!” tries to “quantify” the quality of karaoke in a way that is more scientific and enables them to score singers who could win as much as $60,000.
“It’s about celebrating brilliant lovely people who love to sing,” said “Sing On!” executive producer Victoria Ashbourne. “It’s not about laughing at people who can’t sing. It’s not that show. It’s an uplifting show.”
Another element that feeds into the joyous atmosphere is host Tituss Burgess, the Athens native best known for his role as the eccentric and self-centered Titus Andromedon on Netflix’s comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“It’s one big Tituss party,” said Burgess in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I got to contribute a lot of the content and write some of the jokes. This is not ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol.’ These are everyday Americans, which is part of the charm."
And he aped what the producers wanted by telling the audience before each taping that there would be no booing. “It changed the way people perceived it,” he said. “We want everyone to feel like they have a shot to win."
A professional singer with huge range and Broadway credentials, Burgess could sing Lynyrd Skynyrd and opera with equal dexterity. And he opens each episode with a song representing the episode’s theme, be it 1980s, country or movie songs.
Each episode, six contestants — who could be doctors, truck drivers or waiters — are introduced while singing bits of that opening song, be it “I Love Rock and Roll," “All About That Bass” or “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
The players then compete over five songs, which can range from reasonably easy (“Take Me Home, Country Roads”) to deceptively tricky (“Moves Like Jagger”) to obviously difficult (“My Heart Will Go On”). Most songs are broadly familiar made famous by huge artists like Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga and Adele with great sing-along choruses. But the show also landed one weird exception to American ears: during the rock round, the British producers cleared Wheatus' “Teenage Dirtbag,” a minor alternative rock hit in the States two decades ago but huge in Europe. Fortunately, the contestants are given a week to familiarize themselves with the songs so nobody comes in cold.
The “vocal analyzer” provides an average score from 0 to 100 for each singer, giving viewers real-time info as they hit the notes — or not.
Contestants typically score between 55 and 80 with an average of around 70. Only one performer hit 90 over a single song during the first eight episodes while the worst score was 38. The higher the average score as a group, the more money is pocketed. For instance, during a $10,000 round, if the group of six singers averaged a 70, the pool of money grows $7,000.
The top scorer in each round cannot be eliminated. In the first three rounds, each person votes out the others, choosing either a potential foe or someone they feel is dragging the entire score down. It’s not uncommon for the person with the actual lowest score to survive.
Burgess said he has great relative pitch and can usually tell who was the least accurate singer without even looking at the computer scores, but “I had to play dumb.”
And to encourage the “fun” part of karaoke, he at one point each episode offers up a $500 “Tituss” prize for the best performer, regardless of singing skills. And during the final three performances, if a singer holds a particular note well, they pocket an extra $1,000 bonus.
Once in the finals, the person who had the higher score in the previous round gets to pick between two songs, with Burgess providing a snippet in his own voice. The computer decides the winner between the final two. Typically, the eventual victor pockets around $40,000 to $45,000.
"Sing On" contestants during season one on the Netflix show. CR: Netflix
Given the oddities of the way singers are judged, a singer could have a relatively weak voice or strange tone but rack up high scores by successfully aping the original singer’s pitch and timing. Sometimes, they can beat a person with a stronger voice who can’t quite match the original singer as well.
Since its release Sept.16, the show has received decent reviews. Variety’s Caroline Framke calls it "a breezy, engaging distraction.” On imdb.com, 66 people have rated it an average of 6.7 out of 10.
Chris Swan, an Atlanta media producer at Impact Partnership and big karaoke lover, said it’s “a mostly enjoyable show, maybe not necessarily binge-worthy," lauding Burgess' hosting and the band. It is also “slightly bittersweet to see the crowd shots. This was clearly filmed during ‘the before times,’ and it always makes me wonder how long it’ll be before I get another chance to sing together with my friends at a bar.”
Stuart Shawcross and Ashbourne, two British producers for Hello Dolly, came up with the idea after watching a mass karaoke event near Tower Bridge in London with a live band.
“We wanted to capture that energy and atmosphere and make it feel more like a concert" by having the audience join in on the song at certain points, Ashbourne said. They found a university that had an algorithm that matched people’s voices and added a gaming/scoring component on it, which checks accuracy every 46 milliseconds So, if you are even a tenth of a second late coming into a verse, you are penalized.
Ashbourne said when Netflix suggested Burgess as host (he was already on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), the producers were on board immediately. And Burgess himself, who had never before thought of himself as a game show host, leapt at the chance.
“I was sold early on,” said Burgess. “I love singing with a live band. And I was a music major at the University of Georgia. I’m an actor and musician first. But having this as part of my resumé was quite interesting. As people get more creative and content producers come up with different ways to incorporate all parts of me, it makes it easier to decide." (Burgess is in the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” shot in Atlanta and set to be released in theaters in early 2021.)
The producers said Burgess was a great cheerleader for the contestants. “He really got into it,” Asbourne said. “You can see it. When people win, he really feels for them.”
Burgess is a whirlwind on the set, which includes winding staircases and an audience he can interact with. He can also ham it up with the cameras and throw in quick side quips with an arch of an eyebrow and a shoulder shrug.
A little behind-the-scenes secret that isn’t readily apparent: the 48 American contestants and Burgess were flown a year ago to England to shoot the show at a stage which was also used for versions of “Sing On” for other countries such as Germany and Spain. Yup, this is Netflix. They have the money!
About the Author
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years.