'We're not looking to make anyone feel bad or cry,' says Johnny Iuzzini of 'The Great Holiday Baking Show'

Credit: Michael Bourdillon/ABC

The Great British Bake Off is a hit, both in its native U.K. and abroad. Known in the U.S. as The Great British Baking Show, the cooking-competition series, which now airs on PBS (season 1 is available on Netflix), has wooed Americans largely for being what so much of American reality TV isn’t: nice. Bake Off is defined by its endearingly earnest contestants devoted to their craft, judges and hosts who are both clever and genuinely respectful of the bakers, and an overall sense of pleasantness. Hell’s Kitchen it isn’t.

But can nice TV find real footing in America? ABC is hoping so: On Monday, the network will debut its spin-off, The Great Holiday Baking Show. From the same team behind the British original, Holiday will run as a four-episode limited series with hosts Nia Varlados (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and Ian Gomez (Cougar Town). To help its odds, the show also brings over the popular and always-wry star of the British version, Mary Berry, who will be a co-judge alongside award-winning American pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini.

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Consider it a toe in the water for ABC, as the network hasn’t committed to more than this mini-season. Some of the hesitation probably has to do with the fact that CBS actually did adapt the show a couple years ago in the form of The Great American Baking Competition with little success. Can it catch on this time around? We talked to Iuzzini about why he thinks the country is finally ready for a friendlier reality TV experience.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did you get involved with this project? Were you a fan of The Great British Baking Show?

JOHNNY IUZZINI: Definitely — as a pastry chef, I was a big fan of the show. You know, TV has taken a crazy turn, especially in the industry of food, where everything is either a competition show or a sort of reality show. We’ve lost the kind of shows that are, like, here’s how you do this, like the old Julia Child shows. Or I used to like Frugal Gourmet growing up, which involved a lot of learning. So in that spirit, [Holiday Baking Show] is one of those shows that really keep things lighthearted. People are baking for their families.

And the way we judge — we’re not out there to zing them. We’re not out there to cause drama between the competitors. It’s a really lighthearted, heartwarming kind of show. We’re always going to find the good in things. We take into consideration that they aren’t professionals, but they’re already so talented, such great bakers.

It’s all about this warm, fuzzy, family-oriented baking show competition. Even though it’s a competition, it’s not an American competition show where the talons come out and there’s crap-talking and stuff. To be a part of this and to do it the way they properly do it in England, it’s such a great experience for me.

So it sounds like this show will follow the British version in that friendliness wins out over what most Americans are used to, which is a sort of Gordon Ramsay-influenced meanness.

Exactly. It’s almost the same show as they do in England. You know, when they did it here a couple years ago [on CBS], they changed the format a little bit — they were thinking they might need to Americanize it a little bit. But when it came to ABC, they realized that the British did it right the first time. Why change something that works so well?

That’s not to discredit CBS or anyone else. That’s not my game. But it’s more, like, to go and do it again now with the actual crew that shoots the British one … I mean, in the U.K., it’s huge. The show outscored World Cup on a day! People throw parties every week and get together around a TV to watch. It’s crazy how much of a following it now has.

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Do you see that happening here? Will Americans get behind a nice reality show?

Well, this is starting out as only a four-part special, so they’ll get a taste of it. But the fact that PBS is now showing the real show in its entirety, I think people’s eyes are opening as they get familiar with it. The hard thing the first time around [on CBS] was that we didn’t know what it was. But now they see the original one, and it fuels their interest. I know the ratings grew on PBS for that show.

We’re out there to preserve what was good [about the original], not change it. There’s a reason why it’s so strong in the U.K. and syndicated in so many countries. It’s a lighthearted and giving show, versus what we as Americans perceive as a competition show. Again, we’re not looking to make anybody feel bad or to cry. That’s now what this is about.

One big difference from the first American adaptation is that this one will have arguably the star of the British version — Mary Berry, a.k.a. the “Royal Queen of Baking.” How was it working with her?

I was super excited to meet Mary. I’ve known about Mary for a long time and have a tremendous respect for her and what she’s achieved. Some people don’t realize she’s already written 80 cookbooks! Her and her team. So the day I met her, I went to her home, and she’d baked a cake for our meeting. And I’ll never forget it — it was called a Victoria sponge cake. It was so simple and so delicious.

That’s how we got to know each other, and immediately I was just glued to her. We had such a fun time because we’re so different in our skillsets and our training. We had a great time, and she even had a nickname for me. She’d call me “Cheeky Naughty Monkey.” I actually recorded it into my phone so that anytime anyone from the show calls me, the ringer is her voice saying “Cheeky Naughty Monkey.” [Laughs]

But we both share a love for food and a love for people who bake. And we’re both like-minded in that while we’re here to judge, we always want to leave people feeling good about themselves at every chance. We don’t ever want anyone to walk away feeling bad about themselves about some mistake they made. If anything, we want them to learn and get better.

One of the interesting things about the British version, for Americans, is to see different kinds of baked goods that aren’t as popular here. What kinds of challenges will this show have?

If you think about what home bakers specialize in, you’re going to see cookies, cakes, pies. This is geared toward the holiday season, so we’re talking about anything that would spring up during the holidays. But if also have to test them beyond their comfort zone, so we’re going to delve into stuff that maybe you’d see in a professional pastry shop or bakery. We’re going to test their depth of knowledge and technique and see how well they can follow a recipe that isn’t their own, or a recipe where maybe we left some of the instructions out. So it’s a test of how well you can think on your feet.

I just wish we’d done more episodes. Hopefully four is enough to make people fall in love with it, and we go forward.

Is there a plan in place for a full, non-holiday season of the show?

As of now, it all depends on how it does. There’s nothing scheduled or planned going forward. It is what it is, and we’re going to see how receptive the American TV public is.

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