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By C. Molly Smith
January 12, 2017 at 10:30 AM EST
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Rev up those vocal engines… Caraoke Showdown is almost here.

The competition program, which debuts Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET on Spike and was shot in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, takes place in and out of a van driven by host Craig Robinson and sees unsuspecting riders participate in karaoke-style challenges, playing for cash as they finish lyrics, act out hits, and so on. It’s a combination of Cash Cab and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! — and was inspired, in part, by a video of a cop singing in the car to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”

“People singing in their cars is really funny,” executive producer Howie Mandel recalls thinking when Brian Veskosky — co-executive producer on Deal or No Deal and executive producer on Caraoke Showdown — came to him with the idea. “All these videos on YouTube of people singing, you can’t judge a book by its cover; [they] knew all the words and all the moves and were the least likely people. I said, ‘There’s a show in this.’”

And it’s a show that Mandel describes as being very much its own thing when asked about similarities to Carpool Karaoke, the popular Late Late Show With James Corden segment. The comedian admittedly is a big fan of that, but he says that while famous faces are to be expected on Caraoke Showdown, the show focuses primarily on the singing of every day people, not celebrities.

Also attractive was the idea of a hidden agenda and hidden camera. “[Riders] think they’re going someplace. Low and behold the first surprise is Craig Robinson and everybody recognizes him, [but] they have no idea,” Mandel says. “It’s very funny because some people take so long to realize they’re on a television show. They go, ‘Oh my god. I know The Office was canceled, but why are you doing this?’”

Once the contestants are in on the game, Mandel’s favorite singers are ones who belt out the tunes of a different generation. “When you see a 60-year-old white woman rapping, or get the lyrics of the rap song, for me that’s exactly the sweet spot of this show, that’s exactly what the show is,” Mandel explains. “It’s so surprising because you’ll find that the 60-year-old woman could be an amazing rapper or know all the inappropriate words. We’re all connected to music, and that’s why this show is fun.”

Still, it is a competition, so what’s the secret to being a good “caraoke” singer? “You’re asking somebody who can’t carry one note; I’ve been asked to leave my own shower,” Mandel jokes. “The thing is for our show, bad is great; bad is even better than good. The added ingredient to a bad [karaoke] singer is somebody who doesn’t know they’re bad. It’s being bad, but thinking you’re great.

“There’s something about seeing somebody who thinks they’re great and is so wrapped up in their moves, voice, and performance that makes it so wonderfully charming that you can’t take your eyes off. That’s why we all remember William Hung from those first years of American Idol. It’s the William Hung effect.”

Adds Robinson, whom Mandel describes as being “funny and personable and witty” with the contestants, “The thing about karaoke is there’s no rules. … I’ve seen some beyond amazing performers do karaoke who should be on stage somewhere, and I’ve seen people who you rather didn’t enter the bar. That’s the beautiful thing about it; it’s for everybody. The thing that makes you a good Caraoke Showdown singer is you gotta have some knowledge of these songs. You gotta be ready to attack. You gotta shut your brain off and just go.”

And what of their own singing? Mandel avoids it, but Robinson embraces it. He has a band, The Nasty Delicious, and a favorite in his personal rotation is the melancholic Johnny Cash hit “Hurt.” “I can bring a crowd down,” he jokes. “There should be a contest for that.” Perhaps that’s a challenge to include on the show.

Caraoke Showdown

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  • In Season

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