We have DWTS casting guru Deena Katz to thank for getting Keeping Up With the Kardashians on the air
Before Keeping Up With the Kardashians ends its extraordinary run on E!, it's time to pay tribute to (or throw mud at, depending on where you stand with Kim & Co.) the person who helped to bring momager and the Sisters K to the masses: the prolific Deena Katz. The head of casting for Dancing With the Stars encouraged the Kardashians to do their own show and even set up their first meeting with Ryan Seacrest, who was then a green-behind-the-ears producer with nary a hit to his name.
The rest, of course, is history. Keeping Up With the Kardashians ended up running for 20 seasons on E!, with the unscripted series wrapping June 10.
"My lawyer still gets mad at me for [not getting a piece of the action]," Katz tells EW, laughing. "He's like, 'Are you kidding me? Why didn't you call?' I said, 'I didn't want to bother you.'"
Let's set the scene: It was in the early 2000s, when Katz became close with matriarch Kris Jenner after casting Caitlyn Jenner on the 2003 season of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Kris would phone Katz to inquire about her spouse's safety on the reality show that dropped C- and D-listers in the middle of nowhere, so the two became fast friends. Katz would end up spending a lot of time at the Kardashian home in Calabasas, Calif.
"Craziness went on in that house," Katz recalls. "You never knew if Kathie Lee Gifford, some rapper, or a basketball player was going to be around. They love having people over, and they literally knew everybody in town. But at the core of it was this family that just loved each other and totally had each other's back. Even if they fought, it wasn't mean-spirited. It came from a place of love."
Katz encouraged the Kardashians to pursue their own show, even though Caitlyn Jenner — whom Kris married in 1991, after divorcing attorney Robert Kardashian — was the only one who was truly famous. Still, she begged Seacrest to meet with the clan. "It took a little cajoling because once again, people didn't really know the girls," Katz recalls. "But this was a TV show. They had to do this."
To help make the sale, Seacrest sent a crew to the Kardashian house to film a sizzle reel. "They edited together maybe seven or eight minutes from the barbecue — nothing more than that — and they showed it to my staff," Ted Harbert, the former E! president and Comcast Entertainment Group CEO, told Los Angeles Magazine recently. "Nobody liked it. They said, 'They don't do anything. They're not stars. They've got no skills.' They turned it down. But then Ryan called me and very politely asked me to take a look, and he sent over a tape or DVD — whatever it was back then — and I watched at home. The next morning, I told my staff that I thought it was a hit and we're putting the show on the air."
Harbert added, "Nothing like the Kardashians had been on TV before. You'd watch the show, and you'd be like, 'Oh my God, look at the way they're swearing at their mother! Look at the way they're swearing at each other!' And then one sister would be waxing the other sister's ass. And she'd be on all fours! Everything about the show was new and surprising. And that's the No. 1 rule in television. You have to surprise. You have to give the viewers something they haven't seen before."
Katz was never asked to join Keeping Up With the Kardashians as a producer — though she never pushed for it, either. She started working for Dancing With the Stars a year before KUWTK debuted on E! in 2007. But there were never hard feelings: Katz ended up casting Kim Kardashian and her brother Rob on future seasons of DWTS, and she remains close to Kris Jenner, who has credited Katz in the past for suggesting the show. Granted, her gratitude never came with a Birkin bag stuffed with cash, but things still turned out okay for Katz. Besides DWTS, she's a co-executive producer on The Masked Singer, a consulting producer on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and a producer on Celebrity Wheel of Fortune.
She even had a cameo or two on KUWTK in the early days. "It was weird," she recalls. "They would like do things and talk about Deena Katz. I remember there was some scene with Kim talking about how she was late because Deena Katz set up some casting thing or whatever. And then I remember being in it, too. There was a scene at some restaurant in Calabasas where we were having dinner. I was shocked it became a hit."