ABC's new celebrity diving competition show "Splash" lines up the usual suspects for such a reality series — actors, actresses, pro athletes, a beauty queen and even a Playboy model.
And then there's Louie Anderson. The 59-year-old, 400-plus-pound comedian may not be the favorite to win, but his very presence may help determine how big a splash the show, which premieres Tuesday, will eventually make.
"I didn't look at this as a show that's going to make fun of me even though some people probably do when they hear about it," Anderson said on a recent morning while practicing at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena. "But they'll be surprised that it won't be what they think it's going to be.... Is it more impressive to see someone who's fit dive off a 5-meter or someone who's fat?"
ABC's diving with stars series follows a similar reality program that Fox rushed to air this year called "Stars in Danger: The High Dive," which belly flopped in the ratings. Yet the celebrity diving format has been successful in Europe. In the Netherlands, fans flocked to "Sterren Springen" ("Celebrities Jump"), and a British diving show has also been a hit.
Anderson will be joined for eight weeks on diving board's edge by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drake Bell, Kendra Wilkinson, Rory Bushfield, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Ndamukong Suh, Katherine Webb, Brandi Chastain and Nicole Eggert. ("Chelsea Lately" sidekick Chuy Bravo had to drop out of the show after fracturing his heel during practice.)
"In reality competition shows, it's all about the characters and the cast," says Scott Sternberg, a TV producer whose credits include "On the Case With Paula Zahn" and "Nuclear Nightmare: Japan in Crisis." "It's not just jumping off a board into a pool; it's all the drama and conflict and life situations these people are going through."
The comedian's psychological experience with water is nothing if not dramatic. He's had a lifelong fear of water brought on, he maintains, by his mother, who was sure he or one off his siblings would drown in a lake in Minnesota, where they grew up. Perhaps it's that fear that fuels one of his recurring nightmares: being trapped under ice and drowning.
Anderson already had a close call during the first week of practice for "Splash." He dived in and became disoriented underwater.
"I had no idea if I was going up or down, but I was going down," he said.
He got some water in his mouth and started to cough. The next thing he knew, he was flailing in the pool and unable to get out until Suh — a defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions — and diving mentor Greg Louganis came to pull him out.
"It traumatized me a little bit," Anderson said. "But I got right back in the pool."
To tackle that fear head-on?
"No, they made me."
Anderson's coach, two-time Olympic diver Wendy Lerew, has been impressed with his dedication, although she admits she's had to tone down her coaching style with celebrities. "From where he's come and his individual case, I would say he's progressed the most [of the celebrities in the cast]."
The comedian likens the diving to stand-up.
"You can't go back once you're up there," he said. "There's only a shame walk. I gotta dive into the audience or dive into the pool."
Despite obvious barriers, Anderson thinks he has a shot at winning the contest. But even if he doesn't take the trophy, he thinks showing up to take the plunge has already done him good.
"Even if I don't go far in the competition, I'm not done being healthy now," he said. "I've got my stake in the ground, and I'm not going to fall back now and disappoint my family and friends and those who love me."
He stopped to look out at the water. "Sounds like a good speech, right? Are you hungry, because that made me so starving."