Not every idea has to be smart to make it on TV. Sometimes stupid works, too.
At the end of busy days in his New York production office, Tad Low will sometimes crank the music loud for his staff to take a dance break. One day someone observed, "How hilarious would this be if we did this in the nude?"
From that offhand remark came "Pants-Off Dance-Off," which has quickly become the Fuse network's most popular series ever. No more complicated than its title, the competition features people dancing in front of a screen playing their favorite music video, while slowly shedding clothes.
"Why hasn't anybody put naked people and rock music together on television before?" said Low, who created the "Pop-Up Videos" series for VH1. "It seems so obvious, like peanut butter and jelly."
Five dancers are featured in each show, from Tuesday through Friday at 10 p.m., and viewers vote online for each night's favorite. Those choices then compete in Saturday's "dance-off." The series is in repeats now until the second season starts Sept. 26.
Once Low came up with the idea, he persuaded his girlfriend's friend to dance in front of a screen in his office so he could film a pilot episode.
"I was thinking, `What is happening here? What has gone on with my life that I'm sitting here behind a camera directing a woman to remove her clothes?' But when I put it together in the edit room, it was one of those moments where you say, `This is so funny and mesmerizing.'"
Don't expect models or strip club refugees. Low purposely sought ordinary folks, men and women, as a way of striking out against airbrushed culture. The models have included a 58-year-old retired male teacher and a woman dressed in a clown suit.
Pop-up factoids appear on the screen during the dance ("As a child, Masta Wong wanted to be a subway conductor") along with comments from host Jodie Sweetin.
Catherine Mullen, Fuse's new general manager, recalled finding the pilot originally titled "Dance Without Pants" hilarious, but admitted to many doubts about how it should be done.
"We didn't want it to be predictable," she said. "We didn't want to make it salacious. We didn't want it to be `College Girls Gone Wild.' We wanted to make it like `The Gong Show.'"
After she saw the pilot in February, the show debuted on Fuse in April — a ridiculously short period of time in television. It has given the 3-year-old network a buzzworthy program, something it has lacked in trying to emerge from the large shadow of MTV and its siblings.
Fuse doesn't pretend "Pants-Off Dance-Off" is anything more than it is. After TV Guide called it the "dumbest show on television," Fuse proudly trumpeted that quote in the headline of a news release.
The "pants-off" part of the show is a bit of a tease. When the clothes are finally off, Fuse covers up the bodies with an electronic version of a towel. Viewers who want to see more are directed to the network's Web site, where breasts and genitalia are pixelated.
The conservative approach has annoyed some fans, and Low wishes Fuse would do a late-night version of "Pants-Off Dance-Off" that would show some of what is seen online. Mullen said it was part of Fuse's strategy to have different content available on different platforms, like online and on cell phones.
Howard Wong, a 33-year-old computer worker from New York City, saw an item in a nudist's magazine about the show. He had piled up some $200 in parking tickets, so the opportunity to earn $200 to dance for an obscure TV network appealed to him.
"I didn't know what to say or what to do," he said. "I just went with it. It was a total adrenaline rush. I knew I had made a total fool of myself. The whole thing was absurd, but I think the creator of the show knew that."
Maybe it was his androgynous dance style, or the washboard abdominals, but Wong _ who uses the name Masta Wong _ became a three-time champion.
Wong briefly worked in California as a photographer shooting pornographic videos. Now he's occasionally getting recognized on the street for his time spent stripping in front of the camera.
"I'm not going to lie," he said. "It is kind of cool."
For Low, "Pants-Off Dance-Off" completes an odd trilogy of programming about music videos. After "Pop-Up Videos," which became popular for its image-busting snarkiness, he created "Video IQ" for Fuse. On that show, viewers were invited to solve puzzles inserted into the promo clips.
"I don't know what that says about the culture at large," he said. "But we've certainly made it easier to watch. Less reading."
It's his belief with "Pants-Off Dance-Off" that ordinary people can be more interesting to watch than the Paris Hiltons and Lindsey Lohans of the world.
"Who hasn't danced around in their underwear to their favorite song?" he said. "It's one of life's moments of unbridled enthusiasm, and the notion of this show is to make that contagious."