Once upon a time he played before cheering crowds as frontman of the punk-metal band Sugar Ray, but now Mark McGrath is appearing in front of a much smaller crowd — and he’s not the one doing the singing — as the host of the second season of truTV’s “Killer Karaoke.”
Premiering Thursday, Feb. 20, the eight episodes of “Killer Karaoke” feature contestants being put through outrageous trials — during shooting, one of them crashes right through a bookcase but lives to tell the tale — while singing karaoke.
Designed to tap into contestants’ deepest fears, the challenges range from the ridiculous (being assaulted by giant bears) to the gross (dead fish), but the final winner who can keep singing and stay true to the lyrics takes home a $10,000 prize.
“It’s been such a trip,” says McGrath to Zap2it while grabbing a break backstage during filming in October. “I didn’t get together with my band in my mom’s garage to set out to be a host.”
But that’s just what he’s evolved into. Starting with a four-year gig as a correspondent on the entertainment-news show “Extra,” and then moving on a hosting gig on VH1’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” McGrath has been a work in progress.
“When I got the gig,” he says, “because I certainly didn’t deserve it, I felt really awkward in that. I was learning in front of America. But people were coming up to me, ‘How do I become a host?’ They’re really obsessed by getting that gig, and ‘Extra’ was the Holy Grail of entertainment-news gigs. I didn’t really know. I found out later.”
Asked what he learned from “Extra,” McGrath says, “I learned how to be a host. I’m hosting ‘Killer Karaoke,’ and I hosted ‘Don’t Forget the Lyrics,’ and you may laugh at that. But there’s a certain kind of gatekeeper mentality you have to have to keep things moving along. Timing is important.
“You’re always up; it’s always the greatest thing you’ve ever done. There’s that element to it. I come from the stage — and when I say ‘stage,’ I mean rock ‘n’ roll stage — I’m trying to get to the last row, so it’s big, grand gestures.
“Whereas, TV’s subtle. It took me a lot to learn how to get into that mode, because I’m kind of a spaz. It took me a long time, watching some of the great hosts. Ryan Seacrest is an incredible host. I don’t care what you feel about the guy, the guy’s one of the best hosts.
“I’ve watched guys like Steve Harvey, who I admire as a host. I just feel comfortable watching that guy. I hope I’ll get to that place soon. Look, I’m learning from America.”
There have been scary moments along the way.
“I remember,” says McGrath, “being in a 7/11 six months into my tenure on ‘Extra.’ This guy with a neck tattoo walks up, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to get my butt kicked.’ And he goes, ‘Hey, dude, you sucked when you started, but you’re getting better. Keep it up.'”
When it’s pointed out that McGrath has more than a few tattoos himself, he laughs and says, “It was a neck tattoo. It wasn’t like a Yosemite Sam tattoo. It was like an ‘I’ve been in prison’-type neck tattoo.”
And there were disheartening moments.
“[I had to ask] Al Pacino what he thinks about Britney [Spears] and Kevin [Federline] breaking up,” McGrath says. “That’s not where I want to be. I had to do it. ‘It’s an entertainment-news show. We’re ‘Extra,’ so I have to ask you.’ I led with that, then, ‘Kevin and Britney broke up, do you have any thoughts or any advice?’
“Pacino said” — here McGrath switches to a pretty good Pacino impression — “‘You’re better than that,’ and walked away. A little bit of me died that day.
“And I find myself here at ‘Killer Karaoke.’ This is where I want to be. People singing, having fun, going through all these insane challenges, all for the chance to win a couple bucks. It’s all good.”