When MTV's ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’ Ruled the Ring
By Jake Rossen
“Last season, we had Roseanne Barr fight Kelsey Grammer, and she swallowed him whole,” Eric Fogel explained to The Washington Post in 1999. “We got to see what it would look like inside Roseanne’s stomach. It's not something you would see on prime-time television.”
Except actually, it was. Fogel’s Celebrity Deathmatch, which first aired on MTV from 1998 to 2002, was a cavalcade of fictitious (and violent) encounters between famous people, all of it rendered in stop-motion animation. Madonna was pitted against Michael Jackson; Gene Siskel assaulted Roger Ebert; Hillary Clinton confronted Monica Lewinsky. It was part Jerry Springer, part WWE, and part Gumby, all rolled into one.
A New York University graduate, Fogel sent his animation reel to MTV in the early 1990s. In 1994, he created The Head, a trippy cartoon about a man who discovers an alien is living inside his brain. Both the series and Fogel were perfect for MTV’s irreverent programming approach at the time. When they weren’t airing music videos, they were taking chances on borderline avant-garde animated projects like The Maxx and Aeon Flux.
The Head ran for two seasons before it was canceled. Then, Fogel had another idea. Professional wrestling was experiencing a resurgence of popularity thanks to the Monday Night Wars, an ongoing competition between two then-rival promotions, WWE and WCW. Every so often, promoters would entice a mainstream celebrity like Mike Tyson or Lawrence Taylor between the ropes. What if, Fogel thought, he could create a stop-motion wrestling league with nothing but celebrities?
Fogel pitched the idea to MTV, which took roughly a year to commit. In the interim, Fogel developed art, storyboards, clay models, and potential match-ups. A supporter of Vogel’s at MTV kept pushing for the show. Finally, when it looked like the network’s hit Beavis and Butt-Head was close to wrapping up and about to leave an animation void, they gave it the go-ahead.
With fellow animator Greg Pair, Fogel set about getting the animation finished for the inaugural bouts, including Howard Stern against Kathie Lee Gifford and Charles Manson taking on Marilyn Manson. According to Fogel, the characters were actually foam latex poseable puppets that gave them problems. Their arms, Fogel said, were like that of a “gorilla” and abnormally long. Still, the pair made it work.
Fogel debuted the first contest between Manson and Manson on the network’s Cartoon Sushi variety series in 1997. The network then ordered a Celebrity Deathmatch halftime show for Super Bowl XXXII in 1998, which featured the boy band Hanson in mortal combat with the Spice Girls. (In the end, a lighting fixture falls from the rafters and squashes all of them.) Fogel considered it difficult—animating eight puppets plus supporting characters in a short span of time was grueling—but the effort was worthwhile: It became one of the network’s highest-rated specials and convinced MTV to order a full season.
Bouts contested on Celebrity Deathmatch were usually bloody and didn’t exactly follow conventional prizefighting rules. Michael Jackson winds up in a vat of acid; Donny Osmond’s gleaming white teeth blinds sister Marie Osmond; Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell team up to tear Jerry Springer’s limbs clean off. Real-life boxing referee Mills Lane appeared in clay form to try and officiate, though little was against the rules.
Despite the difficult process of posing clay molds frame by frame, Celebrity Deathmatch had an expedited production process. Each episode usually featured three bouts: Fogel could have two episodes in production at once. Because the production was housed under one roof in MTV’s New York office, writers and animators could collaborate instantly. To find celebrity impersonators, Fogel would accept audio submissions.
Because the show was clearly parody, permission from contestants wasn’t required. Sometimes, Fogel would hear about someone being less than pleased: Jennifer Lopez was unhappy with the actor chosen to voice her. The lone veto came from Paramount, which at the time was under the umbrella of MTV’s parent company Viacom. The studio didn’t want Deathmatch to pit Star Trek captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard against one another.
And while not all of them may have enjoyed being disemboweled, some celebrities had a sense of humor about it. Whoopi Goldberg, who was depicted in a three-way match with Comic Relief partners Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, wrote Fogel to say how much she enjoyed the segment and sent him a dozen roses.
Celebrity Deathmatch initially ran for four seasons and was later resurrected in 2006 for two more on MTV’s sister network MTV2, though Fogel wasn’t involved. Other attempts at rebooting the popular series have been discussed (most recently in 2018, when Fogel was set to team up with Ice Cube), but have yet to pan out.