Nick Cannon has a shocking idea. It consists of an electric chair and quick thinking. It’s pretty simple: you’re strapped in the chair, showcasing your best freestyling skills, but if you hesitate you get zapped. Nothing major besides an intensified static shock, right? Although Cannon thought it would be a hit with viewers, his Wild ‘N Out castmates weren’t on the same wavelength. Back to the blank slate they went.
From the producers to the cast, Wild ‘N Out’s collective input aids in its staying power. MTV’s 15-year-old improv comedy show, which films at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, enters its new season on April 21. Its first episode featured a blend of new school and old school entertainers, a theme that’ll be amplified this coming season. Actor/comedian Orlando Jones, rapper Cassidy, and legendary hip-hop figure Biz Markie were the names etched on the Hollywood premiere’s bill. As some celebrities who took the stage throughout the seasons continued to get bigger, a few cast members eventually established their own fame: Kevin Hart, Randall Park, Nyima Funk, Affion Crocket, DeRay Davis, and Saturday Night Live’s Mikey Day to name a few.
At 22, that was Cannon’s vision: create a platform that offers his friends jobs, but also sets the stage for their respective careers. In 2003, he gathered his fellow comedians—and his own funds—to shoot a pilot episode for MTV. It didn’t take long for the network to give Cannon’s “baby” the green light. In a past statement promoting the news of Wild ‘N Out’s creation, executive Tony DiSanto (the senior vice president of production development and animation for MTV at that time) said as the Nickelodeon audience matured, so did Cannon. “With Wild ‘N Out, they’ll get to see a whole new side of Nick as he flexes his improv and sketch comedy skills alongside this great cast he helped assemble,” DiSanto said. “We’re thrilled to be in business with Nick, and to bring our viewers comedy and hip-hop in a fresh way.”
Since he was a teen, Cannon has been a cornerstone of Viacom (owner of VH1, Nickelodeon, BET, CBS, and other cable networks). At 17, the San Diego native became the youngest staff writer in television history as a writer for Nickelodeon’s iconic sketch comedy show All That, and later his self-titled television series. Kneading his “college years” within Viacom’s lattice, Cannon briefly hosted Total Request Live (TRL) on MTV in 2003. His Viacom reign continued to elevate. In 2009, he became TeenNick’s chairman and created fresh programming for its youthful audience, which included a sketch comedy show named Incredible Crew (Mikey Day was also one of the show’s writers). Experience in front of the camera to working behind-the-scenes at a senior level helped Cannon take Wild ‘N Out from a pilot episode to a national brand.
“I always knew how to operate from a business aspect and seeing an idea start from its conception to its fruition. Now, with having this almost half a billion-dollar brand that I built, I get the concept of being able to get as much out of the brand as possible but still staying true to it without over-exploiting it,” Cannon says in an interview with VIBE. “I think that’s what we’ve done extremely well with Wild ‘N Out from the careers that it’s helped birth to the marketing to the branding from everything that we do with the tours, the restaurants, barbershops, we’re doing so many things with the brand. It’s because I had the opportunity of seeing how one of the biggest brands with Nickelodeon or Viacom operated.” Witnessing how shows like “Spongebob, The Rugrats, or The Ninja Turtles” churned out movies and accessories encouraged the Howard University student to operate Wild ‘N Out with a similar mindset. The show was an immediate hit with viewers, but after airing nearly 50 episodes, life off-stage began to take form.
The show went off-air after four consecutive seasons from 2005-2007. MTV wanted to do more with the show despite its growing costs, but Cannon opted to focus on his marriage after tying the knot in 2008 to world-renowned artist Mariah Carey. “My focus went in a different direction,” he says, adding that he also wanted to start a family. ”As much as I loved the show, I felt I needed at least a moment to step away to re-evaluate what I really wanted to do. Once I did, I said, ‘Alright, I’m back at it. Let’s keep it rocking.’”
WNO returned to the small screen in 2013, but on MTV2 for seasons 5-8. Formed in 1996, MTV2 was known for its music video-centered programming like Sucker Free Sunday, Chart2Chart, and MTV2 Rock. Although the channel trekked into original programming by airing shows that initially premiered on MTV, it wasn’t until 2011 when the network caught audience attention with Guy Code. A year later, the sports-focused X Games debuted in March, three months before Hip-Hop Squares entered the roster. For WNO, 2013 was a historic return; it became MTV2’s highest-rated telecast when season 5’s first episode garnered 1.1 million viewers. Cannon says the show also aired a few episodes on BET and Comedy Central, proving that his creation could thrive on multiple platforms. “It’s probably the only show that can air across four or five of Viacom’s networks and still be a huge digital brand that hits the top numbers on Instagram and YouTube and all of those places,” Cannon says. “It’s just one of those things that works everywhere.” WNO’s social media presence has garnered over 18.4 million followers across its accounts. It’s also responsible for 44 percent of views on MTV’s YouTube channel and accounts for “10 percent of MTV’s revenue,” Cannon says.
In season 5, the teams changed colors from the red squad to platinum but kept the black squad until it changed to gold for season 8. Cannon shares the color schemes are a part of branding, revealing this new season will usher in “neon and hyper colors” to bring more energy to the show. Introducing games like “In The Classroom” or “Got Damned” continues to boost the “lightning improv” skills the cast own, but one thing that remained consistent throughout the seasons is Wildstyle. Cannon says its concept primarily inspired the show, reminiscing on his days at the comedy clubs backstage with his friends, freestyling and taking comedic jabs at each other. Incorporating the battle rap aspect of the show was a no-brainer, enlisting those from the community like Charlie Clips, Hitman Holla, Conceited, and more.
“I became a big fan of watching those different battles and I was like once we bring the show back we have to bring those types of cats onto the show along with the comedians that were already there,” Cannon says. “But one of the prerequisites for being on the show when I created it was being able to freestyle and know how to battle. Obviously the art form shifted and changed over the years so it was only right that those guys like the Conceiteds, the Charlie Clips, and the Hitman Hollas would thrive in this environment because they had been doing it on their own.”
Through workshops, the cast form “synergistic chemistry” before hitting the mainstage as a method of blending the battle rappers with the comedians. Making sure there’s a balance of male and female representation is also a goal, name-dropping the OGs like Nyima Funk to B. Simone, Jess Hilarious, and Pretty Vee. However, Cannon states that when it comes to casting, he doesn’t look at gender in terms of “‘Oh, we need this,’ or ‘We need that.’ Whoever is the most talented and funniest those are the people that I want.”
Developing a thick skin is also ideal, even for the host himself. In the beginning, jokes about his career or relationship with Carey garnered slap-knee reactions from the audience, but Cannon believes it’s been overdone at this point. “I know it’s a joke but it’s over 10 years since I was married to Mariah Carey (Laughs). You’re kind of just showing your weakness by even bringing that up,” he says. “The only people who even really say stuff about Mariah are probably people who come on the show and think that’s going to hit. It doesn’t hit anymore and you kind of feel bad for them (Laughs).”
It’s probably the only show that can air across four or five of Viacom’s networks and still be a huge digital brand that hits the top numbers on Instagram and YouTube.
Although you’ll probably hear crickets if you still decide to mention Cannon’s previous marriage or music, he says no joke is off-limits, adding that WNO gets away with a lot of controversial jabs because of its diverse cast. “I always tell people Wild ‘N Out is probably the most progressive show on television and it’s probably the only place that’s left where comedians can come and speak their mind and not have to worry about cancel culture or people getting offended,” he says. “The one reason is because we actually offer a platform where everyone is welcomed. It’s the only place where you’ll actually see someone who is homophobic battle rap someone from the transgender community and at the end of the day they hug it out.”
While the cast operates under the premise of having fun, lines have unexpectedly been crossed. During an August 2018 taping of Azealia Banks’ episode, a back-and-forth between the rapper and comedian DC YoungFly took place that unraveled from the show’s studio to social media. Cannon adds that there was a prior discussion to ensure if anything shouldn’t be said, to which Cannon says Banks had no issues, but as the cameras were rolling and jabs were flying, things took a turn. “She did the entire episode and we talked afterwards and she was cool, and then the next day I think that’s when she put the battery in her back and was talking about her experience,” Cannon says. “We let it be known what really happened and the world saw it for what it was. I would welcome her back and I got nothing but respect for her.”
A few artists have returned like Chance the Rapper, Rick Ross, and Snoop Dogg, a feat Cannon says adds to the show’s biggest moments. “This is a show where people get the opportunity to show that they have a great sense of humor and they don’t take things too seriously,” Cannon says. One episode that shocked the businessman was Chrissy Teigen’s. “She came to wild out for real,” he says. “I remember in the Wildstyle battle where Karlous Miller picked her up and said he and her were going to do some things backstage and he didn’t care what John Legend said. That was pretty out of pocket (Laughs).”
Outside of WNO, which has already been renewed for season 16, Cannon is working on his upcoming daytime talk show premiering this September, continuing his hosting duties on The Masked Singer, and producing a documentary on herbalist Dr. Sebi. For the latter, Cannon says he’s picking up where the late Nipsey Hussle left off.
“That was Nip’s sentiments and that’s what I’m going to see through, that we have to be curators and the narrators of our own stories and control our narratives in a way where we’re the ones telling the story and we don’t allow the system to tell our story.” When asked if all aspects of Dr. Sebi’s practices and beliefs will be analyzed, given investigative reports, Cannon states both sides will be represented. “That’s where I try to bring it back home to where ‘Yeah we’re going to talk about everything because we have to. We have to talk about people who believe and people who don’t believe.’ We talked to people who believe it’s possible and we talked to people who believe that it’s not possible,” he says. “It’s in that scenario where I encourage people to think for themselves and don’t take anything for face value. You have to understand to dig deep, do the research on your own. That’s why this process has become this process for me because I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, somebody just told me this’ and I’m going to believe it. I’m going to go research for myself and we lay it all the way out there in a very investigative way.”
Citing inspiration from legend Quincy Jones, who tapped into all forms of entertainment, Cannon wants to establish Wild ‘N Out Films, another piece in cementing the show’s legacy as a fortified brand from apparel to restaurants in Miami and Hollywood, with Las Vegas being the next destination. It’s safe to say Cannon’s baby is in good hands.
“I think a lot of that stuff is going to branch off in a big way to where the brand actually truly matters for generations,” Cannon says. “We’re trying to take it all over the world. We’re starting here but the brand can go as far as we can take it.”
The new season of ‘Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ‘N Out’ premieres Tuesday, April 21 at 8 PM ET/PT on VH1.