Arnold Schwarzenegger decks Sylvester Stallone in Celebrity Deathmatch | Photo: Courtesy of MTV
‘It was like Christmas seeing what the hell was going on in these rooms’
In the third episode of Celebrity Deathmatch’s second season, Calista Flockhart slams Lucy Lawless’ head into a copy machine, wraps a telephone cord around her neck, and then bounces off the ropes to deliver a gut-wrenching blow. But right before impact, Lawless bends at the waist and absorbs Flockhart’s literal head of steam right up her ass. In what color commentator Nick Diamond describes as a “devastating rectal clutch,” the deemed-legal move changes the course of the match, and the Xena actress quickly drags Flockhart’s squirming, headless body up to the top rope to slam her way to victory.
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Although there had been plenty of comically repulsive beatings throughout the show’s first season, creator Eric Fogel had never tried something this … intimate, and assumed MTV would take the move off the air. But to his surprise, the network’s Standards and Practices division approved the segment, suggesting to Fogel and his small team of animators and writers that hardly anything was off-limits in their clay-model world. “There was something funny about over-the-top violence,” Fogel tells Technovanguard. “I think we were always game to push the envelope and get a reaction from fans. […] I said to myself, ‘If we can get this stuff by, let’s keep pushing it.’”
With each successive versus-driven episode during its original, four-season run from 1998–2002 (and four years later, on its two-season MTV2 reboot), Celebrity Deathmatch did exactly that. Unbound by the laws of physics but tethered closely to tabloid grudges, the stop-motion series was based on a simple, effective premise: “Two celebrities meet in a boxing ring and beat the living shit out of each other.” At least, that’s how Fogel, then a 27-year-old TV animator, pitched his ultraviolent vision to network head Abby Terkuhle. “I went in there with some actual clay puppets and I sort of gave the basic idea,” he says. “It took a while for it to resonate with him until it finally clicked and he sort of realized there was something there.”
Starting with a three-minute proof-of-concept fight between Charles Manson and Marilyn Manson that would air on Cartoon Sushi (an adult-animation showcase anthology), Fogel mined the exaggerated violence of Tom & Jerry and the grounded gruesomeness of Mike Tyson’s then-recent ear-biting spectacle. In the same vein as an HBO Boxing pay-per-view (which included two ringside broadcasters and real referee Mills Lane), Fogel pitted feuding musicians (“James Hetfield vs. Fred Durst”), prestigious filmmakers (“Spike Lee vs. Quentin Tarantino”), and popular boy bands (“The Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC”) against each other, turning beloved and polarizing celebrities into blood-soaked killing machines. “I was always fascinated with the idea of celebrity and pop culture, and what makes a celebrity,” Fogel says. “I felt like you could get a lot of comedy out of combining some sort of violent event with a stop-motion look to it, and package it in a way that would appeal to a more adult audience.”
In a pre-internet world, Fogel and his handful of writers mostly relied on newsstand magazines and Entertainment Tonight to determine timely matchups and design relevant sight gags. After leaning into the absurdity of opponents with similar last names (“Jim Carrey vs. Mariah Carey,” for example), they expanded to include celebrities with public beefs who might be eager to tear another’s limbs apart. “It was about finding celebrities that had some angle that we could explore — what would make them interesting in the ring?” Fogel says. “So much about the fights was about really figuring out the minutiae of what would happen from moment to moment in the fight itself.”
Image: Courtesy of MTV Robert De Niro prepares to kick Al Pacino
Building out these fights was tedious and time-consuming, of course. Working inside MTV’s Manhattan offices, Fogel’s animation team built and painted foam-latex bodies with resin heads, moving arms and legs in small increments against the backdrops of a dozen small stages. On average, animators collected around 10 seconds of footage per day — one group might focus on the broadcasters while another simultaneously perfected a kick to the groin — to complete one Deathmatch in two or three weeks. “When someone was working on a particularly gruesome shot, we would all kind of gather into that set to see what was happening,” Fogel says. “By the end of the day, you could make the rounds and it was like Christmas seeing what the hell was going on in these rooms.”
Over the course of its 75 episodes, Celebrity Deathmatch gained a worldwide audience and Entertainment Weekly dubbed Fogel one of the most creative people in television. Beyond its unsightly gags, the series offered sharp cultural criticism and witty takedowns, capturing the ludicrous nature of celebrity disputes. Still, the most enticing element was waiting to see which celebrity would finish the match victorious — something the best episodes made nearly impossible to predict. “Sometimes it was a popularity contest; sometimes we wanted to go for the shock value and just pivot and do something totally unexpected,” Fogel says of choosing a winner. “It just sort of depended on what we thought was going to be fun, funny, and surprising.”
Though MTV announced it was reviving the show with producer Ice Cube in 2018, Fogel says the network, despite its interest, has currently “put a pin” in production. To fill the void, here’s a look back at some of the best Celebrity Deathmatch showdowns — featuring feuding musicians, iconic cartoons and plenty of blood and guts — with commentary and analysis from Fogel himself. Good fight, good night!
“The Spice Girls vs. Hanson” (winner: Marilyn Manson)
The unofficial Celebrity Deathmatch pilot, this matchup filled out MTV’s alternate Super Bowl halftime show programming. “They said they wanted the two biggest names in pop music right now, which was Hanson and the Spice Girls. That ends up being eight characters in the ring,” Fogel laughs. “It was just me and my coworker Greg Pair animating almost around the clock for three weeks straight to get this thing finished.”
Understandably, the animation here isn’t as crisp as it is in future seasons, but it still boasts a devastating body blow and shocking finale. At one point, two Hanson brothers split Sporty Spice apart at the torso, which doesn’t seem to faze her. Moments later, Marilyn Manson, hiding in the rafters with a chainsaw, cuts down the metal lighting rig and obliterates all of the combatants. In his post-match interview, Manson explains his actions with a simple rationale: “Because I’m the most evil man in America.” Well, that and “their music sucks.”
“Scott Stapp vs. Eddie Vedder” (winner: Eddie Vedder)
In this classic pairing of lead vocalists, the ring is surrounded by salt-coated barbed wire that’s weaponized to a cringe-worthy degree. After beating up a Ticketmaster executive, Vedder accuses Stapp of stealing his voice and slides Stapp’s belly across the spiky ropes, which Vedder later cuts up to floss the Creed singer’s throat. When Stapp tries to sing, his gravelly voice invokes the ire of similar-sounding Tom Waits, who enters the ring and ends Stapp’s life to crown Vedder the winner. “That’s one of these cases where the surprise of the whole thing is bringing in a third party to really throw a wrench in things,” Fogel says. “It’s the perfect example of bringing in the ultimate raspy-throated crooner to really lay down the hammer.”
Perhaps more than any other prop used on the series, the barbed wire might be the most visceral. Even Fogel admits that digesting the scene is rough by today’s animated standards. “As a young adult, some of my favorite films were Evil Dead II, which is almost a live-action cartoon, and RoboCop, [which] was a big inspiration for me in terms of this ultra-violence,” he says. “The comedy gets magnified the more violent you make it in stop-motion, because you know these aren’t living things — they’re toys, and eviscerating them brings out the little kid in me.”
“Beavis vs. Butthead” (winner: Beavis)
Mike Judge gave his blessing for this matchup, which begins with Beavis and Butthead as cartoons in a three-dimensional ring. Though Judge was too busy working on King of the Hill to supply their voices, Fogel found a good double and brought in the show’s original animators to put together the two-dimensional portions of the fight. “Everything was very carefully storyboarded out, and then we’re shooting the background plates and then we would have to go in and layer in the 2D on top of it,” Fogel says. “It’s one of my favorite Deathmatches.”
Near the end of the fight, a handless Beavis turns into his “Cornholio” alter-ego, giving him enough deranged energy to slice up Butthead into a pile of guts. “Cornholio was iconic and we kind of knew we wanted to end with the coup-de-gras moment, because we just knew we’d get such a huge reaction from that,” Fogel says. “Sadly, Butthead had to take one for the team.”
“General Ulysses S. Grant vs. General Robert E. Lee” (winner: Ulysses S. Grant)
For season 4, episode 12, Fogel created a series of fights to comprise a special North vs. South edition, beginning with “Derek Jeter vs. John Rocker” and culminating with a pair of Civil War generals. The latter end up slicing each with their swords until they’re both just a pair of thumbs, at which point Grant squashes Lee to give the North a 2-to-1 series victory. “We felt justified in having the North over the South, just in keeping with history,” Fogel laughs.
In addition to packing in some historical references, the fight was another example of the craftsmanship needed to pull off a legitimate-looking duel. “We did make changes and got a little more sophisticated with the effects,” Fogel says. “We bolstered our design team so that when we would have a specific gag, we could actually have someone design all of the different key clay poses ahead of time — depending on the nature of the gag, you could have some really good control that way.”
“Kid Rock vs. Eminem” (winner: Joe C.)
Occasionally, Celebrity Deathmatch would swap out Mills Lane for a guest referee. In the case of “Kid Rock vs. Eminem, Carson” Daly took on officiating duties, turning the broadcast into a TRL-style show called Total Request Dead. “We did a couple Halloween episodes where we would call in The Undertaker to call a fight, so it was always fight-specific,” Fogel says. “Sometimes if there was a fan who would reach out to us, we could always bring them in, too, and just have fun and be a third voice in there.”
To liven up this fight between the two Michigan rap stars, Fogel brought in Kid Rock’s hype man Joe C. to tear apart both musicians. “That’s just like a rapper to use somebody else’s body of work to make a hit,” chirps Diamond, who often became a frequent source of punny punditry beside his broadcast partner Johnny Gomez. “At first we wanted to have them be the straight men, taking this very seriously,” Fogel says. “But as the seasons went on, we went more into the dynamics of Nick and Johnny. That was an unexpected treat.”
“Courtney Love vs. Dave Grohl” (winner: Dave Grohl)
Before this deathmatch even starts, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corrigan’s head gets splattered by the “Dome of Devastation,” effectively a metal cage, and Grohl gets pounded by Mentos on his walk to the ring (a very ‘90s pop-cultural event that happened). That’s nothing compared to Courtney Love’s return from the dead, though, thanks to Mad Scientist Stone Cold Steve Austin. “He would take the DNA of these celebrities and combine them to form new characters, something we brought into those later episodes, just to have a little more fun and push things a little further,” Fogel says. “She was one of the victims.”
The matchup leaned into the controversy surrounding the lawsuits between Love and Grohl, and eventually the Foo Fighters frontman ended her life by dropping a grand piano on top of her. Though Fogel received a few complaints from celebrities about their depictions, he felt most were honored to be featured, win or lose.
“The best example for me is getting a letter from Steven Spielberg, who lost in his fight to Alfred Hitchcock,” Fogel says. “He wrote us requesting a rematch and telling us he was going to bring his T-Rex and Great White Shark and we should accept the challenge. That was a pretty great moment.”
Celebrity Deathmatch is streaming on Paramount Plus.