Joe Tessitore explains Holey Moley, the greatest show on television

"Do you know how much joy this show brings me in the middle of my regular broadcasting career?"

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Holey Moley has been described as “the greatest show on television” by people such as me. It features contestants attempting to negotiate elaborate mini-golf holes while being blasted with flame, hit with enormous windmill blades, and battered by giant rubber duckies. There should be no further explanation needed. 

Because it is the most important sporting event of the fall, I talked with the show’s co-host, longtime sports broadcaster Joe Tessitore, by phone the day before the finale of season two, airing September 10 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. 

I asked him about the nuts and bolts of the show, getting comedy tips from co-host Rob Riggle, where Holey Moley fits into his distinguished career, how the hell he got involved with the madness to begin with, and why they are all so mean to poor Course Marshal Joe. This interview has been edited and condensed for length, because it turns out Joe Tessitore and I can talk for hours about absurdist mini-golf.  

Spencer Hall: First of all, where is Holey Moley shot? I know that was California, but where do you even have enough room to do all that?  

Joe Tessitore: It’s shot about an hour north of LA at a ranch that’s been home to a lot of reality competition shows over the years: the Sable Ranch. Years ago, it was the original plot of land that hosted Wipeout.  

SH: How long does it take to shoot a whole episode? 

JT: We do not tape episodes a night, we shoot holes a night. To set up a hole is a massive undertaking, so on a given night you could have … the fact that we’re having a serious conversation about this, because now I’m about to mention holes’ names, and two guys having a serious conversation about “Uranus” is mind-blowing.

SH: It’s the funniest thing we could do. Discuss this very seriously. 

JT: When we shoot Uranus — and I can’t believe I’m saying that sentence — we want to shoot as many of the competitions we need to have on Uranus as possible. Double Dutch Courage tends to stay up all the time, since it’s a signature hole, but some of the others get shut down after three or four days.  

So you could have Rob and I there, and red lights on and going, and we might shoot three hours of Gopher It, then two hours of Buns and Weiners, and then at four in the morning be shooting Dragon’s Breath. That’s how we do it. 

SH: How long does a whole season take? 

JT: A couple of weeks. We film overnight, which is why sometimes you’re up in a canyon, and it gets damp and cold.  

SH: With Riggle, how much of your back-and-forth is scripted? 

JT: The overwhelming majority of it is not scripted at all. From the moment we turn on our mics and walk onto the set, until we unclip and walk off, they roll on everything. Everything. What I’ve noticed is that the majority of what they use is when it’s somewhere around 2:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the morning, they’ve gotten us so sleep-deprived, and we’re just losing it. We’re out of our minds, we’re tired, we’re getting goofy, we’re loaded up on caffeine and Reese’s Pieces, and all that stuff that happens in between play-by-play is what makes air. 

SH: Are you out of your element when that is happening? Is that what makes it work?

JT: I don’t think so. I’ve spent most of my career covering football and boxing until the wee hours of the night, traveling and not getting a whole lot of sleep. But if you keep anyone up for 20 hours, they’re going to start acting stupid. And we start acting stupid. 

SH: How quick was the chemistry with Riggle? 

JT: Instant. It’s the one thing we always talk about: How much we get along, how well we get along. Instantly, we felt comfortable with each other. It’s so easy and so comfortable. What’s really important is that I find the guy funny. He makes me laugh, and when someone makes you laugh, everything is going to be easy. 

SH: I mean, you’ve both been doing improv as a career, just in different fields. Most people assume that about Riggle, but as a play-by-play guy, you’ve been doing unscripted work your whole career. 

JT: Being a live event broadcaster has definitely helped me greatly with this show. But Rob has also helped me greatly, because Rob has also taught me a lot of the subtleties and nuances of being the straight man in a comedy act, the looks, the glances, etc. Some of it is natural, and you laugh naturally, but Rob makes it easy. They talk about “styles make fights.” It’s easy to punch between his punches. He’s really, really good at that. 

I mean, I grew up a total TV-obssesed guy. I remember growing up on Sunday mornings doing nothing but watching Abbott and Costello on the local New York stations. I’m related to Lou Costello, but little did I know that at this stage in my career, it’d be Bud Abbott that I’d be watching. Because what I’m doing is Bud Abbott. 

SH: How on earth did you even get involved with Holey Moley in the first place?

JT: A few years ago, the head of unscripted at ABC — Rob Mills, you should follow him on Twitter, he’s the producer behind The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, Jimmy Kimmel Live — connected with me because he loves stuff that’s retro. So he loves ‘70s Cosell Wide World of Sports, Elvis Presley, early-’80s wrestling. We go out to dinner and cite Piper’s Pits segments to each other, or talk about the brilliance of Mean Gene Okerlund. All that kind of stuff.

We were having drinks a few years ago and said, “You know, I think there’s a place for getting back to the vintage gold blazers, the simpler, more light-hearted, cool, retro entertainment on ABC.” We were laughing about dusting those off. 

Well, a few years later, there was one spring — I don’t know, something got blown up and left a hole in his programming schedule — I get a call, and it’s Rob saying, “We need to reboot Battle of the Network Stars.” I said, “Yeah, I’m in,” and we tried to do a quick version of it, we’re on for one year, fine. 

It’s just Rob’s belief in that vision. So when Holey Moley came his way, I’m sure the sparks started flying, like, “This is what I really intended to do. This is the real fit for Joe Tess and the cheesy yellow blazers.” I owe a lot to my relationship with him there. 

SH: One of the more shocking things about the show is seeing official Steve Guttenberg getting hostile, even violent. 

JT: Did you see that coming? Were you blown away? 

SH: The first time, it blew me away. The second time, I realized it was going to be the best running gag on the show. Because my rule is, if it’s funny once, it’s funny a hundred times. Y’all will run a gag into the ground until it gets funny again. 

JT: So what you love about Holey Moley is what I love about Holey Moley. Forget the mini-golf. The mini-golf is just a vehicle. You love the absurdity of the show. You love how far we will go with things, how Riggle will riff and go down a rabbit hole you can’t recover from. I’m gonna take a guess here: You love that, in Arrested Development, you see blue palm prints on the upholstery and in the kitchen from Tobias? 

SH: Because they were never going to clean it up. These were not people who ever cleaned anything up. And not only were you, the viewer, going to get evidence of their stupidity in the past, it all carried forward three years into the future without any change. 

JT: There was one moment with Guttenberg this season, where I turned to Riggle and seriously said, “He’s lost his mind.” I went to his trailer once, and he’s got the nicest wife, and is the sweetest guy, and when he left the trailer, he turned into this bizarro version of Steve Guttenberg. 

SH: And it was made funnier by something else I love about the show: There’s a lot of badge-wearing, super-official, “we are serious people, please take us seriously” stuff going on. Steve’s a diving judge, but so is Greg Louganis, an actual diving great. All doing the stupidest thing in the world. You got actual expertise, and then make them go along with the joke. 

JT: So a lot of this comes from where Riggle goes. The Guttenberg thing was about where he was willing to go. The Course Marshal Joe thing was unintended, just framing him as this feckless loser, this guy we all loathe, how I detest him because his name is Joe and it doesn’t represent me well. That’s all just us riffing last year and carrying it into this year. 

SH: So who actually is Course Marshal Joe? 

JT: Course Marshal Joe is an actual producer in LA whose name is Joe. He’s worked on a thousand shows, he’s indispensable and beloved in the industry, he’s a good friend of one of the producers, Charles Wachter. He’s the kind of guy in production who, when you say “we need a helicopter,” he gets out his cell phone and gets you one. 

He’s such a sweetheart that he’s gone along with the whole bit while doing his actual job of administering the rules of the show and doing the production. 

SH: So he’s just sitting there doing his job in the jacket, waiting to go if you need him, but also doing his job at the same time. 

JT: And we’re killing him! It’s so good. The funny thing about Joe is that he’s the exact opposite of how we portray him, this brilliant TV guy and ultimate fixer-type on the set. 

SH: And you’re destroying him. 

JT: Do you know how much joy this show brings me in the middle of my regular broadcasting career? You can probably hear it in my voice, but it makes me so happy, the way you see the show, the way I see the show. 

SH: I’m going to confess to being negligent, and I just realized it. I wasn’t even going to ask you why you did the show, because it didn’t occur to me that someone wouldn’t want to do this immediately. 

JT: There are a lot of guys who’ve had the career arc I’ve had that would scoff at this. I’m sure there are some prominent broadcasters that probably sit back and say, “What the hell is he doing, that’s blasphemous to the craft.” But come on, if you can’t have a blast in life and enjoy it, then why? Maybe that mindset is why I have so much fun doing the show. 

SH: Go back and watch those old Battle of the Network Stars. You know who’s out there with Tom Selleck, Barbara Mandrell, and everyone else? Howard Cosell. 

JT: There are a lot of people in pop culture who remember Cosell with Suzanne Somers more. 

SH: What hole do you think you would actually stand a chance on? 

JT: First of all, I suck at golf. I’ve been making fun of people for two years, so you know karma would annihilate me on all these. Double Dutch Courage, I want no part of the first windmill. Frankenputt, to me, I think you can manage. Hole Number Two, I go into the water on that. Uranus, I had my two kids out there, and they’re both great athletes, but they embarrassed themselves on that. Putting over that is harder than people think. 

One that I really think is harder than everyone thinks is Putt the Plank. You’re faceplanting onto a dorsal fin. How can that be good? To be honest, I think I would get annihilated on every hole. 

SH: Has this gotten a different response from people than anything you’ve done?  

JT: Absolutely. What makes me happiest is how much children love it. I will be very honest in telling you that the last two and a half years of my life of working in Monday Night Football — the NFL subculture, the endemic NFL media and Twitterverse — it’s not a joyful place. Holey Moley is a place where you’re putting smiles on people’s faces, where people laugh, where families get together to watch you and have a great time. 

Sometimes if someone emails or messages me about how much their child loves the show, I’ll send them a video message. I always walk into the closet and show them the jacket and say, “Hey Annabelle, I heard you had a great summer, thank you so much for watching the show, hey ... I wonder if I should wear this tonight?” and show them the jacket. And I get the biggest smiles back. 

This happens all the time, and it puts me in a very good space. We have good friends of ours who are doctors, cancer researchers, therapists, very serious people, and it’s sometimes hard to not look around and go, “Well, where am I making my impact?” I really enjoy doing entertainment, and I’m really enjoying being part of a comedy team.  Especially this year, and with everything going on, it has been a very nice piece of the pie for me. It’s something with a thread of goodness in it.

Tessitore, sideline correspondent Jeannie Mai, and Riggle.

Join us in our newly launched Moon Crew Discord, via our Patreon, to discuss sporting events such as Holey Moley.