[Spoiler alert: This story contains the identity of the eliminated contestant on Wednesday night’s (March 4) The Masked Singer.]
What if we told you that the person sent home on The Masked Singer on Wednesday night is someone whose presence is so ubiquitous on network television that it would be near-impossible not to recognize him? OK, what if we added that just about everyone who works on Singer also used to work with the Taco on his hit prime-time show, and even he couldn’t believe they didn’t figure out his secret?
At least this time it wasn’t a music legend who was sent packing. After watching Lil Wayne, beloved comedian/game show host Drew Carey, Chaka Khan, skateboard legend Tony Hawk and Dionne Warwick go down in earlier weeks, this time Taco had to shake his salsa against Frog, Kitty and Banana with a warble through the Four Tops’ “Can’t Help Myself.” His final selection came after an interesting cover of Elvis’ “Bossa Nova Baby” and Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which had the panel guessing he might not be a professional singer and tossing out guesses including Seth MacFarlane, Alec Baldwin and Ted Danson.
What they really should have done is pay more attention to the clues, which included a reference to a trolley — a hint that he had appeared on a Mr. Rogers tribute album. Billboard spoke to Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron about his totally bizarre trip on the show, including the strange sensation of walking by his old dressing room on the way to the stage.
I gotta ask first off: Why the taco? Because when we spoke to Tony Hawk about why he picked Elephant, he said, “because it wasn’t the Taco.”
[Laughs] Because the only choices I had were Taco and Jellyfish and, trust me, the Jellyfish just looked really unappetizing. Not that you’d want to dive into that particular Taco, but it was the more entertaining of the two.
Were you concerned given your high profile on America’s Funniest Home Videos and DWTS that people would immediately know it was you?
I was concerned and I was cautioned because so many of the staff of Masked Singer used to work on Dancing with me. I have a lot of friends there, and that’s how I was invited to join the show, by one of my former executive producers there, who now executive-produces Masked Singer. But another member of the production crew cautioned me about things I do with the microphone, like when [co-host] Erin [Andrews] is talking on Dancing, I often let the mic drop to my right shoulder… so I was more conscious about the physical stuff than worried about my cadence speaking, because I knew they were going to distort my voice.
You’re known for a lot of things, but singing is not one of them.
Exactly, and that’s the reason [the show’s executive producer] reached out to me, because she’d seen a song I’d done for a Mr. Rogers tribute album. In fact, that’s what the trolley clue was referencing in an earlier episode. So she reached out and asked if I’d be interested and I thought it was just crazy enough that I’d regret passing up the opportunity.
So how did it feel to have the tables turned on you and be judged?
It was interesting. I had done one dance years ago on season 2 of Dancing With the Stars because I wanted to experience what the contestants went through. But this was totally new. I was kind of surprised — given that I know [judges] Robin [Thicke] and Jenny [McCarthy-Wahlberg] and Nicole [Scherzinger] — that they didn’t guess who it was. And surprisingly, a lot of the crew — including our director, lighting guy and sound guy now on Masked Singer — and they didn’t figure it out. They worked with me for years.
What do you think your secret weapon was that made it so hard to figure it out?
I have no idea. I was surprised. … I don’t think my singing voice sounds that different from my speaking voice, so I figured the moment they heard me sing they’d say, “Oh, that’s Tom!” Even given that they’d never heard me singing before. The better detectives in social media figured out the trolley connection and then started linking it to a video of me singing on the Mr. Rogers album, so they got to it quicker.
There are some super sleuths out there who really dig in. Were you surprised at how quickly and deeply they solved the clues?
Yeah, the one that surprised me most is one who works for iHeartRadio and who does a YouTube thing about Masked Singer. What he’ll do is pitch-correct when the contestants are talking with Nick. Of course, the show disguises your voice, but then he goes in and pitch-corrects it back to the actual voice and you could hear clear as a bell that it was me. That should serve as a warning to the production crew that they have to figure out a way to get around that.
You picked some standard-y songs during your run — Elvis, Sinatra, The Four Tops — was that a function of your personal tastes or were you trying to throw them off?
A combination of both, actually. The Sinatra tune was in my limited wheelhouse. “Bossa Nova Baby,” I was so worried about forgetting the lyrics — because we actually shot that show only two hours after shooting my Sinatra number — that I didn’t have time to bask in the great reaction to the Sinatra number because I was so worried about forgetting the lyrics that I basically, if you look at the video, forgot to move for the most part. I said I look like a Taco FrankenElvis.
Which is the opposite of what you think of with young Elvis and being in constant motion.
To give myself some out here, even if I had remembered the dance moves, you don’t see shakin’ hips in a taco shell that well.
Are any of those your go-to karaoke songs? Do you do karaoke?
No. The most I’ll do is the standard singing in the car or shower, but I think the Sinatra/Bublé/Harry Connick Jr. are all in the zone where I’m comfortable. But it was fun. It was designed to be a lark.
So let’s be honest: How good a singer do you think you are?
I went as far as I deserved to go. There are some amazingly talented singers there, none of whom I could identify because they keep us secret from each other as well. I had no illusions or delusions about going the distance. I think I went about as far as I deserved to.
But you outlasted a couple of heavy-hitters in Chaka Khan and Dionne Warwick — that’s something to crow about, right?
I would not have taken that bet if someone had proposed it to me when I started.
What’s the scariest thing about singing Elvis in a taco suit on TV?
I think you’ve just described it. [Laughs] I think that pretty much absolutely describes it. I’ll tell you one thing: That’s a tribute to how supportive the audience is in the studio, but how troubling it can be for the performer As I was getting ready to start my final performance of [The Four Tops], they were applauding so loud that even though I had an earpiece, I guessed when I had to to start because I couldn’t hear the music track. So I basically hopped in on a whim and it apparently worked out.
A number of stars have said the anonymity really convinced them to do the show. Was that your impulse too, given how easily recognized you are from your various gigs?
Not so much. The real thing that made me say yes was the reunion element. So many of the production team I’ve worked with for years on Dancing With the Stars… We shoot Dancing With the Stars on the exact same soundstage as they shoot Masked Singer so it was weird to be back “home,” but I couldn’t connect with anybody, I couldn’t interact with anybody. I would walk by what is usually my dressing room, which Jenny uses, and I kind of wondered if my ID badge would still work, but I kept moving.
Following the reveal, what was the most surprised reaction from some of your old work pals?
That they didn’t know! The director, the sound guy, the lighting guy are all veterans of Dancing, and we worked together for years and [the executive producer] was amazed that none of them were guessing it in the control room — so much so that she put a camera in there just to record their reaction for us when I took the mask off. But of course Nicole had won DWTS, Robin had performed as a guest artist several times, Jenny and I have known each other for many years. The only one I didn’t know was Ken [Jeong].
And he’s always wrong anyway.
And he’s always wrong! [Laughs] I don’t know if my mic was open as I was taking the mask off, but Ken was so certain it was Martin Short that as I was taking the mask off I said, “I feel like I’m letting Ken down.”
Were you a fan going in? Had you watched it at all?
I had just out of loyalty initially for my friends who worked on it, but it’s just really compelling. You get pulled into the guessing game really quickly and all praise goes to the costume department there. If they weren’t doing the amazing work they do, I don’t think the show would be nearly as successful.
The guesses were all over the map, from Seth MacFarlane, which kind of made sense, to Alec Baldwin and Ted Danson, which didn’t. Did their guesses surprise you? Were you flattered? Insulted?
One that was the funniest — [Bob] Saget and I have been friends for years — was when Robin guessed Bob Saget because of the VHS clue and I texted Bob the next day: “Do they think putting on a Taco outfit makes you shrink from 6’4″ to 5’9″?
Did anyone catch on during your first two appearances?
Yes. A buddy of mine who does a wonderful morning show in New Hampshire texted me that night, “Oh my God, dude, you’re crushing it” with a wink emoji. I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Who do you think is going to rub it in the most now that you’ve been eliminated?
That’s a really good question. I gotta tell you I don’t know if it got into the final edit of tonight’s show, but when I was unmasked, I think Jenny said, “Oh, we wish you’d stayed longer,” and I said, “No, I’m good.” I’m very comfortable with three and out. A producer friend of mine guessed right away as well. I was getting texts from longtime friends and family members that I just deflected.
So what’s harder: Dancing With the Stars or singing and dancing in a Taco suit?
Oh my God, singing in a Taco suit! DWTS… hosting live television for me I feel like I’m in bedroom slippers. This was a return to a level of anxiety that I have not felt in decades. And that was part of the reason I did it. I was talking to my wife and I said, “I think I need to feel nervous.”