The moment that had been rumored for months finally arrived: Rudy Giuliani appeared on, and then was voted off, “The Masked Singer” on Wednesday night.
“Is that Robert Duvall?” judge Jenny McCarthy exclaimed when Giuliani was unmasked, after he was deemed the least talented singer of the group following a performance of “Bad to the Bone.” Duvall had been one of the previous guesses from the judging panel (McCarthy, Robin Thicke, Ken Jeong and Nicole Scherzinger), along with Elon Musk and Al Roker.
“No,” Jeong said, looking unamused. “That’s not Robert Duvall.”
Indeed, no one guessed Giuliani, even with a clue during his introductory package hinting at the “four seasons,” which some might remember from a certain news conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. His connection to Trump was not mentioned, and host Nick Cannon introduced him as former associate attorney general and former mayor of New York City.
“Well, Mr. Giuliani, with all of the controversy that’s surrounding you right now, I think it surprises us all that you’re here on ‘The Masked Singer,’” Cannon said; the episode was reportedly filmed around late January, not long after Giuliani was subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “What made you decide to do this?”
Giuliani said he did the show for his granddaughter: “I want her to know that you should try everything, even things that are completely unlike you and unlikely,” he said. “And I couldn’t think of anything more unlike me and unlikely than this. And I enjoy the show, I have for years, and it just seemed like it would be fun. I don’t get to have a lot of fun.”
As he launched into another rendition of the song, McCarthy and Scherzinger happily danced around. Jeong, who had been standing with his arms crossed, did not appear pleased. “I’m done,” he said, walking offstage before Giuliani was finished singing.
This kind of moment felt inevitable for “The Masked Singer,” a reliable place for chaos since it debuted in January 2019. The first celebrity unmasked was NFL star Antonio Brown, who at the time was in the middle of a public dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had skipped the game the previous Sunday, and there he was a few days later, singing “My Prerogative” while dressed as a hippo.
That set the tone for the series, which has thrived on feeling like a fever dream as viewers watch an unbelievably random collection of celebrities sing in elaborate and terrifying costumes. Producers love to cast controversial names, from YouTuber Logan Paul to singer Bobby Brown to former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
But, as with most TV shows, ratings have dropped: The first season averaged about 12 million viewers an episode, including delayed viewing, and the numbers are now closer to around 5 million. While that is still considered a hit these days, it’s no surprise that the network (which did not return a request for comment) would look for more shocking names to draw buzz.
“You don’t get publicity for being safe and predictable and nice. You have to be constantly pushing boundaries and outraging and upsetting people, so on all the talk shows and discussions, it’s, ‘Did they go too far?’” said Richard Rushfield, chief columnist and editorial director of Hollywood newsletter the Ankler. “I think they would honestly say that if it gets people upset, good, because that means they’re talking about it.”
After all, “The Masked Singer” producers have never seemed to care about what the audience thinks: Its judging panel includes McCarthy, known for promoting the debunked link between vaccines and autism, as well as Robin Thicke, the singer of the heavily criticized hit “Blurred Lines.” Cannon was fired from ViacomCBS in 2020 after making antisemitic comments.
Still, the goofy costumes and performances (one time, the unmasked celebrity was Kermit the Frog) means that it can work as family-friendly TV; or as executives refer to it, a “four quadrant show,” because it can appeal to men, women, young viewers and older viewers.
“I’m sure there’s a world where people may tune in because of the controversy, but it can ultimately create a backlash if they kind of compromise a viewer’s trust,” said Tom Nunan, former president of NBC Studios and UPN. “When you pull a stunt like that, you might end up alienating whole sections of those quadrants. There’s great risk involved — so you might experience a temporary high, but what’s the cost?”
Nunan, an instructor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, recalled that when he was running a network, stunt casting always seemed appealing — but generally didn’t work in making a declining show seem more relevant. “In some ways, it’s signaling to the audience … ‘Our boat is sinking,’” he said. “And people tend to want to jump off a sinking boat.”
Of course, Rushfield added, it’s possible that Fox assumes that any criticism won’t matter in the long run.
“We’ve seen time and time again that with a lot of these types of things that people who would be inclined to actually boycott something and move away from it are a tiny number of people mostly active on Twitter — and within three hours, they’ve moved on to the next thing,” he said.
When news first broke via Deadline about Giuliani’s appearance, there was instant backlash from people who were furious that he was being given a chance to further his time in the spotlight or try to redeem his reputation through reality television. It happens every time a former Trump White House staffer does something similar: In 2018, Omarosa Manigault Newman starred on CBS’s “Celebrity Big Brother” and confessed some of the regrets she had working in the West Wing with her former “Apprentice” boss.
Former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci also appeared on “Celebrity Big Brother.” Last year, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway made a cameo on ABC’s “American Idol” to support her daughter Claudia’s audition. And in 2019, falsehood-prone press secretary Sean Spicer was cast on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” a move criticized by employees at the network and the show’s fans.
Giuliani was given the same gentle edit, as he talked about his granddaughter and fielded questions from Scherzinger about officiating weddings in his former job as mayor. “Your family’s going to love this!” Scherzinger said.
But TV experts agree that even if Trump-related appearances don’t wind up being a big deal, ratings-wise, casting such controversial figures still can harm it in the long run.
“I don’t think Sean Spicer hurt ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and its ratings, but was it worth it?” Nunan said. “That was once a really elite show, where it could be competing for Emmys. But as soon as you start it up with these stunts, it feels desperate. I think that’s kind of what this ‘Masked Singer’ move is — it’s a desperate move, and audiences can see right through it.”
An earlier version of this story made a second reference to the suspension of Rudy Giuliani's license to practice law in New York and Washington as a disbarment. It is a suspension. This story has been corrected.