Exclusive clip: Arthur Smith on freshening up the quiz format with “Mental Samurai”

Mental Samurai Mental Samurai airs Tuesdays at 9/8c.

Arthur Smith, co-founder and CEO of A. Smith & Co. Productions, knew he needed to get creative when he started looking for the next big game show, to make sure his format stood out from the pack.

He did that by leaning on his unscripted background developing shows like American Ninja Warrior. Why not create obstacle courses for the mind in the same way he’d created obstacle courses that tested human endurance?

What came of that was Mental Samurai, a show that makes contestants answer rapid-fire questions while riding in a fast-moving capsule suspended by a mechanical arm.

Mental Samurai is produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions, Warner Horizon Unscripted & Alternative Television and Apploff Entertainment. Smith (pictured below, left), Toby GormanJeff Apploff and Noah Bonnett serve as executive producers. Rob Lowe (right) hosts and serves as producer.

The series premiered March 19 on Fox.

Realscreen caught up with Smith, in advance of the second episode, which airs tonight (March 25) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, to learn how the show came to be.

Where did the idea for Mental Samurai come from?

We’re always trying to think of new ideas. We’re really all over the place. One minute we’re doing Hell’s Kitchen or American Ninja Warrior or documentaries like Unsung. We’ve been in the game show space before, and we were thinking about what is a big, broad network show that the family can enjoy and play along with. But we didn’t want to do a classic style game show, because they kind of feel regular [now]. We were really looking for a big primetime event. And we thought, what if we created the ultimate obstacle course for the mind?

Once we figured out what we wanted from categories, we said we’ve got to make it visual. The drama of not making a mistake and the drama of beating the clock was great, but we wanted to make it visual, and we wanted to go one step further, and that was the robotic arm, which we call Eva.

How did you develop Eva?

We did a CGI presentation before we even knew if an arm like that existed, but it existed in our minds at that point.

The game part was not hard, because we already had a blueprint. It was really just a question of how do we design the set, and how will this function? And we found a company in Germany who make what is called the Kuka Arm. The company is called Kuka.

What are some of the challenges in producing a show like this?

It took a lot of research and working with Kuka. These guys don’t usually work in Hollywood, so we had to explain to them how it had to work, and how it had to follow a certain pattern, and it had to be fair. There was a lot of development in programming the arm.

Then the other side of it was, because of the nature of the game and running hundreds of contestants through an obstacle course, we had to create a massive amount of questions. I don’t know any game show out there that has more questions per show than Mental Samurai. They are rapid-fire questions, and we can’t use them again.

How do you see Mental Samurai fitting with the A. Smith and Co. brand?

We’re varied. We like it as part of our portfolio. Even though we play in a lot of spaces, and we’ve worked for 50 networks over the last 18 years — big networks, small networks — we’re all about quality shows and trying to do a little bit of reinvention. We’re always going to continue to play in as many places as we can, as they allow us to, and that’s been the success of our company. It’s just quality programming in different genres.

How did the show land at Fox?

We’ve been in business with everybody. Rob Wade (Fox’s president of alternative entertainment and specials) had just started at Fox, and we were having lunch one day, and this notion came up at lunch, and he said, “I want to hear it,” and that was it. He jumped first before we really had a chance to take it out, and he’s been amazing to work with.