As adults, it can be difficult to find time to get together with a group of longtime friends. Everyone has separate careers and their own families to attend to, and some may have moved away. Over 20 years ago, actor Josh Duhamel and his group of childhood friends found a solution to this by holding an annual reunion in which they participate in a range of competitive games. Their yearly meet-ups inspired the 2019 scripted comedy Buddy Games.
Around the time of the film’s release, it became apparent that the concept could form the basis of a reality show. With the help of Bunim/Murray Productions and Julie Pizzi, president, Duhamel developed Buddy Games into a competition format based on the same premise: bringing tight-knit, longtime friend groups together for some good-natured competition (with a $200,000 prize, of course).
CBS saw the potential for the series as well, and slated it for a Thursday 9 p.m. air time, bookended by Big Brother and The Challenge. With this star-studded broadcast pairing, Pizzi says “we knew we had to give this show its own DNA and define it as a buddy comedy. It was really the unique lens of casting” that both sets it apart and allows it to stand alongside these other hit formats.
“It’s really very different because we start with such an emotional edge [compared] to other shows, where people have to learn to trust each other,” she continues. In Buddy Games, “they all show up with decades of friendship.”
“There are groups of friends—like my group of friends, like all the groups of friends on this show—everywhere,” Duhamel notes. “When they watch this, they see themselves in any one of these groups. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me like, ‘How do we get on the show? I’ve got a group, we’d be great.’ Because they sit and watch, and they see themselves and think, We could do this. Because it’s not like Survivor or The Challenge or some of the other ones where you have to be really athletic, you’re on your own, and you have to compete as an individual. With this, you have the comfort of your group.”
If you have seen the scripted Buddy Games film—which at one point sees the friends hunt each other with bows—the games in the format are much lighter. “We developed a lot of games,” Pizzi says. “Part of it was just figuring out which games could be really [universal] because we had cast members who were in their early 30s all the way to their 60s, and we had men and women competing against each other. Part of it was just dialing that up and then also theming out some of the games and finding where the inspiration was coming from and what we were testing. There was some strength, but for the most part, it was more about endurance. And honestly, your willingness to just get embarrassed and get messy.”
Mostly, the games in the format are like “super-sized games that you could do at home,” she explains. “They’re not massive stunts.” This includes human cornhole—in which one person is splayed across the board—which is just enough to induce a competitive nature but silly enough to keep it fun.
Still, “we were really keen to make sure that it had those same elements that we have in ours that we do every year,” Duhamel says.
“Our stunt team wouldn’t even approve the shit they do to each other,” Pizzi interjects, jokingly noting that several times she had to say, “That would actually hurt people. We can’t do that.”
That stamp of Duhamel and his friends’ games is still there, though. “One of the things that we all thought was a good idea was to add this sabotage” element, Duhamel says. “Bob [Schwartz, longtime friend of Duhamel’s and a producer of the series], I call him ‘sa-Bob-otage.’ He’s the guy who is constantly fucking with you. You’re always looking over your shoulder. We came up with this idea called the curveball. If you win [the first] competition, you get to sabotage one of the other teams. And it turned out that those curveballs, those sabotages, really affected the outcome and the landscape of how the whole game ended up.”
“Honestly, it got really personal,” Pizzi says, with Duhamel adding that some of the teams almost didn’t want to win the curveball because they knew it would put them in ill favor with some of the other teams and make them a target in the future.
“They actually all became pretty close, all the teams that were living in the house,” Pizzi says. Duhamel describes it as “a big adult summer camp.”
This closeness means that “when they had to actually compete against each other or quite literally sabotage each other, it got really personal,” Pizzi adds.
A great aspect of the format, aside from the fun-loving atmosphere it invokes in its contestants and therefore its viewers, is that “there’s a lot of room for change,” Pizzi explains, making it an ideal option for broadcasters with varying budgets and different slots to fill. “You can expand and contract the format. To be honest, the show could easily be a 90-minute. We definitely had the material because we essentially have three games an episode, and a lot of the inner drama that was happening with our cast was on the cutting-room floor. I think you can even spend more time in the house. You can probably do one less game. It really has the ability to expand and contract.”
And the key for any potential hosts of local adaptations? “Don’t be afraid to get in there and get dirty,” Duhamel declares. “It’s really part of the fun. I would want anybody who’s hosting this in whatever territory to have that same kid in them who is still alive. Because it’s OK to have fun. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we always have to act that way.”
“Our cast felt that, too,” Pizzi says. “I felt like the cast really felt like Josh was on their team. He was kind of like a therapist. They truly loved him, and they felt like they knew him. The truth is, he knew them because he had watched every single casting tape. There is something really nice about how quickly that changes the dynamic of your show. It raises the level a bit.”
“Friendship, games in the backyard—this is a universal thing,” Duhamel adds. “This is something that will travel everywhere. The games might change a little bit, but that friendship, those bonds, don’t.”