Friday, June 18, 2010

Cheaper Than Dirt! Interviews History Channel’s “Top Shot” Contestant Caleb Giddings

Caleb Giddings is a well known IDPA and USPSA shooter, and has made a name for himself with his performances shooting Enhanced Service Revolver in IDPA competition. He also runs a blog at Gun Nuts Media, and hosts a weekly podcast that is regularly downloaded by over 50,000 iTunes users. Recently he’s appeared as a contestant on the History Channel’s new show Top Shot. We had the chance to catch up with Caleb Giddings and sit down for an interview to discuss his role in the show and get some behind-the-scenes insights into the making of the series.

Cheaper Than Dirt: Hi Caleb, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know you’re very busy. You’re a cable TV star now on the History Channel, seen by millions of people once a week at night in their homes. Congratulations on making the show!

Caleb Giddings: Thank you.

I know we can’t talk a lot about because there are still episodes coming up, but tell me about the episodes that we’ve seen so far. You’ve kind of been in the background, but I think that’s probably a good thing since it means that you haven’t been put up for elimination yet.

Absolutely. You know, it’s funny, the first two episodes that you’ve seen, you don’t see a whole lot of Blue Team. The second episode you see a little more of Blue Team, the team that I was on, but I’m definitely in the background and I don’t have a problem with that because so far my television existence has consisted of me making two tough shots under competition, and generally not being the nail that stands out. And like I said, I’m okay with that.

There is a lot of content on History Channel’s website which is, a lot of behind the scenes stuff features Blue Team, and I’ve got actually a pretty good amount of screen time in the “Anatomy Of The Shot” series that they have where we break down Blue Team’s first two wins.

I actually had a chance to go on line and view those, and there is definitely some good content there.

You’ve got the Gun Nuts Media blog and your Podcast, obviously you’ve been around media for a while, and firearms as well. Was this just the perfect storm that you decided that you just had to apply for Top Shot? What was your motivation for going through the application process and taking 30 days off of work to go and try to do this? What prompted you to do all of that?

Well, what’s funny actually was that I got an email from Michael Bane who produces TV shows for Outdoor Channel and also is producing The Quest for Master Class for Downrange TV, he sent me an email of the press release from the production company that did Top Shot and said “Hey, what do you think of this? I think you should try out for it.” I will be 100% honest, my thought process at the time was “Oh yeah, that sounds cool.” I sent off the preliminary application which was essentially a blurb about “why I’m so great” along with some pictures and a video of me shooting a 6.5 second El Presidente drill. The casting crew called me back and we did the formal application process. I ended up in California for the interview and the next thing I knew they called me and said “Hey! We want you to come on the show.”

Did you ever actually expect that you’d get picked?

Actually, I never did. I never thought that I was going to be one of the guys that they would pick. My wife thought I was, which is funny because she’s the smart one. But I never really thought that I would be one of the final 16 contestants chosen out of literally thousands to make the cut for the show, and I was honored and a little humbled by it when I saw the assembled cast of characters.

How intimidating was it to show up there and see who you’re up against, to see Mike Seeklander and J.J. Racaza and some of the other competitors there? I mean, there are some serious names on the show, including USPSA Grand Masters. How intimidating was that and how did you deal with that?

Well, I will say it was nice to see that Blake and J.J. were going to be on my team. That definitely helped with the mental aspect of having to worry about them in terms of competition. You know, it’s an individual competition eventually and it always will come down to one on one. At the same time, after the first challenge, where we shot the World War II era rifles, and it wasn’t like anything that we were used to, and after subsequent challenges which you’ll see in upcoming episodes, I wasn’t worried about it anymore. What I realized was that I came to this show to compete in a shooting competition, to compete in a competition of my athleticism and my marksmanship skills, and that I would much rather stand up head-to-head against any one of these guys, whether it was Blake or J.J. or Iain, or any of the competitors on the show, and test my skills against them whether it was with a pistol or a tomahawk or a bow and arrow. That’s what I came there to do. I came to test myself against the best, and if the best aren’t there, what’s the point?

On some of the promo shots we saw you with a slingshot, and I know on one of the upcoming shows you’ll be shooting a bow and arrow. Did you have any indication going into the show that this would be more than just firearms?

We knew going in that it would be different. The last night before the show the producers had a meeting with us and said that they wanted to remind us that this wasn’t going to be like anything we had done before. This was their shooting competition that they had designed, and so it wasn’t going to be a USPSA match, or an archery match or a High Power rifle match. So, I think that helped us realize that this was going to be something unique.

And yet, we still saw some USPSA style stages like in the last episode with the Berettas they had the zip-line on the Iron Man inspired elimination match. Were you or some of the other competitors not up for elimination disappointed that you didn’t get to enjoy some of these stages?

You know, when we found out about the zip-line, I know I wanted to shoot it, but at the same time I was glad that I didn’t have to shoot it. It’s that battle, because we’re all competitors and we want to go out and compete and we want to win. We want to stand on the line, and just speaking for myself, I know that if I ever got called for an elimination challenge I wanted to stand on the line and take that opportunity to prove my skills. So yeah, I wanted to shoot it but I was also glad I didn’t.

I also have to say, I’m really glad I didn’t have to shoot 600 yard rifles against Kelly.

He definitely impressed a lot of the older shooters with his skills, I think he was dismissed early on. How did that change the dynamics when he came back the winner and Seeklander, who’s a very experienced High Power rifle shooter, got sent home?

I think the biggest change in the house dynamic was, after that we realized that this was going to be a head to head competition, and that it didn’t necessarily matter that J.J. was a USPSA Grand Master because I might throw a tomahawk better than he does, and it doesn’t matter that I was an IDPA Master Class shooter because Kelly shoots a better rifle than I do. That, I think, was what really cemented in our minds that anyone could win this competition. It wasn’t just going to come down to the USPSA Grand Masters or the law enforcement guys or the Marine Corps guys, that it really was anyone’s game.

So, going into this, did you do any special training?

Before the actual competition, I can’t say that I did. I did actually work out more. I knew that the competition was going to have a physical element. So, I actually spent a little bit more time on physical training and conditioning than I did on shooting. I actually ended up gaining some muscle before I went on the show so I felt pretty good during the show, I felt pretty strong. That was the bulk of my training before the show.

Many people have talked about the show, referring to it as “Survivor with guns.” Did you come in with any strategies for the social aspects of the game, such as for when it came time to vote someone into an elimination challenge? What were your social strategies for making friends, making alliances, and that sort of thing?

My social strategy in terms of making friends was to make friends with people I would have been friends with outside of the show. I ended up forming good friendships with Blake and J.J., just because they were guys my age and we had similar interests. That was kind of a natural relationship for me. As far as the Survivor-esque aspect of it, because of my personality and because of who I am I do have a distaste for the Survivor type politics. I won’t hide from that.

What I decided was that I would stick to the saying “You are only as good as your last performance.” If we ever got to an elimination challenge I would vote for people who did one of two things: who were either hurting our team dynamic and hurting our ability to win, or who had the poorest performance in that challenge. I wasn’t going to vote for people because I didn’t like them, or because they smelled bad, or because they drank the last drops of milk out of the fridge. To me it was always a shooting competition. And if I had a poor performance in a challenge and I got voted into an elimination challenge, I welcomed that as an opportunity to shoot my way out of it.

How were things behind the scenes? It seems like there was a lot of down time in between shooting stages. There’s so much going on there that we don’t get to see; tell me a bit about that.

As much as I can tell you, there is a lot of fun. You put 16 people in a house and you’re going to see personalities and you’re going to see shenanigans. For example, the dart league. They gave us a dart board as recreation, something to do in our down time. Problem was, nobody knew how to play darts. We didn’t know the rules for darts. So, we just took the dart board and decided we’d score it like a USPSA target, with the outer ring being a D hit worth 1 point, the inner ring was a C hit worth 3 points, and then the bulls eye was worth 5 points. We played a lot of darts. We even had the first official tournament the night of Mike’s elimination, and we called it the Mike Seeklander Memorial Dart Tournament. So, it was a real neat experience and showed the creativity of some people finding ways to amuse ourselves during the down time. A lot of fun was had.

One of the things you don’t really get to see on the show, unfortunately, that you only get a snippet of in the second episode, is when we hung up Mike’s jersey. I really wish they had spent more time on this in that episode. That wasn’t staged. That wasn’t something where the production staff told us as the contestants “oh yeah, go get his jersey and hang it up.” That was something that we came up with that we wanted to do to honor, not just Mike, but anyone else that would be eliminated from the show down the road. And you’re going to see that theme repeated, of the integrity and character of the people on the show throughout these upcoming episodes.

That’s one thing I found interesting about the show is that, shooters by and large are a very generous, kind, and upstanding lot. I’ve been to competitions where somebody had gun that had broken, and fellow shooter stepped forward to loan them their own gun, just so that they could compete and have a chance to beat them, or be beaten by them, fair and square. That seems to be a theme among the shooting sports I’ve noticed. How did that affect the drama and interpersonal conflict on the show? Do you feel that there was less drama and conflict on the show due to how upstanding most participants in the shooting sports are?

I will say that one of the things that I like about the show is that it does show that shooters are people. You’re going to see personality conflicts. I’m a normal guy, I get mad, I get in arguments with people, and I can make mistakes. You hear from gun control people all the time that “guns are dangerous and somebody with a gun is going to go crazy and kill people.”

But what is really interesting about the way we act is that, even on the show when tempers got high and when personality conflicts flared up, there was never any violence. It wasn’t like Ultimate Fighter where people were punching each other or throwing each other through walls. We understand that as angry as you get, violence is not the answer to a personality conflict.

Yeah, people get a little fired up. But the way that we conducted ourselves showed the character that we had.

And yet, the drama that was there still brought a mass appeal to the non-shooters in the audience. Talk to me about that. You do a lot of media, and I’m sure you have some motivation for bringing firearms into the mainstream and normalizing firearms once again. How do you think the show is going to affect that and what motivation did you have for that to participate in the show?

One of my biggest motivations for the show was to treat it as an extension of Gun Nuts Media. My mission statement with Gun Nuts Media has been to create a place where the shooting sports are like ESPN. That’s ultimately what I would like to see, USPSA coverage on ESPN, and part of my desire to go onto Top Shot was to take a step towards that goal. Because it’s presented in a Survivor-esque format of people living in a confined space, and the voting and the social and political aspect of it appeals to people, and yet they are still watching a shooting show. My liberal friends are now watching this shooting show, and they’re enjoying it partly because there are compelling people on this show.

We’ve only seen two episodes so far, but one thing that has struck me is that we haven’t seen any “evil black rifles” or iconic “assault rifles”, they have been mostly historical or widely accepted defensive weapons such as the Beretta 92F and the Mosin Nagant… Did the production staff make a conscious decision to leave out any potentially offensive rifles like that?

Well, I can talk about this because it’s actually in my bio video. If you watch my biography video on you’ll see footage of me shooting an AR-15 rifle wearing my Blue Team uniform, so the AR definitely is going to make an appearance in an upcoming episode, and it’s a pretty cool challenge when we get to see that AR.

I don’t think History was shying away from anything for politically correct reasons. I think that their overarching concern was to make “cool” TV. They realized that lots of people, not necessarily in California, but lots of people have bought these rifles and it’s not a weapon of “mass destruction” for people who own them, it’s like a golf club. When you see that episode with the AR-15 I think people are going to be really pleased with how that episode is going to turn out.

Do you think the production staff or the History channel has a stance one way or the other on gun rights or how they portray it, or was this just TV for TV’s sake and they just happened to choose firearms as their venue?

I really believe that after working with the production staff, the people who were actually filming us and working us on a day to day basis, many of whom had never been exposed to firearms before and they came away from some of the experiences thinking guns are cool, which is a net win for us. I really believe that the idea behind this was that someone realized that guns are very popular, and they wanted to do a reality TV show and they were like: “Well, Survivor is cool, let’s do Survivor with guns.” And that’s actually a good thing, I think that’s a phenomenal step in the right direction for us when firearms are treated in the mainstream media as no different than anything else. When you turn on your TV and watch Top Shot and you see a challenge where people are shooting the standard service sidearm of the US Military through glass filled tubes, and that’s the challenge and that’s treated in the same light as people crawling through the mud and eating bugs on Survivor, I think that’s a good thing because that’s a mainstream acceptance of what we do.

Regardless of what anyone says about it being “Survivor With Guns”, that’s actually a great thing.

You can watch Caleb Giddings on new episodes of Top Shot every Sunday nights on the History Channel at 10pm Eastern, 9pm Central.

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