The Real World: Disrupting the Status QuoMay 16, 2017
“Suddenly everyone at home was going, look at that! Regular people are movie stars.” George Verschoor, director and producer of The Real World Seasons 1-4
It all started when Jon Murray, a TV and documentary producer, and Mary-Ellis Bunim, a soap opera writer, approached MTV with an idea that ultimately changed television forever. The Real World popularized a new genre of television known as “reality TV.” Today, reality TV has splintered into innumerable forms, but its backbone was built with The Real World, and Bunim/Murray Productions continues to be at the forefront of the industry. They’re the team behind The Simple Life, Born This Way, and Keeping up with the Kardashians. In this episode, we talk to former cast members and industry experts, about the show that dared to be different, and the team that turned entertainment as we know it, on its head.
The Venture is hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte
This episode features:
Jon Murray, creator of The Real World & co-founder of Bunim/Murray Productions
George Verschoor, producer and director of The Real World seasons 1-4. Current executive producer and showrunner at Critical Content
Julie Gentry, original cast member of The Real World season 1.
Tony DiSanto, former MTV president and founder of DiGa Studio
Meredith Blake, entertainment reporter with the LA Times
Special thanks to all of The Real World cast and crew members we spoke to for this episode, including Andre Comeau, Eric Neis, Jon Brennan, Pam Ling and Adam Beckman.
To learn more about The Venture, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
Before The Kardashians, before Survivor, The Osbournes, The Real Housewives, and The Bachelor. There was this:
Tape: This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped…
The Real World. It was simple and yet, like nothing we’d ever seen before. Take a group of 20-somethings from different backgrounds, with varied interests and throw them together to…well…
Tape: To find out what happens when people stop being polite…Could you get the
phone? And start getting real. The Real World.
The person responsible for inventing The Real World…is Jonathan Murray.
JM: I guess known to a lot of people as the creator of The Real World, one of the first reality TV shows. Some people call me the grandfather of reality TV which I don’t like. [LAUGHS]
You can thank Jon Murray and his business partner Mary-Ellis Bunim for shows like The Kardashians, Total Divas, Project Runway… and The Real World.
The pair created an entirely new genre of TV and they did it…by accident.
This is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative, about pioneering businesses and the people who made them possible.
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JM: And here is a fun picture from Real World the first season. There I am and there’s Eric, Becky, Norm…but yeah this is when we shot a little reunion just before we started season 2.
I meet Jon at his production office in Glendale, California. It’s spacious with a seating area and a long corner desk. There’s a lovely view of the LA hills. The walls are covered with framed posters of Jon’s shows: The Simple Life with Paris Hilton, an A&E show called Born This Way about people living with Downs Syndrome. And there are pictures everywhere of former Real World cast members, attractive twenty-somethings, hugging each other and smiling at the camera. I point one out…
AMT: Oh there he is, that’s Puck in the corner…
JM: Yeah, and interestingly enough he’s with Norm. But I really love this picture because here it is Norm the gay guy from season one and Puck the bike messenger who got into a battle with Pedro from season three and here they are together.
These are the real people Jon made famous, at least for a little while. He’s also responsible for introducing mainstream America to names like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Bunim-Murray makes a little show called Keeping Up with The Kardashians, currently in its 13th season…
KIM KARDASHIAN: …Had I jumped the shark? You mean ship? It says shark. Why would you even be on a shark? Maybe you were riding a shark?
Jon grew up in Syracuse, New York and always knew he wanted to work in TV.
As a teenager, he was a fan of Michael Apted’s “Up” Series, also known as “7-up”, a British documentary series that filmed the same group of children every seven years. He also loved An American Family – a PBS show from the 1970’s that documented the lives of an upper middle class family named the Louds.
When Jon graduated from college, he bounced around a few news stations eventually landing at WOKR TV in Rochester New York. And that’s where he conducted his very first experiments in what would become reality television…
JM: Some of the projects that I had done in local television news were very much observational – moving myself and a reporter around a public housing complex to document what life was like. Those kinds of things have always been interesting to me. I always liked to capture, sort of, life and find the meaning in what was going on there.
After a few years in local news, Jon moved to New York and started writing a fiction series, a scripted drama he called Crime Diaries. He got a TV agent to help find a network to produce it. That’s how he met his longtime business partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim.
JM: And my agent at William Morris Mark Itkin put me together with Mary-Ellis to develop it. We made a pilot. It ended up not going forward. But Mary-Ellis and I immediately clicked.
This, was in 1987. Mary-Ellis Bunim was an executive producer of daytime soap operas. She and Jon liked and admired each other’s skills. And they were both interested in something neither of them had seen on TV before. They wanted to blend documentary with drama. Plus, as Jon said, they just clicked…
JM: Mary-Ellis was a tough businesswoman. She had grown up at a time where, quite honestly, women were discounted in business. And so there was an edge and there was a no-nonsense quality about her, which I really appreciated. And you know, for years in news, I had always surrounded myself with really strong women. I love strong women. And you know, maybe it’s because I’m a gay man. I don’t know what it is. But because she sensed how much I respected her, I think with me she could — she could relax and just be herself and take off a little of her armor.
That year, Jon and Mary-Ellis started Bunim/Murray Productions. As business partners, they played to each other’s strengths…and weaknesses…
JM: When we would go into fight something out with, you know, our agency over a deal, boy, she knew how to arm up in and fight for what we needed. I would usually be able to, sort of, read the room really well and know when we needed to pull back, so I could just put my hand on, you know, her arm or her knee and she would know that, OK, I’m getting a little too — too aggressive here. And then I would smooth it out.
Mary Ellis and Jon were business partners for nearly twenty years. She died in 2004.
In the late-80’s, TV was all about family sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Roseanne. The docu-dramas that John and Mary-Ellis were interested in making, were a hard sell.
One night, they went to dinner with a friend of theirs, a showrunner and director named George Verschoor. He brought a fourth guest to dinner: Delilah Loud. Delilah and her family were the subjects of An American Family, the documentary series Jon had loved when he was young.
Here’s George Verschoor:
GV: Delilah was sitting there at dinner with us, and I’ll never forget the dinner,
in which she was saying, oh yeah and the cameras followed us for six months, and it was crazy, my brother came out and the drug issues, my parents divorced, and and all this made this classic documentary about their family. John and Mary-Ellis and I were looking at each other and going, ding ding, light bulbs going off, you know like, this is the next thing in television.
Trouble was: no one else agreed. Jon and Mary Ellis’s young company was flailing…
JON MURRAY: I cashed in a lot of IRAs. You know, I was driving a 10-year-old Honda Accord, breaking down at every key intersection in Los Angeles. Mary-Ellis ultimately took a job running Loving, the soap in New York because she had a husband and a child to you know to contribute income to. So it was — it was challenging.
Then one day, in October of 1990, a show about a group of teenagers in Beverly Hills debuted on Fox…
//// 902010 Theme ////
BRENDA: You know if you’re trying to make me jealous Dylan, it won’t work!
DYLAN: Hey, you’re the one who broke up with me alright don’t you ever forget it!
BRENDA: So how long has this been going on with you two?
DYLAN: Since about 6:30
It was called Beverly Hills 90210 and young people loved it. This was the audience that a new-ish network called MTV was going after. At that time, MTV was about a decade old and ready to branch out from just airing music videos. MTV had a project in mind and gave Jon and Mary-Ellis a call.
JM: We were working with MTV on a scripted idea called St. Marks Place, about
a group of young people starting out their lives in New York.
But as it turned out MTV didn’t have the budget to hire actors and writers. So Jon and Mary-Ellis came up with another idea. What if cameras followed real people? Young people, as they went about their lives. The show wouldn’t need actors or writers. It would be way cheaper to produce…
JM: So we pitched that idea to Lauren Correo at MTV, at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West at breakfast. And by lunch she called back to say that her boss loved the idea and let’s do a pilot.
George Verschoor directed the first season of The Real World.
GV: We went to New York and you know, had to figure out just how do you turn
real life into a soap opera? How do you film 60 hours a week and pare it down to 23 minutes? At that time time, no one had ever attempted it.
MTV gave Jon and Mary-Ellis a tiny budget to shoot the pilot but they had a vision for how to make it work.
JM: We had to have this diversity of — of, from socioeconomic standpoint, from a racial standpoint, from uh, sexual orientation. We knew that that was going to create the energy for the show.
Jon and Mary-Ellis put out casting calls on the radio, put flyers up around New York City, and reached out to music clubs and modeling agencies looking for cast members. Jon remembers one young woman in particular from Birmingham, Alabama…Julie Oliver
JG: I was aching to be in a city.. I really wanted to be with other people. I wanted to experience other things… And yes, he definitely picked up on that.
JM: She wanted to be a dancer and she dreamed of going to New York. And I just really felt that that’s the person we need to really open this series up to all of our viewers, who in very much ways, are probably like Julie, you know, all around the country who — New York is just a dream or New York is this fantasy land that they hadn’t experienced.
MTV flew Julie to New York a month later, cameras rolling. The plan was for her to arrive at the The Real World loft in a yellow cab.
JM: I’d had this amazing cab driver once take me to JFK. And so I had kept his number and name, and so I had him pick up Julie.
This was Jon producing reality. It was a brand new kind of television and it was mesmerizing…
CAB DRIVER: Is this your first time in New York…There’s criminals all over the place. It’s a shame…
JG: I didn’t hail that cab and get that really talkative animated cab driver. Did I? So that was set up.
JM: That’s why this is Reality TV and not a documentary, because he was great and I had him take her to Soho via Harlem which is not a good way to go it’s an expensive way to go. But I wanted to really take her through. You know 1992 New York was not quite as pretty as it is today so I wanted her to see some of the dilapidation of New York before she came into Soho.
Not only was reality heightened, it also had a soundtrack…It was a perfect marriage of Music and TV. This was MTV after all! Here’s the director, George…
GV: I mean, one of the biggest things that people forget is on season 1 of Real World we had the entire MTV Music Library we could use. That’s gigantic. I mean, we could use R.E.M., Guns and Roses, Peter Gabriel, any music we wanted, we could put that on top of this footage of real life and suddenly it elevated it to cinematic level.
And it changed everything… You know, every — suddenly everyone at home was going, look at that. Regular people are movie stars. ….
This kind of manipulation — casting the cab driver, telling him what route to drive, adding a soundtrack to real life — these are the bright red lines between documentary and reality TV.
JM: With reality, you’re often creating a contrivance. But you’re still interested in getting at the truth. So Real World, we put seven individuals who would not normally live together but out of that experience come many real things that are very relatable and very truthful.
MTV picked up the pilot. And over a long weekend, in the winter of 1992, all seven cast members moved into the loft on the corner of Prince and Broadway in Soho. Their new home for the next three months was spacious, modern and came equipped with a team of young producers lugging around cameras, battery packs and cables.
CAST MEMBER: My first roommate walked in and her name was Becky. Just walk around!
BECKY: Hi, this is where we live?
JM: And I tell you, the moment those people walked in…
CAST MEMBER: Oh my god!
JM: And started bouncing off each other, we knew there was something really exciting about what we had come up with….
Coming up… Jon and Mary-Ellis had convinced MTV to make a soap opera starring real people. But…what if nothing happened? And! The reality show villain is born…
PUCK: If she continues to call me an asshole, I feel almost obligated to be an asshole. It’s kind of how I am you know, I am the Puck.
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MARK: If you put someone in a focus group and ask them what they like to eat. They’ll say something totally different from if you watch them eat, without being observed.
Mark Murphy is the food and beverage manager for Virgin Atlantic’s airport clubhouses, globally. And much as Jon Murray approaches casting for The Real World — zeroing in on what motivates people, who they are, and want they want — Mark does something similar, observing Virgin Atlantic travelers, out in the wild…
MARK: I’ll go and sit in the lounge and watch habits and just watch people. And you can bet your bottom dollar that you ask someone what they eat when they get the chance to choose off a menu and they’ll tell you a quinoa salad. The reality is, they’ll have a burger and a beer. There’s a comfort level that we try to create in our clubhouses. That goes beyond the research and beyond what the trends tell us.
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Jon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim had convinced MTV to make a soap opera starring real people. They’d begun shooting the first season of The Real World. But there was one big problem: What if nothing happened? For example, a cast member on Season 2 – Jon Brennan sat on the couch day after day, drinking Kool-aid…Here’s the director, George Verschoor…
GV: Jon and Mary-Ellis would be screaming, going, we don’t have an episode, I got to deliver something to MTV. So I would say I’m going to tell the story of John Brennan doing nothing.
Early on, Jon and Mary-Ellis agreed to a sort of insurance policy with MTV.
JM: So we said, OK, if nothing happens, we will figure a way to throw a pebble in the pond to sort of create something. So we had a couple potential things. Eric Nies, who had been a model and was in that first season, had been in a book of male nudes. And so I said well, we could put that in the house, in the bookshelf, and what would happen if someone pulled it out and saw it? That would create a ripple in the pond.
But when Jon and Mary-Ellis planted that book for the other roommates to find, it backfired. The cast members figured out what happened and got upset…
JM: Mary-Ellis and I went in and basically owned up to what we had done, and we basically said this is new to us, we’re figuring this out. And we realized this is not the way to go. And we said to MTV, you’ll just have to trust that we’re going to get enough story because if we do this kind of stuff it’s not going to work.
Another thing the crew was figuring out was how to make sure they were around when things did happen. Like the most dramatic moment that first season. A fight between two cast members, Julie and Kevin…
KEVIN: Black people cannot be racist..we don’t have the power to control..
JULIE: Get out of my face!
KEVIN: Why are you upset?
JULIE: I’m sick of this!
GV: I was with the crew on the way to Brooklyn to shoot something else and they called me and said, you’ve got to get back here, these guys are exploding. I ran, rushed back, ran in with the cameras, and then we were getting the tail end of the fight and I will never forget, we were throwing cable out the window on Prince and Broadway…
JM: …the cameraman hooked back up so we could capture this argument which strangely enough was happening during the L.A. riots. So here you have this Black man and this white woman on the streets of New York in front of this loft with two cameras down there filming them as they’re arguing about race.
JULIE: You call yourself a teacher?
KEVIN: You’re a 19-year-old white girl from Alabama who just doesn’t understand.
JULIE: It’s not a black white issue.
KEVIN: Yes it is.
Viewers had never seen anything like this play out on their screens. It was an unscripted fight on camera. It ended up being one of the most talked-about episodes of that season.
Today, the climactic fight is a mainstay in every reality tv show. You know it’s coming and that’s part of why you watch.
///Clips from reality show fights////
Back then, it was brand new. Just like another trope of reality tv: the villain.
PUCK: I’m getting my own food man. I’m buying my own peanut butter and everyone else can kiss my butt.
Puck on season three of The Real World was the provocateur, the character you hated but couldn’t help watching. You can thank George for Puck…
GV: He was like this street urchin that I found in San Francisco. I’ll never — I walked into this loft he was squatting in with like five other bike messengers up there, and I introduced him to Mary-Ellis and one of the MTV executives and they were terrified. They said, George, you’re out of your mind this guy’s, he’s…and I said exactly, this is what we need.
Jon agreed to take a risk on Puck. And it worked. The episode where Puck was kicked out of the house in San Francisco, was a ratings high.
With all the new viewers, Jon had a powerful platform…and he wanted to use it to make a difference. Despite all the contrivance, all the setup, there was something earnest and unchanging about the show: Jon’s dedication to featuring people on the fringes. Here’s Jon again.
JM: As a young gay man who grew up in a period where I didn’t feel comfortable coming out in high school and college, I loved the idea of creating a world where young people can feel comfortable with their sexuality.
Jon’s mission was to cast a gay person in every season. Which he more or less was able to do. But remember in the early 90’s The Real World was the first cable TV show – to feature non-fictional gay characters – living normal lives.
JM: I really think you can tie Real World, starting in ’92 through today with its positive portrayals of people who are gay and lesbian, people who are transgendered, with the way young people lead their lives today. They are the most open, the most tolerant. They embrace diversity. And I think Real World gets some of the credit for that.
PEDRO ZAMORA: When I found out I was HIV positive I felt this immense amount of anger and I didn’t know what to do.
Pedro Zamora was 22 years old. HIV positive. And gay. AIDS was a big news story at the time, and misinformation was still swirling about how the disease was spread. But Pedro was someone audiences could relate to and empathize with. Through him, Jon could educate young people about AIDS and HIV.
PZ: I did not get AIDS because I’m gay. I got it because I had unprotected sex.
Pedro got sicker during the filming of Season 3. He died of complications from AIDS in November 1994. Viewers were moved…including this guy.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’m really glad I got to know Pedro Zamora.
President Bill Clinton released a statement that aired on MTV after Pedro died.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’m grateful that his rich and fulfilling work is still remembered today and I hope you enjoy and learn from Pedro’s life of compassion and fearlessness.
Judd Winnick was also a cast member from Season 3. He became a close friend of Pedro’s. Judd still lives in San Francisco, and says that he feels Pedro’s legacy to this day…
JW: Honestly, yesterday, walking on the street…Someone, you know, brushed by me and gave me the, oh hey, I — can I — I’m sorry can I ask you the stupidest question? And then they burst into tears. This is — it was a man who was around my age who, when we did the show, he was first coming out and not long after that he had tested positive, and he had lost his partner. And the reason he was living in San Francisco was because he saw Pedro on the Real World. He said, I’m — I’m here right now talking to you because — because he was on television 23 years ago.
JM: It was just an incredibly powerful experience for everyone who was part of that crew, part of that cast. Because Pedro and his health became something much much bigger than the show itself.
The Real World debuted on MTV in 1992. It had a huge impact on youth culture. Still, it took the American television industry years before it was willing take the risk and try reality TV for mainstream audiences. It wasn’t until 2000 that CBS came out with…
Survivor. Here’s LA Times TV critic Meredith Blake…
MB: There’s the Real World, and then like eight years later you have Survivor, and then with quick succession you have American Idol, you have The Bachelor and you have The Osbornes and I think that within those five shows you have the seeds of pretty much every reality show that’s on television now.
The Real World created the framework for its successors: the villain, the confessional, the I’m-not-here-to-make-friends mentality. It was all part of the universe Jon created.
Tony DiSanto is a former president of programming at MTV and executive producer of another MTV reality show Laguna Beach. He says he’s always tried to make shows that are as innovative and groundbreaking as Jon’s…
TD: Jon is brilliant at the casting and putting people together into a combustible petri dish that then it’s sort of like let’s see what happens. And the way in scripted programming and films it’s all about the screenwriting. In reality TV the screenwriting is the casting. And that’s what John does so brilliantly.
According to LA Times TV Critic Meredith Blake, The Real World didn’t just change TV, it changed us…
MB: I think people are willing to say things and open up about their lives in a way that. I mean, why would you have done it before The Real World. You know, why would you have said, oh you know, my parents got divorced and you know, my dad doesn’t love me. And why would you — you know, why would you turn your own life into a narrative like that until reality TV became a thing?
And, of course, it changed our politics
MB: We are living in a world with, you know, we have a reality show star as a president. And depending on your feelings about him, that’s a good or a bad thing. But I think obviously it’s hugely influential.
Twenty five years later, The Real World is still in production, but now with a few tweaks. On a recent season, seven roommates moved into a house and throughout the season, their exes moved in, too. The Real World remains MTV’s longest running show. And that business that Jon and Mary Ellis struggled to get off the ground, is doing pretty well too.
JM: Thirty years ago after Mary-Ellis and I started in this, you know, we rented a conference room from another company and we had an IBM Selectric typewriter and we had a phone machine and it was just the two of us. And today, you know, we have this company with five or six hundred employees and I’ve watched them start here as interns in college and now some of those interns are running shows like The Kardashians.
Reality TV today is often thought of as a guilty pleasure, something you’re embarrassed to admit watching, something that makes people famous for doing nothing. But for the people who invented it, it was groundbreaking. Here’s George Verschoor:
GV: We all want to have some — made a mark in the world, and leave our, you know, some story behind. And before reality TV, people really didn’t have much of a chance to do that. If you didn’t make the newspaper, you didn’t somehow become a celebrity, you really had very few ways of leaving your mark, or being witnessed, if you will. So reality suddenly gave this platform for people to step up and be witnessed and be heard and be relevant and be meaningful, and suddenly my life matters.
And Jon Murray – the student of documentary and the godfather of reality tv – he’s proud to have created a genre of television that’s irresistible…
JM: And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the crazy harried world of sitting down and having fun watching a show where you don’t have to work too hard at it. You know, it’s a democracy, television. And if people don’t like something, then they’ll stop watching it.
The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo and Partners.
This episode was produced by Julia Botero, Nicole Wong and Rachel Ward, with help from Grant Irving, Frances Harlow, Katelyn Bogucki, Abbie Ruzicka, and Caitlin Dilena.
This episode was mixed and scored by Zac Schmidt. Production assistance from Thom Cote. Our editor is Wendy Dorr, and our Creative Director is Nazanin Rafsanjani. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll.
Special thanks to all of the Real World cast and crew members we spoke to for this episode, including Andre Comeau, Eric Neis, Jon Brennan, Pam Ling and Adam Beckman.
Music for this episode is courtesy of West One Music. Audio from The Real World by Bunim/Murray Productions.
If you’re enjoying the show, please subscribe to The Venture on Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you use to listen. And leave us a review! It really does help people find our show. To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
Next time on The Venture…we meet the original creators of fake news: The Onion.
SD: They had been planning, with issue 3, to take a photo of the two of them mooning the camera. And printing it on the cover of issue 3 with the big banner headline that said “f— you readers we quit.”
That’s next time, on The Venture. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.
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