Today is MTV’s 30th birthday, and the good folks at EW.com have asked me to say a few words. Turn up your computer speakers and listen to our story, won’t you?
As you’re aware, MTV premiered 30 years ago today. As you’re aware if you’re old, MTV took a while to go nationwide. The prevailing wisdom, as I recall it, was that such a thing could never catch on. The idea of a 24-hour music-video channel was tantalizing for the youth of the early ‘80s, and the wait for the cable systems in St. Louis to carry it was excruciating.
It reached us sometime in 1983, but my folks refused to get us cable. One family down the street got it, and my strategy was a barter system: I’d trade their kid an hour of play with my Magnavox Odyssey video game console for an hour in their living room in front of MTV.
Thompson Twins “Lies”
This was the first video I ever saw there, and it was a window into another world. A world where British art-school kids shaved parts of their heads, wore oily rags as clothes and jumped up and down. I sat cross-legged, two inches from the screen and said, “Let me in.”
Our love deepened through the ’80s. My parents relented and got cable, and we rarely spent a day apart. As young lovers do, we went through phases together: You like Duran Duran? So do I! Starting to get into rap? Me too! And in 1986, we both went alternative: 120 Minutes premiered. The Smiths, The Cure, The Replacements, The The. A generation got its counterculture served to it on a hot plate, and we ate it the hell up.
MTV gets a lot of guff for shortening America’s attention span, so it’s easy to forget how much good art it put in people’s living rooms. Aside from the interesting bands it played in the wee hours, it featured station IDs and short films from real, relevant visual artists. Robert Longo, Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnusen, Keith Haring. Karen Finley and Stephen Sprouse on “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes.” There was a moment there when you could get a halfway-decent art education in between Winger videos.
Bob Mould “See A Little Light”
As the 1990s began, our interests took us in different directions. MTV got politically active and experimented with long-form programming. I went off to college and tried to be a practical member of society. We were both intermittently successful. For every Real World, there was a Dead at 21. I changed majors seven times and was a sophomore twice. Like Bob Mould, MTV and I were transitioning from impatient youth into serious grownups, and our best work was still ahead of us.
Tommy Keene “Turning On Blue”
In April of 1998, while I was working at an advertising job I didn’t like and wasn’t good at, I saw a news item online: MTV Holding Open Call For VJs. I circled the date and vowed to call in sick. I got up at 4 a.m. that Monday and hopped on the 6 train to midtown. I signed up and was 168th in line. I got into 1515 Broadway just after 9 a.m., read a cue card, answered some questions about myself, threw to the video of my choice (I chose this one, because Tommy Keene is the greatest, and I was trying to score max rock-cred points) and was sent on my way. They told me they’d choose the finalists by midnight Tuesday. I called in sick the next day just for good measure.
At 11:55 p.m. on Tuesday, they called and told me I was one of the 10 finalists for the position, and that from there forward, it would be a four-day contest on live television.
I called in sick for the rest of the week.
I honestly don’t remember what happened in the days that followed. It all exists on a stack of VHS tapes in my parents’ basement that I cannot bring myself to watch. But I am told I did not win.
I remember going to the wrap party, and making sure to get everyone’s business card. I remember meeting my friends for literally dozens of drinks afterwards. I remember feeling disappointed but somehow excited. And I remember one of my roommates pulling me aside and saying, “Dave, the mothership just came down to pick you up. Push your ass in there.”
Billy Squier “Christmas Is A Time To Say I Love You”
I called every executive who made the mistake of giving me their card, and then I called again, and then I called again. “Hey,” I told their assistants (who you now know as the creators of Laguna Beach, The Hills, and Jersey Shore, among others), “if you could just let your boss know I’d love to come in and pitch some ideas.” I had no ideas, but I had faith I’d come up with some later.
The reason stalking is so popular is that sometimes it works. In May of 1998, they agreed to bring me on as a writer, and as on-air positions opened up, they’d give me a shot at them. And when they called to tell me this, my honest-to-God first thought was “OHMYGOD, what if I get to be in one of those MTV Christmas videos?” They had stopped doing them by then, so no dice. This is one of the few regrets I have in my life.
The Urge “Jump Right In”
MTV put me to work on a pilot called Eye Spy Video. And while we were putting it together, I got a call from Tony DiSanto, one of the production bigwigs. “Hey, Dave,” he said, “Carson can’t do MTV Live today. Any interest in hosting it?” Very casually, like he was asking to bum a cigarette. Would I be interested in going on the air, live, alone, for 90 minutes? With no experience at all? Every single part of me said “NO,” except my mouth, which said “YES.” I went down to the studio absolutely petrified, and proceeded to have what is still probably the most fun I have ever had. I even got to pick a couple of the videos, and I went for this one, the then-current single by my St. Louis homeboys, The Urge. I still think it should have been a hit.
Anyone who ever had this job will tell you the same thing: to be trusted with live airtime by a huge network like MTV is exhilarating. Skydiving times a million. Producers are yelling into your earpiece, production assistants are crossing things out on cue cards, publicists are warning you not to ask any interesting questions, the audience is cheering, the show is running eight minutes long yet they still want you to stretch. And you’re backed up by the smartest, hardest-working, most creative people in the TV business, so you can’t really fail, and even when you do, it’s part of the fun. To this day, when I’m working on something and the director wants to do another take, there’s a part of me that says: “Why?”
I still run into a lot of old VJs, and whether we’ve worked together or not, we still give each other that knowing look. Like we’ve been through the opposite of a war together.
98 Degrees “The Hardest Thing”
During my tenure at MTV, the rivalries were highly charged: Britney or Christina? Korn or Kid Rock? And the most contentious of them all: Backstreet or ‘N Sync? To that last question, I will proudly answer 98 Degrees, because will you look at the t*ts on these dudes?
They played one of the New Year’s Eves when I was there, and I had to do a segment with them. My producer that night, Don Jamieson (now of That Metal Show!), knew I had a king-sized crush on Jeff Timmons, and when it came time to shoot, he made sure to place him right next to me. “It’s gonna be a tight frame here, Jeff, so I’m going to need you to push in closer to Dave. No. Closer. Closer.” God bless you, Don Jamieson.
And really, has anyone ever been more committed to the art of Pointing At The Camera And Then Slowly Moving Their Hands To Their Chest than 98 Degrees? The answer is no.
Alright. Let’s address it.
I am asked about Jesse Camp every single day of my life. No exaggeration. At parties, in traffic, on beaches in foreign countries. Everywhere I go, every single day. It doesn’t bother me, which is good, because if it did I would be bothered every day. So now, in this public venue, I will answer your most popular questions of the last 13 years: Yes, the contest was real, no, I don’t know where he is, and yes, he was always like that.
And I mean he was always like that. It turned into a little game for us: who could catch him in an unguarded moment behaving like a regular person? (And what would he sound like? My money was on a David Hyde Pierce kind of situation.) But nobody ever did.
I would not be where I am if he and I hadn’t started at MTV at the same time. I benefited greatly from the contrast. He was able to do things I couldn’t do, like be interesting and make teenagers scream, and I was able to do things he couldn’t, like be on time and say words. He got all the attention, I got all the job experience. It really couldn’t have worked out better.
Wherever he is, he’s a really sweet guy, and I stand by my opinion that his album is pretty awesome.
Limp Bizkit, “Nookie”
There’s no story here, other than this: Fred Durst. God help me, I would still hit it.
And this: just as I cannot believe “Nookie” was a hit song, I cannot believe the things we got to do in my time at MTV. We took over an island in the Bahamas and lived there for four months. We would shoot whole seasons of Say What Karaoke in four long days. People would stop by my office and say, “Hey, I had a funny idea when I was drunk last night; let’s go do it on live TV right now,” and we would. Unbelievable.
And seriously: I did it all for the nookie, so you can take the cookie, and stick it up your yeah? How has there not been a class-action lawsuit?
Fall Out Boy “Thanks For The Memories”
By 2003, I was getting less busy, new kids were getting more busy, and my driver’s license told me I was in my 30s. My contract was running out, and rather than trying to get another year and risk getting dumped by the thing I loved most, I chose to break it off. “I think I’m going to move out to LA,” I told them. “We think that would probably be good for you,” they replied. And that was that. Good feelings all around.
I am frequently asked whether I miss it, and at the risk of sounding pathetic, of course I do. I miss it the way one misses college. For five years, I was surrounded by the best people in the business I dreamed of working in, and it gave me the skills that have kept me afloat ever since. But you can’t stay in college forever.
Robyn, “Call Your Girlfriend”
And now it’s 2011, the old studio is an Aeropostale store, and every time I turn on MTV, there’s a pregnant 11-year-old in a fistfight. Great artists like Robyn are creating great videos like “Call Your Girlfriend,” and I think her moves should be part of kids’ vocabulary the way the moves from “Thriller” are part of mine. But you know what? MTV and I are old now, and as old people know: everything is cyclical. Nothing good lasts forever, and neither will Snooki. Some of the smartest, hardest working, most-creative people in the TV business are still working at MTV. I still can’t wait to watch what they’ll do next, and I hope it’s worthy of them.
And whatever crazy idea is in your head, I hope that you remember the 24-hour music-video channel that would never catch on, and the pop-culture nerd who ditched work to try and get on camera there, and that you just go ahead and do it. MTV is more popular than ever, and I haven’t stopped working my dream job since that weird April morning in 1998.
Fortune favors the bold.
Jump right in.
Dave Holmes hosts FX’s DVD on TV, performs at LA’s Upright Citizens Brigade theater, talks to interesting people at adrinkwithdave.com, blogs at daveholmes.tumblr.com, tweets at @daveholmes, and would still like to stand very close to Jeff Timmons.
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