Behind every smart TV show, there is a tireless script coordinator, technical adviser, researcher or producer who makes sure the jargon is right, the science is accurate and the pop culture references are on-point. To get a better sense of who keeps the angry nerds at bay, Wired.com spoke with fact-checkers behind the fall TV season’s geekiest shows.
When Pop Up Video debuted on VH1 in 1996, the show was brain candy for music nerds. Those little bubbles of rock ‘n’ roll factoids layered over music videos worked just like crack.
When the hit show went off the air six years later, it was a hard addiction to break. In the years since, it’s hard not to notice that the pithy, smart-ass language that was the show’s trademark became the lingua franca of the Twitter and Facebook masses.
Now Pop Up Video is back. Starting Monday, VH1 will be air 60 new Pop Up episodes, each one brimming with factual nuggets. But now that everyone speaks in “pops,” how can the show stay fresh?
The answer is simple: loads of bright writers and tireless researchers. The show employs a staff of pop culture junkies and fact-finders to give Pop Up Video the kind of juice that fueled the original show a decade ago (trust us, we’ve seen the reincarnation).
It’s an art form the creators have down to a science.
“Let’s be honest, no one wants to read television, and we’re asking you to read a music video by a band you’ve never heard of — that’s a lot of work,” Pop Up executive producer Woody Thompson, 44, told Wired.com. “So we’re trying as best we can to make connections between ‘pops’ to tell a story on top of a story.”
To make those connections, the show relies on a crew of 25 researchers and writers to bring the all those videos — 300 clips will get the bubble treatment in the upcoming season — to life. Wired.com asked Thompson and head researcher Alex Ebel, 25, for their TV Fact-Checker bios to find out what makes their show, well, pop.
Titles: Thompson is executive producer and Ebel is head researcher for Pop Up Video (Weekdays at 12 p.m./11 a.m. Central on VH1)
Bona fides: Thompson co-created the original incarnation of the show back in the mid-’90s. Ebel is a tireless researcher with a soft spot for boy-band trivia.
How did the return of Pop Up Video come about?
Woody Thompson: “It sort of came back out of the blue. I feel like VH1 was dead-set on being a current channel and Pop Up and Behind the Music were part of their past. They were a reality channel for about 10 years, and now they want to get back to their roots and get back into music. That just so happened to coincide with the excitement about music videos that Lady Gaga has brought about in the last two years. I think those two things have just happened to collide at the same time. This is a great place to start again. I just happened to be doing a webcam show with them six months ago called Dance Cam Slam and so I was back in touch with them and literally our last conversation as we wrapped that show was, ‘Hey would you ever want to bring back Pop Up? I’d be interested in doing it.’ And that was it.”
How did the idea for Pop Up Video come about in the 1990s?
Thompson: “It’s kind of a convoluted story. My partner and I at the time were two 28-year-olds who were trying to break into the TV business. We both worked on shows but we’d never executive-produced. We’d been pitching shows around town and we ended up at VH1. At the time they were rebuilding and we pitched them a gossip show and a news show, a behind-the-scenes show and a game show, and all these different shows that were music-themed. But we refused to put music videos in those shows because at the time VH1 was playing Gloria Estefan, Michael Bolton and Boyz II Men videos and we didn’t want to use those in what we thought were our really fun and snarky shows. VH1 took the pitches and then turned around and said, ‘You know what? You guys have great show ideas but we’ve now rebranded and now we’re a music channel. So unless you can figure out a way to put music videos in these shows, we’re not going to buy anything from you.’
“So almost as a total fuck you, we went out that night and decided after a couple pitchers of margaritas that we were going to storm back in there and instead of trying to place Boyz II Men videos in the middle of our game show, we’re going to just put all the shows we pitched them and put them on top of music videos. They kept saying, ‘You can’t get Madonna to come on your interview show or your behind-the-scenes show!’ So we went back and said, ‘We got Madonna in this show, she’s singing “Like a Virgin” and we’re going to tell you all the information about Madonna losing her virginity on top of it while she’s singing it and we don’t even have to ask her permission.’
“That was it. And that’s exactly what the show is now. It’s behind-the-scenes, news, gossip — you never know what’s coming. Ultimately the game of it is to get you to sit through a Boyz II Men video that you never would’ve sat through. The one note they said after the pilot was, ‘You’ve got to get rid of that annoying bloop sound.’ And we said, ‘Are you kidding? People watch your channel as background music while they do their dishes, it’s a radio station on TV. Unless we put something on that tells them there’s something there messing with their music, they’re never going to watch the screen.’ Sure enough that was the thing people started loving and coveting.”
Alex, what’s your background? How did you end up as head researcher for Pop Up Video?
Alex Ebel: “I come from scripted television. I just had my third anniversary in L.A., but I’m originally from Ohio. Most recently I was the script coordinator on The Paul Reiser Show. Right when that went down, one of my co-workers on that show was starting a new job with Eyeboogie, which makes Pop Up Video. She said that there was an opening at Pop Up for someone on the research team. I had never done research before, but I did love Pop Up Video — it was something I grew up with. I was stoked to be a part of it.”
Thompson: “We’ve got 25 writers and researchers and [production assistants] and producers who all sit in a single room and share information. We hire people based on how eclectic their music taste is, what their educational background is, where they grew up, what their taste is, what they watch, so that we get a mix of personalities in that room. That way we’re not all boy-band fans, or hipster indie rock fans.
“Alex had this great mix that was different from the other researchers and writers. She can add a different voice to the research and the interviews she conducts with these directors. Even though we like to think the show has a singular voice, it’s written by a team of 10 writers who take over these videos and really research frame by frame the nuances of these videos. Your take on when you grew up, what your association is with this video, or band, or genre is, is influenced by whether you grew up overseas, or were a music freak as a kid or played videogames. That all influences how you would ‘pop’ a video. We just hope to have an eclectic group in the room that would go and find facts that are interesting to them.”
Ebel: “I kind of grew up in the golden age of watching TRL and Pop Up so I remember all that. Working here has brought so many music video flashbacks, things I remember loving in high school. I think I’m the token boy-band guru. ‘Liquid Dreams‘ was my No. 1 jam in high school. It’s especially exciting when you get assigned a video that you remember loving. You have to investigate every frame to find out what kind of questions there are to ask. If there’s a water bottle on the ground in one of the shots, you have to ask what it means or if it was left there by accident. Sometimes those little details can lead to really interesting stories.”
How do you build a “popped” video?
Thompson: “The researchers tee up the writers and they do most of the writing. So the researchers are doing most of the calls to the people involved in producing the music videos and the writers are doing the majority of the obscure facts because they are in it and they know what they need and want in that moment. It’s easier for them to, say, go looking for a honeybee fact when they know they need one than it is to ask a researcher to go find a honeybee fact on the off chance that they might need it.”
What’s the typical amount of time you spend researching a given video?
Ebel: “It really varies video to video. Sometimes you can contact people and get interviews and you can pretty much have all the information you need in three days, and sometimes you have videos that are harder simply because they’re older and the crew members have fallen off the face of the earth. So then it’s harder to get those really juicy stories. Then it may take a couple of weeks.”
‘Finding a backup dancer who shook her ass on a Hummer while it was freezing cold in a parking lot in L.A., she’s got it all over her Facebook page. She remembers every frame of that video.’
Thompson: “With music videos it’s either well-known directors who do hundreds of these things, or it’s a mix of friends of the band who threw something together, or band members themselves who directed, or girlfriends of band members. They run the gamut. We can’t ‘pop’ anything until we have the base of what really went on on the set. We always go after the director, and for the ones that have done hundreds of videos, getting them to remember a Diddy video from 1997 is almost impossible, but finding a backup dancer who shook her ass on a Hummer while it was freezing cold in a parking lot in L.A., she’s got it all over her Facebook page. She remembers every frame of that video. Sometimes you can find that girl in an hour, and sometimes it takes three weeks to get somebody to call you back.”
Do you prefer older videos or newer ones?
Thompson: “We’re doing songs that came out a couple months ago, but we’re also doing the history of rap, so we’re going way back into the early ’90s to some LL Cool J and Will Smith videos. We try to do a video that is super-current, then we do a video from a year ago, then we do a video that was big five years ago, and then one that was big 10 years ago. Back in the first run of Pop Up, we’d always say the fifth video was something we called ‘the Jerk,’ and it would be a one-hit wonder band or a hair band. Now that will most likely be a rap or hip-hop classic from the early or mid-1990s that we’ll work into every episode.”
How do you choose which videos to use?
Thompson: “It’s a combination of what’s popular and what’s worked on the channel. The idea is to bring back big videos. For example, if a video is directed by Dave Grohl, we might do that Foo Fighters video because it’s kind of cool that he directed it. It may not be their biggest song, but there’s a story there. We also may have friends in the music business who have tipped us off that there might’ve been some ugliness on set for a certain video. It runs the gamut.”
Ebel: “It’ll be interesting to see how the series grows, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a phone call with a producer who is talking to me about another video while being on set for a new one that they’re currently shooting. It cracks me up when they’re like, ‘Call me about this one in a couple of months because this one is a fucking nightmare.’”
How do you go about the research once the video is chosen?
Ebel: “You start with the dry information for each video, like the production company and the director. Then you send out feelers from there. When you send out feelers to try to find people who were on set, it’s important to find a smattering of folks. A director has a different perspective than a production designer, who has a different perspective than a dancer. Everyone’s going to have different stories.”
Thompson: “All we have to work with is the music video itself. So if the director tells me a story that they got in a car accident on the way there … that’s a great story but I’m watching a video of someone swimming in a tank and singing to the camera. You get these amazing stories from people and the writers don’t use them because they can’t figure out a way to put that story into what you’re watching.”
Who do you get the best details from?
Thompson: “People like hair and makeup people, and limo drivers and back-up dancers, that’s gold. [That dancer] has got nothing to lose. She’s the one that’s going to tell us that Beyoncé was eight hours late and she was in a thong on a Hummer freezing her ass off.”
How do you fact-check those stories?
Ebel: “It’s really important to get several interviews so that if someone says something completely outlandish you can ask the next person the same question and see where their stories overlap. It’s difficult to fact-check based on a person’s experience. In interviews, we trust that people aren’t completely making things up, and I’ve never experienced a case where that’s happened. Sometimes where there is a disconnect, it’s good for some comedy. Like this one video I was working on there was a scene with a guy in a steam room and he’s the only one wearing a winter jacket. So I asked the director, ‘Why is this guy dressed in a steam room?’ And he said, ‘Oh he’s just street. Thug life.’ Then I asked somebody else and she was like, ‘Oh he was just really chubby and didn’t want to take his clothes off in a steam room.’”
‘I asked somebody else and she was like, “Oh he was just really chubby and didn’t want to take his clothes off in a steam room.”‘
What about the random historical facts and other figures?
Ebel: “When there is a fact given, it’s more than just looking on Wikipedia for verification. You try to find several legitimate sources.”
Thompson: “We’re trying to find interesting facts out of almost nothing. Like if something’s shot over two days in a warehouse in Brooklyn, then we’ll find the address of that warehouse in Brooklyn and then look on Google Maps and start doing our own research that there was a bong shop on the next corner, or whatever it is that we can tie in. So these guys are taking the facts that they’re given in interviews and they’re adding more story to it.”
What’s the average number of “pops” per video?
Thompson: “We ‘pop’ to the beat to make it more enjoyable to read, so some slower videos will have 30 pops in them and some faster videos will have 100.”
In the first episode of the new season, you pop Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and note that the video’s set was used not only in The King’s Speech but also porn. Who found that tidbit?
Thompson: “We watch these videos as a group, and as we screened that video for 25 pop-culture savants, somebody screamed out, ‘Hey that looks like that wall from The King’s Speech!’ And sure enough we looked into that location and they’d shot that film there as well as about a dozen gay porn movies.”
Had you already started working on that when Winehouse passed away?
Thompson: “We had that video done and we went back after she passed and we added some end dates to it. Tonally, we changed everything to be finite instead of ongoing.”
Have you ever upset artists with the things you say during their videos?
Thompson: “We’ve certainly brought up some facts or inferred stuff about rock stars in the past that they haven’t been that happy about — Bill Joel and Meatloaf come to mind. I will say that back in the day we took a couple shows off of the air that some labels weren’t happy with, but we did not change any pops or any facts. We stand by everything that we do. If I remember correctly, the Meatloaf video was ‘I Would Do Anything for Love’ and we gave some meatloaf recipes that implied that he was fat and he got all bent out of shape. And it was like, ‘Your name is Meatloaf! And we never said you were fat.’
“What I always fall back on is that these shows are still playing 15 years later on VH1 Classic, so, ‘Hey Meatloaf, who else is playing these music videos?’ With Billy Joel, I think it was something about when he ran his car into that house on Long Island, I think we covered that. ”
Alex, what’s the coolest thing you’ve found while researching the first few episodes of this season?
Ebel “I think my favorite fact is in the Pussycat Dolls’ ‘Don’t Cha’ video. I think at the time of the video there were six Pussycat Dolls in the band, but in the video there are seven. There’s one girl that’s just dancing in the background. Through interviews, [I found out] the rest of the Pussycat Dolls had no idea who that girl even was they were dancing with. So there’s just this random seventh Pussycat Doll. That was the only video she’s ever been in. That was her first video … and last.”