We’re coming up on MTV’s 32nd anniversary, and to celebrate, let’s take a wild, dizzying, and beat-driven look into the network that delivered us so many raucous music shows, a plethora of scripted gems, and — best of all — Jon Stewart with dark hair.
10. I’m From Rolling Stone
A reality competition about music journalism seemed like the perfect fit for MTV, the network that gave us Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, and Serena Altschul, and on the 2008 series I’m From Rolling Stone we got a sneak peek into Jann Wenner’s glossy empire: On this short-lived pseudo-docuseries, young writers attempted to woo RS’ editors in a bid to earn a spot on the magazine’s staff. The roving reporters tracked down musicians like Lupe Fiasco, DMX, and Cassie for stories, and at the end of the short series, contestant Krishtine de Leon’s knowledge of hip-hop secured her the win. It may have been a simplified, storified verison of music journalism, but it was a memorable glimpse. (I also love former Rolling Stone editor Joe Levy, who encouraged the contestants with writing tips and interview advice.)
MTV has given us a number of underrated game shows, many in the vein of its seminal madcap quiz series Remote Control. One was an experimental internet venture called WebRIOT; hosted by Ahmet Zappa, contestants answered cheeky multiple-choice trivia questions while home viewers played via MTV’s website. It was a swift and pretty hip show — a music-centric version of the great computer game You Don’t Know Jack, complete with nutty asides from our shiny-headed host.
8. Say What? Karaoke
Say What? Karaoke elevated the art of drunkenly howling Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” to full-on cinematic spectacle: Host Dave Holmes (and kooky cohost Laura Lifshitz who, like Holmes, was a runner-up on MTV’s Wanna Be a VJ contest) welcomed singing amateurs who performed radio singles, trembled at the mercy of a harsh panel of judges, and often realized they didn’t know the words to classics such as “Like a Virgin.” There’ve been several karaoke-themed shows on TV since Say What? Karaoke (“Don’t Forget the Lyrics” is probably the most popular), but this was much funner, cooler, and sillier than any descendant. A highpoint: Boy Meets World’s Danielle Fishel coming on and slaying Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”
7. 12 Angry Viewers
In the late ’90s, MTV responded to viewer concerns about the disappearance of music video programming with several clip-centric shows. One of them was 12 Angry Viewers, a casual b*tchfest about new music videos and which ones deserved to be played in heavy rotation. Twelve preselected jury members fought over which clips ruled the roost (with host Jancee Dunn, or Ananda Lewis in the later episodes), and this meant you’d get to see fabulous vids by Bjork, Portishead, or Daft Punk.
This gritty animated series earned an Emmy nomination for its powerful storytelling and some of the most interesting characters in MTV history. Its 13-episode run covered urban issues ranging from drug addiction to good old romantic frustration. The dankly colored animated style screams “Late ’90s MTV promo,” and thus my affection has only grown for it since that time.
5. Kathy’s So-Called Reality
Kathy Griffin’s Bravo talk show may have been a tepid venture, but the former Suddenly Susan soubrette is at her best when commanding a live audience and discussing tabloid topics. On Kathy’s So-Called Reality, Kathy Griffin reviewed then-new phenomena like Survivor with pals and didn’t shy away from outright dismissing the programs she didn’t care about. The series served as a half-hour version of Kathy’s hilarious Laugh Factory show where she curated clips of TV shows with salty commentary. We need this show again. Bad.
4. Idiot Savants
My all-time straight comedian crush Greg Fitzsimmons, hosted this amazing game show starring contestants who specialized in particular pop culture topics. Players with the most points at the end of an irreverent front game were treated to a bonus round consisting of only questions concerning their expert topic. Such a short-lived, yet excellently written, hilarious hosted series. I have fond memories of contestants who knew everything about My So-Called Life, Madonna, the films of Woody Allen, and the movie Fletch. Fun-ish fact: Time columnist Joel Stein appeared on the show as a Taxi expert.
3. 25 Lame
This is the only one-off special on the list, but what a deserving one it is: Denis Leary, Jon Stewart, Chris Kattan, and Janeane Garofalo counted down the worst videos in MTV history and offered hysterical (and often intentionally half-assed) commentary about old videos by Eddie Murphy, Journey, and Gerardo. The emotional and traumatic climax occurred when Vanilla Ice showed up in person to destroy the tape of “Ice, Ice Baby” himself with a baseball bat — just before destroying the rest of the set with the same bat. Scary? Yes. Hilarious to hear Chris Kattan scream “Vanilla!” in protest? Bigger yes.
2. The Jon Stewart Show
Speaking of Jon Stewart: The Daily Show king’s MTV beginnings yielded this charming, sophisticated talk show that was so good, it attracted David Letterman for its final episode. Musical guests during the show’s 1993-’95 run included acts like The Breeders, Belly, and Marilyn Manson, but poor performance in syndication ended the show before it could be recognized as a modern classic. Fortunately, Stewart has been formally lauded a few times since ’95.
1. The Blame Game
The Blame Game could’ve been just a hokey show about feuding exes who wanted to air their dirty laundry in a mock courtroom — and thank God, it was! The petty series pitted a different ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend against each other every episode, and a voting audience selected which member of the relationship was most responsible for the breakup. Smart-aleck “counselors” Jason Winer (who acts as an EP on Modern Family now) and Kara McNamara defended their clients with righteous humor while bro-tastic hottie Chris Reed presided over the “courtroom.” The Blame Game was a perfect blend of everything that rules about MTV: hip humor, bratty Gen X grownups, and even music appreciation (The final round saw both parties choosing appropriate songs that best summed up their arguments). I don’t understand why it hasn’t been brought back in several new versions. I’m slamming down the gavel in protest.
What are your favorite forgotten/underrated MTV shows? My runner-up: Next, the traaaaashy dating show where coeds stepped off a bus to meet a mystery man/woman and try to win a date. Sometimes there’d be gay contestants vying for the affection of a gay suitor, and sometimes those contestants would forget about the suitor and just start making out on the bus. Loved. it.