Premiering in 1985, it took a while for VH1 to step outside of bigger brother MTV’s shadow. Helping it carve out an identity was Pop Up Video, a series that debuted in 1996 and anticipated the appetite for trivial trivia. Check out some facts about how producers got their inside info, and why Billy Joel wasn’t a fan.
1. MTV EJECTED A POP UP VIDEO CO-CREATOR FROM THE BUILDING.
Before circulating a laundry list of proposals to VH1 for consideration—including the idea of “narrating” a music video with facts in pop-up window boxes they called “info nuggets”—freelance producer Tad Low had been working for MTV. Co-creator Woody Thompson wrote on the duo’s website that three years prior, Low had been fired from the network and “ejected” with “two beefy security goons” escorting him out. The VP who released him was now with VH1. "Needless to say,” Thompson recalled, “our early pitch meetings at VH1 were a bit tense.” No one was tossed out: the network loved the idea and ordered a pilot.
2. THE POPS COULD’VE BEEN HANDWRITTEN.
In their pitch letter to the network, Thompson and Low floated several different possibilities for communicating trivia to viewers. Telestrated handwriting similar to what sportscasters do was one idea; a “crawl” similar to a news ticker was also considered.
3. PRODUCERS GOT THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM CREW MEMBERS.
To gather information for the 75-odd info boxes that would appear onscreen for each segment, Low and Thompson started reaching out to crew members who had worked on the videos, from hairstylists to limo drivers. Doing “You Learn” as a trial video, they discovered Alanis Morissette was averse to shaving her armpits and “kinda stunk” when she arrived for the shoot.
4. NOT ALL VIDEOS WERE BLOOP-WORTHY.
When scanning the music video landscape for targets, Thompson and Low gravitated toward popular hits that were slow to unravel—a more measured edit would give them time to insert the facts and let them appear on-screen long enough to give audiences a chance to read them. Videos with faster beats were too kinetic to Pop-ify. "Ballads are better," said Low. "Something like Green Day—forget about it."
5. THEY WERE TOO MEAN TO JAKOB DYLAN.
Bob’s kid was big in the 1990s, thanks to the success of his group, The Wallflowers, and had a sound that went over well on VH1. When Pop Up Video targeted “One Headlight,” Thompson said the network asked for it to be re-edited five or six times to be kinder to Dylan.
6. LIONEL RICHIE’S “HELLO” IS CONSIDERED THEIR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT.
For a video to take full advantage of Pop Up’s format, it was helpful to be both catchy and completely ridiculous. Lionel Richie’s 1984 video for “Hello” proved to be a perfect storm of awful, from a Playboy playmate who was presumed to be blind (she wasn’t) to a clay sculpt of Richie’s head that was used despite looking grotesque. Thompson considers it the show’s crowning moment.
7. THEY AVOIDED RAP AND HIP-HOP ...
… until the 2011 revival, anyway. In its original 1996-2002 run, VH1 had producers avoid videos featuring rap or hip-hop artists, believing the genres were the domain of MTV.
8. BILLY JOEL HAD AN EPISODE BANNED.
While Pop Up Video was never known for its gentle touch, some artists took their snark a little more personally than others. When the show covered Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” video from 1984, the network received a call from an angry Joel, who claimed his daughter was being teased about jokes relating to ex-wife Christie Brinkley. VH1 yanked the entire episode featuring Joel’s video from their schedule.
9. THEY ALMOST WENT TO THEATERS.
When Pop Up Video became VH1’s highest-rated program in 1997, the network began looking for ways to capitalize on the format in every venue possible. Reruns of The Oprah Winfrey Show got the treatment; a quiz show debuted (and fizzled). More impressively, talks began with Paramount about re-releasing the 1978 movie Grease in theaters with the info-text boxes inserted. The studio ultimately passed on the idea.
10. THERE WAS A BOARD GAME.
At the height of Pop-mania in 1999, VH1 partnered with Pressman Toy Corporation to release the Pop Up Video Trivia Game. A small LCD screen allowed for questions to materialize while players took turns answering or singing. Billy Joel seemed okay with it.