the vulture transcript

The Vulture Transcript: The Real World Co-Creator Jonathan Murray on 25 Seasons of the Reality Hot-Tub Groundbreaker

Photo: MTV/Courtesy shot
The cast of the first Real World. Photo: MTV/Courtesy shot

MTV isn’t big on anniversaries: An ever-evolving network constantly shedding one generation of viewers for the next, it usually doesn’t like to remind its audience that it’s been around since the days of Ronald Reagan. But tonight marks a milestone that even the youth-chasing can’t completely ignore: It’s the premiere of the 25th edition of The Real World, and this season it’s returning to Las Vegas. Created by Jonathan Murray and the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, RW pioneered the hot tubs and hookups template that’s inspired several generations of unscripted imitators, from Big Brother and The Bachelor to MTV’s current megahit Jersey Shore. To mark the occasion, Vulture asked Murray to talk about the highs (and) lows of a franchise that’s proven to be MTV’s most enduring series.

So after 25 seasons, what’s changed the most about The Real World and the people who live on it?
When we first started, when we would say to [people], “Hey, we want to bring you to a house, have you live in it, and film everything that happens” — they just looked at us like we were crazy. There was no conception of what that meant. I don’t even know if we used the word “reality”; it was just sort of this crazy experiment, so no one had any preconceived ideas about what they were going into. The biggest difference now is everyone’s seen reality shows and casting has become more of a challenge because you have to find people for whatever reality show that you truly think are right for that show, but aren’t just another person who wants to be on a reality show — and if they don’t get in choice A, they’ll do choice B or choice C.

So what is the selection process like now? How do you try to find people who aren’t just trying to become reality whores?
Well, we still look for the same thing. We still look for charismatic personalities, people who have a sense of humor, someone who expresses themselves in an interesting way, someone who has a look that’s interesting or attractive, someone who has an interesting background. Usually people that have had to overcome things in their lives are more interesting than those who have had a smooth and easy life. I think the challenge for us is to find the people who truly want to be on the show because they want the experience. There are a lot of people who just want to be on reality TV because they want whatever fame comes with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we really want someone who’s coming on the show because they want to experience living with six other diverse people.

Besides being more aware of being on TV, what’s the biggest difference between cast members from the nineties and now?
The way young people consume alcohol, that’s dramatically changed. I think there wasn’t this word “binge drinking,” in the early nineties. I think we first noticed that in Hawaii, when Ruthie drank too much. We saw that there was a real issue of drinking among young people. Back in the early nineties people were a little more prudish, a little less exhibitionist.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Was there an “aha” moment during season one of Real World where you turned to Mary-Ellis [Bunim, the show’s co-creator] and said, “I think we’ve got something here”?
We actually said that to each other when we did the pilot. We were sitting in the back of this little kitchen we had turned into a control room, with Lauren Corrao from MTV, watching those first six individuals come into that loft down on Broadway where we shot in 1991 over Memorial Day weekend. There was this instant energy in the air as they were meeting each other. There was flirtation going on. And there was conflict. We looked at each other and said, “Wow, there’s something really amazing here.”

What else surprised you about that first year in New York?
We had this crazy idea that people would all get up at the same time in the morning, go to sleep at the same time at night — so we were so understaffed because we suddenly found ourselves having to shoot almost 24 hours a day. We were just so in over our head it was almost like a death march in terms of the crew trying to get through those thirteen weeks and to cover everything. And when we got to post, we couldn’t find editors who could edit for this. We either found documentary editors who did a dry documentary approach or music videos who made it flashy, but didn’t tell a story.

Did the pilot feature the original cast members that we know, like Julie and Kevin?
No, the pilot were six individuals who were just on the pilot.

Have you ever shown that?
I think we’ve shown clips of it at the Paley Center and things like that. It actually looks remarkably like the series. It looked very dark, but the approach to the editing and the storytelling was very similar to what the series became.

The people in that pilot were almost the first reality stars!
Ironically, one of them became a star in another way. There was a woman that was Lauren’s assistant named Tracy Grandstaff who became the voice of Daria on the MTV series several years later.

Is Real World sort of like SNL now, where it’s meant for younger people and maybe folks over 40 shouldn’t watch because they’ll just be appalled at what’s happening with the kids today?
Usually the show, when it’s reviewed, it’s reviewed by people in their forties. And it’s funny how quickly those of us in our forties forget what life was like in our twenties, when we were figuring out who we were, and when the stakes weren’t as big. We could make mistakes. We could screw up and people would forgive us. Once you’re in your forties, if you screw up you’re pathetic. But when you’re in your twenties, it’s sort of part of that process of figuring yourself out. So yeah, the show isn’t meant for people in their forties. It’s meant for people in the 12 to 34 demo. What’s been great is that every few years we have a new group of viewers, and for them the show is fresh and new. I run into people who say to me, “Oh my God, that first season in Vegas was amazing!” And I say, “Actually, that was our tenth season in.”

Vegas was really a turning point, though. It was sort of the season in which the show really did seem to shift toward the more hedonistic, where everyone got drunk all the time. And now that’s a staple for Real World. Wasn’t the first Vegas season sort of a reboot?
Not really. I think the ratings in Miami were higher than they were in Vegas, and that was season four I think. Every season sort of has its own vibe, and Vegas very much reflected the Vegas culture. People go there to party and have fun: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But we’ve done recent seasons, like in Brooklyn, where we had Ryan who was back from the Iraq War. We saw him dealing with the aftermath of being home, and actually seeing him be called back to duty. We had Caitlin, who had just had sexual reassignment surgery. So every season has its flavor and feel. Some are more outrageous, some are more tame.

Have there been any moments you regret over the seasons? Anything you’ve left in the show that maybe you wish you had cut?
When we did the D.C. season, in all the excitement of Obama coming in and young people being engaged — it landed with a big thud. When we talked to our viewers, [they said] they didn’t tune into The Real World to watch a discussion of religion, which they saw as esoteric. They said if they wanted to watch that they would watch CNN. That reminded us that the issues need to be very personal and individual.

We’ve also always had the question of when do you step out of the room when there’s some kind of romantic thing happening. And I think that [in the Denver season] we realized maybe we were showing a little too much, we needed to pull back — that we should focus on the romance and not the sex. We learn every time, and we’re certainly not perfect as storytellers. We don’t have the luxury of spending the amount of time someone spends on a film, so we are editing the show essentially as we’re making it. So it’s a work in progress, always.

What about the Ruthie season? One of the more controversial moments from the entire run of Real World was when she drove drunk. How do you walk that line between capturing the “real world” without also encouraging people to act out in order to get more screen time?
The thing about The Real World is we shoot for seventeen weeks. Because we shoot for such a long time, I do feel that people settle down and just lead their lives, which works in our favor because it’s impossible to pose or act or rev things up for eighteen weeks. Certainly through the casting process we want to make sure the people who apply for the show really are who they say they are, but in terms of your question: It’s a television show. We don’t want anyone to get killed doing it but at the same time we don’t want to be the adult, we don’t want to step in every time and make the decisions. After all, this is supposed to be about that time in your life when you’re in the real world and when you have to deal with your own mistakes. We want the cast members dealing with each other rather than looking to us for all the answers.

In the case of Ruthie, that was a big wake-up call for us. [We] realized, first of all, the drinking that was going on. But then the producer stopped her and said, “Don’t drive” and she moved over to the side, and her friend drove. Then she switched places. Basically as far as we were concerned, she was done with driving while she was in the Real World house. We encouraged her to seek some help through rehab. We’d had had the rule before that you can’t drive after drinking. But now, we’ve got to the point where we have a little breathalyzer that we can give someone so we can make sure that the designated driver for the evening has not been drinking.

Okay, so switching from the wild to the tame: Have there been seasons where, in the middle of a season, you think, Wow: Why did we cast that person?
Well, I think we’ve had our disappointments. The London season, which was our third season, a lot of our kids just shut down over there. I think we underestimated how challenging it would be for them to live in another country. And a couple of the American kids just spent the whole time in the house watching TV. That’s why we got rid of the TV in the house [after] that. It’s also partly why we then came up with the idea of a group project or job, so when they got there … it would sort of smooth their way into the city and help them meet other people.

Do you still interact with ex-cast members? Do you have to find new ways of politely not returning any phone calls?
Actually, we had a Real World 25th anniversary and launch party for Real World 25 in Las Vegas on Saturday night. There were probably 30 former cast members there, going all the way back to Norman from the very first Real World. I went to the wedding of Judd and Pam, who were on San Francisco. It really is a family of people. We’ve had 186 people on The Real World now. We’ve had marriages, we’ve had deaths, we’ve had everything.

How will this new Vegas season compare to the first one?
The thing that ties this cast together is that all of them, or most of them, have had very challenging upbringings. A number of them had parents with drug problems. A couple of them were adopted because their parents weren’t in the position to raise them. So it’s a very interesting group. They’re survivors.

You’ve also got a cast member who openly admits to having done gay porn and another who spent a couple of years in juvenile hall. Wouldn’t those be the kinds of things that would’ve disqualified potential cast members ten years ago?
The Real World has never been about perfect people. In fact, the most interesting cast members usually have some flaws. We’ve always been very open to people who have had troubles in their past or have done things they’re maybe not so proud of now, because we think those are more interesting people. I think if it’s a dating show you probably have a different sort of approval process. Everything that’s come out on the show, we’ve known it would probably come out. Our casting process is so thorough: It’s a three-month process with numerous interviews, a 26-page application, we do a background check, we talk to their friends and enemies, they visit with a psychologist. So we understand who we’re putting on the show before we put them there.

Real World is one of the most copied reality shows in the world out there. Is there one particular clone that’s stood out to you as the most blatant rip-off?
You know, if we weren’t doing so well, I may have some kind of bitterness that other people do shows in houses, other people use confessionals, other people have adopted a lot of what we sort of set in motion back in ‘92. But I don’t. I think court cases have already been waged, and basically if you change one element of a reality show it’s considered a new show.

Like giving the cast a Jersey accent?
Well, that actually is a different show. Our show is about seven diverse people living together, and their show is about seven people from sort of a micro-culture living together. And they bring the same people back every year; they almost become set in stone characters. Our seven people are new every year and they’re expected to grow and change as a result of the experience.

What do you think of Jersey Shore?
I think Jersey Shore is great. I think it’s brilliantly cast. I watched an episode the other night and I was roaring with laughter. They can make a whole episode out of someone being late to go out to the bar. I’m amazed how successful it is. And I’m a little jealous. But my guess is — and here’s your quote! — The Real World will be on the air a long time after Jersey Shore leaves. Just like The Real World has survived The Osbournes, The Hills, and Laguna Beach.

The Vulture Transcript: The Real World Co-Creator Jonathan Murray on 25 Seasons of the Reality Hot-Tub Groundbreaker