oral history

‘Omigod, That’s Crazy!’: The Oral History of MTV’s Undressed

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

MTV’s Undressed, with its distinctive opening credits sequence featuring porn-y bow-chicka-bow-bow music and hot young things floating in cut-out circles across the screen, aired five nights a week from 1999 to 2002. The low-budget scripted comedy took a light-hearted, open-minded look at the sex lives of teenagers and young adults. The oddity of Undressed — other than its creator being English-French filmmaker Roland Joffé, the two-time Oscar nominee who directed decidedly unsexy 1984 weeper The Killing Fields — was that its cast and plot were constantly turning over: Each episode contained three separate stories, and each individual story unfolded in short bursts over multiple episodes. The show is best-remembered now as having been a launching pad for hundreds of young actors: Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, The O.C.’s Adam Brody, One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, New Girl’s Max Greenfield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Marc Blucas, Battlestar Galactica’s Katie Sackhoff, Marvel’s The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s J. August Richards, the 2004 movie Superman’s Brandon Routh, Parenthood’s Jason Ritter, The League’s Katie Aselton and Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam, among many others (see this video for glimpses of Sackhoff, Brody, and Greenfield — can you spot any others?). But the show provided a jumping-off point for writers, too. Staffers who went on to later success as TV showrunners include Damon Lindelof (Lost), Steven S. DeKnight (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spartacus), Jennifer Johnson (Alcatraz), Erin Ehrlich (Awkward), and Lizzy Weiss (Switched at Birth). As our week of micro oral histories nears its conclusion, Vulture goes inside the writers’ room to hear how they managed to put the provocative show together on a shoestring.

Roland Joffé (creator and co-executive producer): I’d lived in America for some time, and I just began to feel like Americans, particularly the young people, had no real language for expressing their questions about human sexuality. It either was approached in a rather kind of cold scientific way, or it was ignored, or it was seen as sleazy. There was no way in which one could really deal with the topic in a way that I thought was interesting and freeing. And I was just thinking about that and thinking, “Gosh, that’s what television should be doing.”

Dale Roy Robinson (co-executive producer, seasons 1-5): Roland Joffé wanted to change the sexual mores of American television, and MTV wanted to make a show where kids took their shirts off in the first 20 seconds.

Jeff Goode (writer, season 1): Joffé’s concept was basically to have stories about people before, during, and after having sex. So, people getting undressed to get into bed, people getting undressed as they get out of bed, or people in the act of lovemaking. And there would be three stories that would bracket MTV’s age group, so that every episode would have one teenage story, one college story, and one post-college story.

Neil Landau (head writer, season 1-2): It’s what’s called a strip show: You take a story, break it down into small pieces, and edit it together so it can run over five nights. When I was a kid there was a show called Love, American Style, and that was only on once a week, but it was the same kind of idea, with three storylines intercut.

Jennifer Johnson (writer, seasons 1-2): We had three storylines going in every episode, so we were constantly casting and constantly writing and constantly building new sets on a shoestring. And since it was everyone’s first time, there was such excitement surrounding it.

Robinson: It was my first job in television and it was crazy. I was hired as a line producer on the pilot, and when it got picked up to series Roland was off making a feature and so was the director. [Since] I was really the only one left, I produced the pilot! Luckily, MTV didn’t know how to make scripted television, either, so we were all kind of in the dark, and we all just did it on faith.

Steven S. DeKnight (writer, seasons 1-4): It had that classic feel of a bunch of kids getting together and saying, “Let’s put on a show!” No budget, an impossible amount of work.

Lizzy Weiss (writer, season 2): We were all in our twenties and really eager, and psyched to put on a show, and didn’t even care that we weren’t being paid Writers Guild minimum at the time. We all got into the Guild off the show.

Johnson: Basically, people got off the bus in Los Angeles, and then went straight to the Undressed casting and writing offices. I’m not kidding.

DeKnight: It was actually my first professional writing job. I had this Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spec [script] that nobody wanted to read. Absolutely nobody. But my friend Dale Roy Robinson — he’s the unsung hero of Undressed — was working on the pilot, and he told me, “If it ever gets picked up, I can send your stuff to Roland Joffé.” And six months later, he called me back and said, “Well, miracle of miracles, it’s getting picked up!” So I sent him over my Deep Space Nine spec, and Dale passed that on to Roland Joffé’s people, and in one of those great Hollywood coincidences, the guy who read it was a big Deep Space Nine fan. So that script got me hired on the show.

Erin Ehrlich (writer, season 4): I think I had a Sex and the City spec at the time that they read.

Damon Lindelof (writer, season 3): I’d been a writers assistant on this ABC show called Wasteland, which was Kevin Williamson’s follow-up to Dawson’s Creek. And then the show was cancelled. So I’d had my break, and then was totally destitute, within a period of 5 months. But I’d gotten an agent out of that experience, and they called me in the middle of January 2000. I got the call for Undressed while I was filling out — this is true — an application at Starbucks. Then my cellphone rang, and it was my agent saying, “Have you ever heard of this MTV show Undressed?” And I mean, anybody who got stoned as often as I did at eleven o’clock at night knew what Undressed was. They were staffing up for their next “cycle,” which is what they called them — they weren’t seasons. I soon learned that they were called “cycles” because it feels like being on a bicycle for ten weeks without stopping.

Robinson: I basically set up the production to shoot as three separate features shooting simultaneously. And I can’t claim to be the genius of creating this machine; I did create it, but it was sort of through happenstance. When MTV picked up the show in April 1999, they wanted to be on the air in June, I think — something really fast. When I started putting together the shooting schedule, there just wasn’t enough time to shoot this on one stage. And there wasn’t enough time to shoot it on two stages. There was only enough time if we shot it on three stages. And so that’s what we did! [Laughs]

Landau: Undressed was shot with single camera, like Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm versus a multi-camera sitcom like Two and a Half Men. Single camera takes a lot longer, because you have to get more coverage. So there was always the discussion: “Can we turn this into a multi-camera so that we could shoot it much more efficiently?” Most hour or half-hour single-camera shows, maybe they’ll shoot at the most ten pages a day, and we were shooting on three stages at the same time, sometimes 50, 60 pages. So it had to just move really fast, but it never became multi-camera, just because MTV wanted it to have the look of — not a documentary, but almost the style of Friday Night Lights, where the camera’s sort of a character, eavesdropping.

Goode: The original concept was three bedroom sets, with a couple in each one. And I said, “I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school, I rarely had sex in a bed.” Maybe if your parents were out of town, but you didn’t bring people over to your house to have sex; you had sex in cars or, [like] I happened to have, a van. And so I pitched them the idea that maybe it didn’t always have to be in beds. And I wrote a story arc that took place in a van. I also pitched them the idea that maybe it doesn’t always have to be about couples, because you can have things about sex that aren’t just boyfriend-girlfriend — say, a couple of girls in a dorm room.

Robinson: Everything took place in one set per storyline, and it was always interior and at night.

Goode: The first season was filmed in Marvin Gaye’s old house in Koreatown. Yeah, the one where he was shot. It had an upstairs area that they could use as the apartment for the older couple, and they made the back of the garage into a dorm room, and then they put a van in the front of the garage for the high-school kids.

DeKnight: That first season, we wrote, cast, shot, and edited 30 half-hour episodes in about 20 weeks. Which was a frantic pace.

Robinson: I was very paranoid, especially the first season, that I’d built this house of cards and that, if anything went wrong, it would all just come collapsing down around my ears. What was interesting is that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong — but because there were so many moving parts, it didn’t matter. We just kept shooting. You know, we’d lose a director, we’d lose an actor, sometimes we’d lose an entire crew off a stage, and within 12-24 hours we were back up and shooting. We just kept going.

Ehrlich: We’d just break all these stories. I was there three, four months, and it was like 40 half-hours. It was something insane. But you’d just keep going, you’d just keep churning it out. On Awkward, I’m on set every second. But that show, you just didn’t have time to be on set. The whole time you were employed, you were sitting down and writing.

Robinson: More often than not, whatever you wrote went to the stage and they shot it. I remember the first season, we actually had to hire an additional person to collate the scripts for the network. We Xeroxed a half a billion pages of script that first season.

Landau: There were lots of times when we were literally printing out pages in the writers’ office and then running them down to the stage, handing them to the director and the actors, and they were shooting them, practically live. And that was fun. It was exhilarating. And there were many nights that I remember driving home sometimes when the sun was coming up, because it was just so hard to stay on top of the material.

Heidi Higgenbotham (costume supervisor, season 1): We didn’t even have pre-fitting. The actors came that day to work, and we just dressed them in three costume changes. There was no prep, there was constant shooting, and there were three stages going at one time. So you got very good at dressing people very quickly.

Weiss: None of us writers were married. None of us had kids. Maybe Neil [Laundau] did, because he was a little older. But there was a college dorm room–type feel to it, because we were all young and single. At that point, you don’t have family pulling at you, so the job became everything. Every day we’d have to churn out more stories: Come up with five stories, come up with five stories, come up with five more! It was a perfect learning ground and stepping stone for us, like a mini-graduate school or something.

Ehrlich: It wasn’t like most shows, where you had an office where you could write or you could write at your house; the show was super-low budget and it was a tiny place. So I would go out and sit at the front desk, and people would come in and think I was the receptionist all day long. And when you’re in production, there are five million people coming in, dropping stuff off. I’d be signing for packages, and then writing, and then greeting people at the door, and then writing. But I just got used to it.

Weiss: The writers’ room for many weeks [moved to executive producer] Pamela Long’s house. There were six writers, and would drive to her house and sit in her living room and pitch stories about blowjobs. And I drove home thinking, “I cannot believe this is my job.”

Lindelof: My entire first two days of Undressed was the writers pitching ideas to Steve DeKnight, and DeKnight saying, “Did it, Season 1. Did it, Season 2.” He’s like, “Don’t you guys even fucking watch this show?” It turned out we’d all kind of seen it, but we were all either getting stoned or eating or having sex while it was on. So we didn’t really have an encyclopedic knowledge of the deep mythology of Undressed up to that moment.

Ehrlich: What was funny is by the very end of the [season] order, you had run out of money — so the very last story arc, you couldn’t have more than two people [laughs] in a tiny room, and maybe somebody could exit and re-enter, but you couldn’t have anything fancy — I mean, it was a challenge! I remember thinking, “Okay, now it’s a hotel room and there are two people. Go! Three-story arc about two people in a hotel room!” And that’s what you would do! And you just learned to do it so it would become the norm. I mean, it was fun. But I think about it now and I’m like, “Omigod, that’s so crazy.”

Robinson: The show, by definition, was constantly eating through the cast. We would cast 120 actors per season, sometimes more. And after that first season, we never got an actor who had seen a camera before. There was a joke between the directors: “Day 1, the actor learned that they need to come to set knowing their lines. Day 2, they learned how to hit a mark. Day 3, they were gone.”

Mary Jo Slater (casting director, seasons 2-6): I had more fun on that show than anything I’ve ever done! At first it was like trial by fire; it was something we’d never done before, so fast and so many people. But we had the best time. We saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids, and they were all so eager and excited and innocent.

DeKnight: If you were an attractive person who could speak, you were on Undressed during that time period. Storylines turned over so quickly that easily halfway through a season, we had problems finding people that could walk and talk on camera.

Landau: The writing and the directing were union, but the actors were non-union. And that was to keep the cost down. It became an opportunity for actors who didn’t have a lot of experience to be able to get their SAG cards. And in some cases, we found really good people that just hadn’t had a break yet; in other cases, a lot of times, the casting was more about what people looked like than their actual acting ability.

Slater: We found people anywhere we could. If I went to a restaurant and there was a great-looking waiter or waitress, they were on Undressed.

DeKnight: Literally, you can’t throw a phone in Hollywood without hitting somebody who worked on Undressed. Years later, when I was directing on Angel, I was talking with J. August Richards about how we came up in the business. I mentioned Undressed, and he said, “Oh, I was on Undressed!” I said, “Of course you were!’”

Robinson: The kid who played Superman, Brandon Routh — I directed him. He played a character on the college stage named Wade.

Slater: Max Greenfield was hilarious. He was definitely one of our faves.

Taran Killam (actor, season 4): I was the horny best friend of a guy who was going to do a study session with the new girl in school who had a bad reputation. I think my name was Blake, who’s like, “You’ve gotta take advantage, man. You’re a nerd but if you bag this girl that’s gonna help your reputation.” Turns out — [Undressed was] all about twists and turns — the girl had made up her own reputation from her last school, and she herself was a former prude, and they fall in love as two prudes. But then I muck it up as the horny best friend, trying to force a threesome on the group. It blows up in my face and they end up falling in love. It’s a beautiful story that was portrayed in a total of about eight minutes. Complicated, layered, textured. I believe the director kept coming up and saying, “Great. Faster and louder.”

Katie Aselton (actor, season 5): I was a lesbian co-ed. I think my name was Lisa, and my big storyline was, my little sister was coming to visit, and I had to keep my gay relationship a secret from her and it was torture. And then I finally told her and she loved me anyway. But for a 20-year-old kid from Maine, this was huge — I had only been going out for ingénue roles. For me it was like, “Omigod, I can really sink my teeth into this one.” [Laughs] It was one of those things that sort of cemented what I wanted to do. It was after Undressed that I packed up and moved to New York and went to theater school, because I was like, “I actually want to be a better actress.” And the day after I graduated, that’s when Mark [Duplass] and I made The Puffy Chair. So things changed after that.

Killam: I remember they asked me to come back and I was so embarrassed that I said I have finals, like, two months before I had finals. 

Joffé: I used to have story conferences on the phone, with scripts that had come in and were lying all over my hotel bedroom. And the meetings were hysterical. Because they were weird conversations like, “No, if he wants to wear her knickers, that’s absolutely fine.”

Landau: My favorite story we did was written by Lizzy Weiss, who’s now the showrunner of Switched at Birth on ABC Family, and she wrote a superb movie called Blue Crush. She had an idea called “Gay For a Day,” about identical twin sisters, one who is a lesbian, and one who’s straight …

Weiss: … Monica and Dominique, and they switched places for the night. Wait, I have a whole switch thing going! It started all the way back then! I had no idea.

Lindelof: One of the first stories that I was tasked with writing involved lesbians in a hot tub. And I remember being terrified by feeling like I needed to be really non-lascivious. I didn’t want to propagate stereotypes that heterosexual men just wanted to see women making out with each other. I wanted it to be real and grounded. And I tried writing that version of it, and the response back was like, “They need to be making out after three lines of dialogue. There’s way too much chatting here.”

DeKnight: The first episode I did was this thing about puppet sex therapy — the guy gets caught up in it and can’t do anything without the puppet. It was kind of like the movie The Beaver, years before.

Weiss: My best friend at the time was sleeping with two guys, and she had two bathrooms, and one guy went to use the guest bathroom and he found a used condom in the bathroom that wasn’t his, and he realized that she’d been sleeping with someone else. And that is what busted her. So I pitched that and I turned that into a story.

DeKnight: Another story I wrote was about these two college roommates, and one guy is having trouble with his girl, so they do this thing to explore their fantasies; they write their fantasies on little slips of paper and put them in a fishbowl, and then they get together and draw them out one at a time. And the guy’s friend reads them and thinks they’re all lame, so he secretly replaces them with his own. And they just get more and more bizarre, to the point where the girlfriend is standing on a chair singing “The Star Spangled Banner” while her boyfriend throws lunchmeat at her. That always stood out at me, because it got super weird.

Johnson: One of my episode titles that my husband and I still joke about, because I was dating him at the time, is “Going, Going, Gonorrhea.” And that was actually based on something that had happened to him, where his ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend said that he had an STD, and he was an architecture student, and it turned out that he had drank so much coffee that it was actually a urinary tract infection.  I was like, “That’s a great story for Undressed!”

Landau: There were times when we went too far and MTV slapped us down. There was one in particular: we had an idea called “loose screw,” about someone at a party who sleeps with multiple people at that party. MTV killed the episode. They just thought it was too racy.

Robinson: It wasn’t HBO; it was MTV. Even though we were on at 11 or 11:30 at night, depending on the season, we still had to make a show that was about sex without showing anything. So essentially, it was a show about talking about sex. That said, we definitely got into standards and practices conversations. I remember on the pilot, MTV sent me over a list of all the things that we could and couldn’t say and do. I don’t remember any of it except for the one that just cracked me up, which was “ass without the hole is always okay!”

Goode: A writer had pitched this story of these two girls in a dorm room, and one of them teaches the other one how to use a vibrator. And MTV was like, “Great, we love that, that’s perfect, let’s do it.” And then once we had the finished script and were ready to shoot it, they were like, “Well, now, the vibrator can never come out of the box. We can never see the vibrator. It can’t be onscreen at all.” It was a lot of things like that, that were just sort of comical.

Robinson: I remember there was a storyline where there was a kid who drove a hearse and was a band manager of a group, so they constantly would be having band meetings in the back of his hearse. The scene was that a girl was going to go down on him in this hearse. He’s seated, and as she disappears out of frame, he takes her sunglasses off her head and puts them on. We saw nothing other than her just disappearing. But I remember talking to a standards and practices person, and them saying, “Do you have any takes where he doesn’t put on her sunglasses?”

Joffé: There was constant tension. Tension is not the right word, actually, because I really loved working with them. The crew at MTV, I found absolutely terrific. We probably had slightly more problems with the legal department, but that’s what they were there for. Essentially it would be like this: I’d say, “We’re going to do a storyline about a woman with two lovers.” And there would be a sort of silence, and a couple of days later, I’d get an email from MTV that said, “Dear Ro, we’ve been thinking about this, and we think that that’s actually unnatural, and we don’t think the audience is going to like it.” So I wrote back with a list of all the famous threesomes that had ever been, and said, “If you look up polyamory, you’ll discover it’s a lot older than its opposite.” And they kind of bought that, and in fact, those stories became extremely popular.

Landau: We did an episode that maybe was groundbreaking at the time, that kind of pushed the envelope, which was girls teaching each other how to put condoms on guys using bananas. You’d never seen that before on TV. But MTV let that slide, because they actually felt like it was good sex education. And it was funny.

Goode: It took all of that first season to work up to the point where we could show a condom on, you know, national cable.

Joffé: I’ve got a frame versioned in one of my offices, of an email that said “Dear Roland, it is not MTV’s policy to teach America how to have oral sex.” And my reply was, “why not?” To which they didn’t reply. Otherwise I found them remarkably friendly, warm and good working partners.

Johnson: I don’t remember getting pushback from MTV. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t showrunning, so I wasn’t as aware of all the network calls. But I remember them really telling us to push the envelope. We really kind of went for it, and we were all that age group, so we were drawing upon our own experiences. So I don’t remember any blowback. I remember feeling like was nothing that we couldn’t touch upon.

Robinson: We managed to make 222 episodes, if I’m not mistaken, without doing anal sex. But I don’t know if there’s anything else that we didn’t do. Obviously we had a lot of heterosexual and homosexual sex. I don’t know if we ever did a transgendered character. It wasn’t as much on the radar at the time.

DeKnight: For the time, especially, I think we got away with murder. There was a teenage oral sex thing that I’m still shocked we got on the air.

Robinson: I would talk to the directors when we would start any given season and say, “If we’re not getting calls from Standards and Practices, we’re not doing our job.” So we definitely tried to push the boundaries without ever showing anything.

Joffé: What determined the end? After six seasons, I couldn’t think of another sexual situation we hadn’t done! You know, my reading material was getting worse and worse. And I think MTV probably was thinking that they needed to move on.

Robinson: Unfortunately, they took it to Canada and killed it. [For the sixth and final season, Joffé moved the production to Montreal so that he could use his British citizenship to get a tax break; during season, the tone of the show changed considerably.] Not to say it wasn’t still Undressed, but it wasn’t the show that I made, for sure. For me, it was very important that, even though the show was about sex, there was an innocence to it. I never wanted to turn it into The Red Shoe Diaries for the younger set. It should never feel like it was softcore porn. We tried to make it feel intimate, and we tried to make it feel real, and we tried to make it feel that there was an indie-film edge to it. Hopefully we avoided making it feel like a soap opera, although we often times described it as a soap. For me, the two main things in the writing and the directing were humor — soap operas are not funny! — and having a sense of innocence.

Joffé: I’ve often talked about the idea of doing it again. In fact, something I’m discussing with Amazon Studios is a show I want to call Twisted Zippers, which would be just a slightly more sophisticated, fun version of Undressed.

Lindelof: I have to say, it was a lot of fun. And I’m not just saying that because it’s politic. I look back on it fondly.

Weiss: It was like boot camp for us; it was like writers’ boot camp. It taught me a lot about going out on really strong turns that will make the audience come back, and that has stayed with me forever.

Johnson: People talk about the Roger Corman school, and how all of these accomplished writers and directors came up working with on movies Roger Corman. Undressed was a bit after that, but very much the same type of school.

Goode: It was a lot of work, and it was a lot of people who were early in their career and were not being paid that much. So if anyone did a good job and could move on to something else, they left. I loved the show and I would have totally stayed on, but I was getting other work. My agent would have killed me if I’d stayed on Undressed just for the love of Undressed.

Ehrlich: I sold my first movie right before I got the job, and I got notes on that movie right as we were finishing Undressed. And even though I had a great experience, I was completely burned out.

DeKnight: At one point, I realized, “I have to get off the show. I can’t do this anymore.” I was writing a scene, and our mandate was always to get people without their clothes on at some point. And I’m writing this scene between these two high school girls, and I have to get one of them in their underwear, so during their conversation, she starts fidgeting and says “This tag in my shirt is driving me crazy!” and whips off her shirt. I said, “That’s it! I’m out! I can’t do it anymore!” I left to join Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Weiss: I got Blue Crush right after my first season, so I had to quit. [My Undressed stint] was short-lived. It was like freshman year.

Johnson: It was great. I have a big smile on my face as I’m recalling these stories, because it was a really positive experience.

Slater: As Christmas gifts one year, they gave us all a white bathrobe that says “Undressed” on it. I still have that bathrobe! If I could find another Undressed to work on before I retire, I’d be very happy.

Robinson: We did 170 episodes in under two years. And how I think about that is, we basically did the same amount of content that Seinfeld did in eleven years, in under two. It’s a wonder that any of us remember anything.

The Oral History of MTV’s Undressed