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.