A Short History of 'Pop-Up Video'

In honor of VH1's 30th anniversary, we take a deep dive into one of its greatest series

Photo: VH1

Thirty years ago this week, Video Hits One began offering the too-old-for-MTV crowd a sensible alternative. That channel would eventually grow into the entity we know today as VH1, and with that name, it would nail that pop culture nostalgia sweet spot with series like Behind the Music, VH1 Storytellers and more.

But above all the VH1 hits, it was Pop-Up Video that captured the hearts and minds of a certain kind of media-addled, know-it-all geek. The series first exploded in 1994, and our culture of nostalgia and trivia obsession has only grown stronger in the Internet age. With a hat tip towards VH1’s big 3-0, People spoke with Woody Thompson, co-creator of Pop-Up Video, about how this landmark series came to be.

How did the idea for Pop-Up Video originate?

My partner Tad Low and I were 28, we were pitching networks and no one would buy anything from us because we’d never executive produced a show before. They told us to partner with all these old pop culture legends, but we were like, “We’re the anti-Dick Clark. We don’t want cheese. We want stuff that has a real voice to it, that speaks to people our age.”

We went to VH1 and we pitched them ten ideas – a news show, a comedy show, a behind-the-scenes shows, all twisted and funny and with this confident, snarky attitude. The problem, of course, was that VH1 was now “Music First” and none of the shows had music videos in them.

So we came back the next week and said, “We’ve got it. We’ll string together music videos – five in an hour – and we will tell the story of Madonna losing her virginity while she is singing ‘Like a Virgin.’ We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the making of that music video in the moment.” And they were like, “Wait, you’re going to have people read TV?”

But they had us do a pilot. It had Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” and TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

We called up the directors and hair stylists and limo drivers – all the people who’d never been spoken to before. They told us how Alanis doesn’t shave her armpits, and how she kinda stunk when she came to the set, and how she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend the whole time. We called it Pop-Up Video and VH1 ordered ten of them.

It became an instant hit, and VH1 was like,”Oh my God, people are actually watching it!”

How did you decide what videos would comprise an episode?

We went back in time. We led with the most current, hottest song we could, and then one that was hot within the year as No. 2, and then one that was hot within three years and then one that was hot within ten years. And then the last one – the dessert, as we called it – was from the first days of MTV – your Billy Idols and your Cyndi Laupers.

If you were going to make your own persona Pop-Up Video greatest hits list, which videos would be on it?

The best videos are always the throwback videos, and the worst videos had such great stories. Lionel Richie’s “Hello” is by far the greatest video we ever popped. It had so many layers. It’s such a horrible performance by him. We talked to the sculptor who made the head of Lionel that they used. They only had the one head, and they only saw it the day of the shoot, and it looked like Patrick Ewing, this horrific sculpture. But they still used it. And then the girl in the song is blind, and in real life she wasn’t; she was a Playboy Playmate. But people to this day still think she’s actually blind.

I think “Hot for Teacher” is a fantastic video. We always liked going after people who took themselves very seriously. We went after Jakob Dylan. The Wallflowers were big at the time. He was a VH1 artist, and so we were told by the network to treat him with kid gloves. We had to revise our “One Headlight” video five or six times because they kept saying it was too harsh. He was one of those guys who instead of making an honest video just made these things that portrayed him as a beautiful ladykiller.

For Duran Duran’s “Rio,” we were pulling crewmembers out of rehab and sending them the music video trying to trigger their memories, and they literally couldn’t remember making the video, they were so f–––ed-up at the time. But “Rio” was the one where they lost the first two days of shooting because someone just left it at a bar. It was stories like that that were just so fascinating to hear.

A big favorite here at PEOPLE was A-ha’s “Take On Me.”

It’s classic. It’s one of the greatest music videos of all time. I gotta tell you that around the office we had a team of writers and researchers, and when something like “Take on Me” came up, we were petrified because we only had one shot at it. You only get maybe 75 pops, 10 or 15 words each for an entire video, and there are very few stories you can actually tell. With “Take on Me,” there were so many amazing stories, not just about the band, but also the animation, and how long it all took in post [-production]. I remember agonizing over it because it was one of our favorite videos of all time.

What kind of reactions do you get when people find out you created Pop-Up Video?

Usually, people just break into the song. When VH1 bought the show, they wanted it to be this sophisticated thing, like Divas or Behind the Music – very network. We wanted ours to look child-like, and we wanted our theme song to sound like we were selling soap – something you can’t get out of your head, even down to the bloop sound effect. And that’s how it turned out.

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