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35 Incredible Things That MTV Gave Us

From VJs and Reality TV to ‘Nirvana: Unplugged,’ celebrating the channel’s legacy on its 35th anniversary

Thirty-five years ago today, viewers tuned in to see an astronaut planting a flag on the moon — a colorful, ever-changing banner for something called "MTV" — and, whether they knew it or not, witnessed the beginning of a music-industry gamechanger. When you think of the channel today, of course, you probably think of shows involving teen moms, ironic Nineties meta-horror and Nick Cannon hanging out with his famous friends; music videos are now things you watch on YouTube. But in the three-plus decades since folks starting screaming "I want my MTV!", the network has left a lasting legacy of everything from memorable on-air personalities and mind-warping promos to selling musical styles and subcultures to the masses. It's turned oddball characters into pop-culture icons, been a key career-booster for everyone from Madonna to Britney and invented TV genres. It even helped sway a Presidential election.

In honor of MTV's anniversary — and the kick-off of MTV Classic, a cable channel devoted to the revisiting and rerunning programming from the network's glory days — we've singled out 35 things MTV has given us since that first Buggles clip ("Video Killed the Radio Star") helped the channel plant its flag on the pop landscape.

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Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ Episode

Dreamed up by songwriter Jules Shear as a way to promote his acoustic disc The Third Party, MTV's Unplugged debuted November 26, 1989, initially featuring a rotating collection of musicians who played stripped-down versions of their songs. Soon, the series became a showcase for the channel’s biggest acts — everybody from LL Cool J to Bruce Springsteen to Mariah Carey — but its artistic zenith was Nirvana's appearance almost exactly four years later. From Kurt Cobain's opening words to the studio audience — "This is off our first record, most people don’t own it" — the band wizardly transformed fiery grunge staples into moody, haunted acoustic laments, buttressed by ace covers of everyone from David Bowie to Lead Belly. Other acts used Unplugged as a sonic gimmick, but Cobain added electricity and passion to his already-momentous songs — and the performance conveyed all the pain and brilliance of an artist who took his life mere months after taping the special. TG

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Reality TV

Where were you when Puck and Pedro started getting in each other's faces? (No, it's not the JFK assassination, but still.) Back in 1992, MTV got the idea of getting "seven strangers, picked to live [together] in a house … to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start being real." And lo, Raelity TV as we know it was essentially ushered into this world, whether we asked for it or not. The first few seasons took place in New York and Los Angeles; it was the third season in San Francisco, however, when things hit critical mass as hipster d-bag "Puck" Birney and HIV-positive Pedro Zamora turned the residence into a war zone. People tuned in by the dozens. A genre was born. DF

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Mike Judge’s Career

Yes, the man who gave the world Beavis and Butt-head would have undoubtedly gone on to bigger, better things regardless of whether MTV had come calling. But the network was the one who gave Judge's early short Frog Baseball a slot on their oddball animation showcase Liquid TV, which led to his two the video–trash-talking juvenile delinquents getting their own show on the channel — which led to "TP for my bunghole" becoming a bona fide catchphrase. Without MTV turning Beavis and Butt-head into a pop-cultural phenomenon, we may never have gotten King of the Hill, or Office Space, or Idiocracythe single most prescient movie of the last 10 years — or Silicon Valley. From all of us: Thank you. DF

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The VJ

The job of VJ didn't really exist until MTV launched, but they were essential in making the station feel like it was populated by cool friends. Some of the them were weirdos who flamed out after a year (Jesse Camp); some were cultish objects of desire (Karen "Duff" Duffy); some took sarcasm to new levels (Kevin Seal). But none of them ever had a better back-announcing line than original VJ J.J. Jackson when he said, "That was Jackson Browne, and I'm brown Jackson." GE

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Randee of the Redwoods

Comedian Jim Turner had developed his airheaded character Randee of the Redwoods back during his days performing in the San Francisco comedy troupe Duck's Breath Mystery Theater. When he started doing the guitar-playing Randee ("That's with two Es, like the river") for MTV bumpers in the late 1980s, however, the semistoned hippie suddenly became a minor cult sensation. He eventually filmed his own music video and even ran for President, kind of. DF

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Madonna Writhing on the Floor at 1984 VMAs

Madonna and MTV have been great for each other since the very beginning, and the singer/icon/embodiment of Eighties pop has had her share of incredible moments involving the network. But the pinnacle of early Madge notoriety happened at the very first VMAs in 1984 when, clad in a wedding dress, she performed "Like a Virgin" while writhing on the stage — and doing so in a way that suggested she was in the process of losing her virginity at that very moment. Madonna later said that the idea to roll around the floor (and giving the viewing audience an unintentional peek at her undergarments) was due to her losing her shoe after emerging from a cake. Regardless, it would take her making out with Britney Spears to top her MTV award-show showstopper. DF

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‘Remote Control’

When MTV started introducing half-hour programs, their Platonic ideal was a show that included music videos (like Beavis and Butt-Head) or was about videos, like Remote Control: a ceaselessly entertaining game show where contestants were seated in La-Z-Boy recliners and quizzed on their knowledge of subjects like "Brady Physics" and "Dead or Canadian." The show launched the careers of Colin Quinn, Kari Wuhrer, and Adam Sandler — and had the all-time greatest game-show celebrity guest episode, when LL Cool J faced off against Julie Brown and "Weird Al" Yankovic. GE

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The Bill Clinton Presidency

Slick Willie’s first electoral victory might not have happened without his close association with MTV. The same month as his sax-playing Arsenio Hall Show spot, the candidate appeared on Choose or Lose: Facing the Future With Bill Clinton — a town-hall meeting with young voters, who questioned him on everything from who he would nominate for the Supreme Court to (famously) whether he wore boxers or briefs. (His answer: "Usually briefs.") It was a sign of the channel’s emerging political clout and the rise of Gen-X as a powerful new voting bloc, a fact underlined by MTV’s financial backing of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging young adults to register for vote. They came out in droves for Clinton, and eventually Republicans acknowledged MTV’s influence: By 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gringich was doing his own network special, Newt: Raw, where he allowed himself to be grilled by twentysomethings. TG

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‘Daria’

Every generation of bookish teenage girls finds the maladjusted heroine that they need. Ninety years ago, it was Dorothy Parker; 20 years ago, it was Janeane Garofalo. (These days, it would be Aubrey Plaza.) But at the turn of the millennium, it was the animated Daria Morgendorffer. On Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria was a foil who was notable for not being an idiot like the the two titular heroes. But when her family moved from Highland to Lawndale, she found her own voice over five seasons: smart, snarky, and deeply cynical about life as a teenager. GE

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David Fincher as an Auteur

Long before David Fincher was the A-list auteur behind Fight Club and The Social Network, he was the go-to video director when artists wanted people to know how much money they were spending on their video: black-and-white special effects for Johnny Hates Jazz's "Shattered Dreams," a slew of lip-synching supermodels for George Michael's "Freedom 90," a Metropolis remake for Madonna's "Express Yourself," or pure old-school glamour in Madge's clip for "Vogue." Fincher even captured the evanescent moment when Paula Abdul was cool, with his video for her hit "Straight Up" — if you can pull that off, you can do anything. GE

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Men at Work

It's hard to remember now, but in the early 1980s, Men at Work had a sextuple-platinum album (Business at Usual) and were regarded as the tuneful pop-rock heirs to the Police. They were an Australian act that Columbia Records had no expectation of breaking in the States — until MTV discovered that their videos, which made the group seem like a cross between the Monkees and the Goodies, played huge on the channel. One of early MTV's secret legacies is pure silliness, which is why videos like "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" became buzz-bin clips before they'd coined the term. Non-Aussies wouldn't know their name (or what a Vegemite sandwich was) without the channel airing their clips dozens of times a day. GE

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The “Words” Promo

Some of the best programming on MTV were the station ID spots: They could be blasts of hyperkinetic animation, or Denis Leary rants about Cindy Crawford, or avant-garde micro-dramas. One of the most riveting was the "Words" spot in 1988. It was a full minute of white text against a black background, but you couldn't look away from the critique of commercial messages: "THESE ARE WORDS / THAT COULD BE SAYING SOMETHING / FUNNY OR COOL OR INTERESTING / BUT THEY'RE NOT / THEY'RE JUST SITTING THERE / LIKE YOU." GE

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The 1999 VMA Awards

The Video Music Awards took over the Metropolitan Opera House and featured Prince introducing his favorite girl group (TLC), Diana Ross dandling Lil Kim's exposed breast, and a great Lauryn Hill performance. But 1999 had the best VMAs ever because it was the first time Chris Rock cut loose as host of an awards show, making fun of the Backstreet Boys ("who lives on the front street — Big Bird?"), introducing Johnny Depp as a rich man's Skeet Ulrich, bewildering David Bowie by saying "Our next presenter has a black wife," or saying Kid Rock "looks like a substitute pimp." GE

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‘Thriller’

"Jon Landis and Michael said they wanted to do a video, very expensive, about monsters. … A video about monsters? What are you, nuts?" That’s how CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff recalled the conversation he had with the Blues Brothers director and Michael Jackson when they pitched the idea for an ambitious 13-minute music video for the title track of the star's megahit 1982 album. The plot: A young man (played by Jackson) turns into a zombie and joins his undead cohorts in a choreographed dance set to the song. "Thriller" is now impossible to hear without picturing the funky dead-leg moves from the video, a routine that remains ubiquitous in the culture more than 30 years after the clip’s debut. MTV played the hell out of the clip, as well as its "Making of…" featurette. It's still one of the greatest music videos ever. TG

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Tony Bennett’s Late-Period Coolness

He was a contemporary of Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Dean Martin, an old-school crooner best known for leaving his heart in San Francisco. In other words, Tony Bennett was the last guy you'd expect MTV to embrace as the next hip musician in the post-grunge era. But after he'd made a VMA appearance with Flea and Anthony Kiedis in 1993, they gave the then–68-year-old vocalist an Unplugged special — and suddenly, Bennett had a new generation of fans and a new-school cool status. This literally was your grandfather's MTV star. DF

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Jon Stewart, TV Host

Back when The Daily Show was still a gleam in Lizz Winstead and Madeline Smithberg's eyes, the New Jersey-bred stand-up was playing M.C. to MTV's gonzo You Wrote It, You Watch It in the early Nineties, which featured members of The State re-enacting goofy stories from everyday folks. Several years later, the network would give Jon Stewart his own star vehicle — The Jon Stewart Show — and offer viewers the first glimpse of a guy who could more than hold his own on the late-night talk circuit. The gig was short-lived, granted, but watch these old clips — you can already tell Stewart was beginning to hone his wise-ass persona and rapport with guests and studio audiences. It was a preview of what was to come. DF

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‘The State’

Question: Does the phrase "Forget it, I'm ouuuuutttaaaa heeerrre" send you into hysterics? How about "I wanna dip my balls in it?" Or (a personal favorite) "Now that is the kind of pudding that only $240 can buy"? A sketch show written by a former NYU collective of the same name, The State was MTV's alt-SNL of the early 1990s — one whose skits could be as basic as Thomas Lennon's Old-Fashioned Guy WTF PSAs to an epic musical-theater bit about gamblers at a porcupine racetrack. It only ran for a year and a half, but the series' impact and alumna (David Wain, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black) continue to influence folks who prefer their comedy eccentric as hell, and their pudding very expensive. DF

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ZZ Top’s Spinning Guitars

As a bearded blues-rock trio from Texas, ZZ Top didn't seem like the most natural candidate for MTV fame. But in a series of videos from their Eliminator album — "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man" — they built up a mythology where they were hard-rocking fairy godmothers who changed the lives of average dudes by showing up with video vixens and the keys to a flashy red car. "Legs" flipped the script — they helped a girl, not a guy — and added something gloriously insane: guitars covered with white fur that could do a full 360-degree spin. GE

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Britney Spears

There was the way "…Baby One More Time" ruled the peak years of TRL. There was that makeout session with Madonna. There was the snake dance at the 2001 Video Music Awards. And, of course, there was her drowsy performance at that same awards show six years later — which set up her eventual comeback triumph and path toward Vegas-residency notoriety. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Britney Spears might be the millennial Duran Duran, the artist whose career trajectory is fairly unfathomable when you remove the channel's existence from the equation. (Heck, even the Super Bowl halftime show where she busted out a bit of "Walk This Way" was an MTV production.) MJ

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‘Jackass’

In the late 1990s, a little-known commercial actor named Johnny Knoxville pitched to underground skateboard magazine Big Brother an idea to test self-defense equipment on himself. “It was like a snuff video,” director Jeff Tremaine later recalled of the final product, which included Knoxville braving tasers and pepper spray. “The cameraman didn’t even want to be there.” From there, Jackass was born, as Knoxville and the show's brilliantly moronic crew enduring all types of pain and humiliation for our (and their own) amusement. For the three seasons, the series turned juvenile, homoerotic slapstick into art, combining the lurid allure of car-crash gawking with a think-piece deconstruction of masculinity and male bonding. TG