Seven years ago, Rolling Stone interviewed Real World co-creator Jonathan Murray about the newest season of the groundbreaking MTV reality show. At the end, we ran an idea past him: “[Thinking] back to that original cast in New York, it would be nice to see something with them again. Maybe put them all back into a loft for a week.”
He was a little skeptical. “I don’t know doing it that way is best, and I’m not sure they’d be willing to do it,” he said at the time. “I’m not sure the current audience on MTV is interested in seeing a reunion of those people.”
He was right that the current MTV audience likely has little interest in seeing a bunch of middle-aged people move back into a New York City loft they called home nearly three decades ago. But CBS All Access, which is rebranding as Paramount+, is built around nostalgic revivals like Star Trek: Picard, The Twilight Zone, and the upcoming Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years. With The Real World coming up on that 30-year milestone, the network became an obvious home for The Real World Homecoming: New York, which premieres with the launch of Paramount+ on March 4th.
The series reunites original Real World stars Norman Korpi, Julie (Oliver) Gentry, Becky Blasband, Kevin Powell, Andre Comeau, Heather Gardner, and Eric Nies, and places them back in the very same loft where it all began.
We caught up with Murray again to talk about the birth of The Real World back in 1992, how it laid the template for all reality TV that followed, what fans can expect from this new season, and the possibility of other classic Real World seasons getting the same Homecoming treatment in the future.
Watching a short clip of the first Homecoming episode, it was surprisingly emotional to see that cast together after all these years.
Yeah. How old were you in 1992?
I was 10. That’s pretty young for The Real World, but I had an older sister and she controlled the remote. We watched it all the time.
There were a lot of people your age I hear from that saw it because of older siblings. They always say kids watch up. But yeah, it was totally trippy walking back into that loft after so many years and being back with the cast. It was mind-bending.
I want to go back and talk about the original show. What was the spark in your mind that inspired you to make that first season?
Like a lot of things, it was a little bit hard work, a little bit luck, and a little bit good timing. We had been developing with MTV a scripted drama about young people starting out their lives. It was called Saint Mark’s Place. When the network decided it would cost too much to do a scripted drama, [my partner] Mary-Ellis Bunim and I seized the moment and pitched them something unscripted. In fact, we pitched Lauren Corrao, the MTV exec at the time, at the Mayflower Hotel restaurant in Central Park West. The idea then was to take people with different backgrounds, different races, sexual orientations, every difference you can find, and we’ll stick them in a house together. Normally people don’t live with people different from themselves. We tend to grow up in our little silos. And there’ll be conflict. They’ll make mistakes with each other. Out of that conflict, will come growth. That growth will be our story arc.
What was the reaction?
Lauren Corrao looked at us and went, “Oh my God. That’s how I lived when I moved to New York.” She really got it. We started talking about when you leave home for the first time, it’s that magical moment where you’re able to define who you are. You make a lot of mistakes in figuring that out. It’s a time in your life where we forgive you for those mistakes. We’re still sympathetic when you screw up.
We thought there was a potential there to tell stories that weren’t being told, and tell them in the voice of people that were experiencing them. We would actually bring the MTV audience onto the channel by making a show using those people. That was our pitch. And, of course, we finished it with the thing that every network likes to hear: “And it’ll be cheap!”
They asked us to do a pilot. We knew in a moment there was something magical. Everything we had pitched was coming to play. We edited it together, the network tested it,and it tested through the roof. Eventually they ordered that first season of 13 episodes, so we had to go out and find 7 new people. Because even just the long weekend we had shot with the original group, the experience had changed them so much that to go back and shoot with them again wouldn’t have worked. That’s how it started.
Was 90210 in your head at all? That time period was the peak of that show, but it was such an unrealistic look at what it was like to be young. In that world, everyone is rich, white, beautiful, and straight, and even the supposed poor family has a big house in Beverly Hills.
When Lauren Corrao was casting in Birmingham, I think we saw 25 young people there. We wanted that fish out of water, that person that would be coming to New York and really serving as a stand-in for a lot of those kids there in the Midwest and the South and the West Coast and Upper Midwest that may not have experienced living in the big city. We were trying to describe to her what the show was going to be. 90210 came up and, I think, we talked about The Breakfast Club.
Of course, for me, and for Mary-Ellis, we were very influenced by Michael Apted’s 7 Up series that followed these people from different socioeconomic and different racial backgrounds in England. We were also influenced by the Loud family [from the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family]. We had actually met Delilah Loud. The first project we did, she was the public relations person for the production studio we worked with. I remember getting to sit with her at a dinner in New Orleans and getting to ask her all these questions about that experience.
What kind of people were you hoping to find during this casting process?
We were hoping to find people with different voices that hadn’t previously been heard on the channel or weren’t regularly being featured in media. Remember, this is before the Internet. This is when you’re putting up little signs in laundromats with a number you can tear off to call. Because it was a music channel, in that first season we thought we should try to cast a lot of people who were more from the arts. We ended up with Julie, who was a dancer. And Becky and Andre were musicians, and Heather was a rapper. Kevin Powell did spoken-word in addition to writing. Norm was a design and visual artist. They were a real group of artists.
Most of them were cast from the New York City area. They may have only been there for a year or two, but they were already there and somewhat established in pursuing their careers. That was part of what we were looking for. And then we were looking for people who would bring in different life experiences. Norm had his experiences growing up in Michigan from a conservative area, and what that feels like as someone who realizes that their sexual orientation is different from what is being expressed around them. Becky had other experiences — she had family in Europe and was well-traveled and her father was a psychologist. She was more worldly.
Andre was from a musical family and a rock & roll guy and a little grungy; you had to have that in the early Nineties on MTV. Kevin Powell was this young man who had grown up in Jersey City whose father had walked out and pretty much abandoned him by the time he was seven, and was raised by a very strong mom who did her best. He went to Rutgers. Despite the odds from where he grew up, he was headed towards success. He taught classes at NYU, was performing spoken-word, and was writing. He brought an interesting dynamic.
Heather also grew up in Jersey City, but very different from Kevin. Even though her parents got divorced, her father moved around the block and was very much in her life. As an artist, she was writing about the way that women get brutalized by some men. She was a very strong woman for someone that was just 21.
And then Julie, of course, was this very open, very curious young woman from Birmingham who came from a very large family. I think she was the youngest of seven or eight kids. Her parents were pretty old-school conservative. She was just [dying] to get out of that and wanted to go to New York to dance and experience everywhere.
Did part of you fear that you’d put them in this loft and not much would happen?
Not a lot of reality television had been done. Mary-Ellis and I had done a few things, and we learned that if you cast it right and you’re patient, it’ll be interesting. But we were hoping that things would happen in the house that would be relevant to our audience, and we’d find stories to tell in the mixture of these people, in this social experiment, that we could then craft into stories with a beginning, middle, and end.
The show was 24 minutes with commercials, so we knew we needed an A and a B story for each episode. Based on the pilot, we felt we could get it. MTV was like, “But can you guarantee it?” We said, “We’re pretty sure, but if we get to a point where just nothing is happening, we can try throwing some pebbles in the pond. We’ll be ready with some ideas.” One of them was to maybe set someone up on a date. And Eric had been in a Bruce Weber book of male nudes called Bear Pond. We were like, “Oh, we can have that in the house and see how that gets a reaction.”
We hoped we wouldn’t have to do it. But sure enough, around three weeks in, suddenly not much happened. Later, we’d learn that was pretty typical. The first two or three weeks, you get a lot of stories. Everyone is just meeting and making a lot of mistakes and figuring everything out. And then there’s this exhaustion where you get a week-long period where not much happens. They are just sort of recovering.
We tried throwing one of those pebbles in the pond and they threw a rock back at us. In fact, they threw some boulders back at us. We put that Bear Pond book in there, and Heather started making fun of Eric. He didn’t blame Heather. He blamed us for putting him in that situation. And so we had a meeting with the cast, and we apologized and said we wouldn’t use that material in the show, and we’ve never shown it. Then we continued on and got more than enough for our 13 episodes.
I just re-watched it, and it’s amazing to see the innocence of it. They’d never seen a reality show, so they aren’t thinking about getting camera time or creating storylines or establishing their brands. It’s young people living their lives.
And some of them that were in the house, like Julie, had nowhere else to go. She’s just curious as part of her nature. She also happens to be someone that almost produces herself. So she’d do things like meet up with Darlene the homeless woman in Central Park. Others, because they were from New York, had places they could escape to.
You must have learned a lot as you went on that first season. Watching it again, I noticed that people were often watching TV in the background. You didn’t tape the other end of their phone calls. There’s no confessional booth. There’s all these little things you’d never see again.
We went into this only having done a long-weekend pilot. We didn’t realize how understaffed we were. We expected everyone to get up and go to bed at the same time, and that’s not what happens in real life. They tell you the day before they’re going to do something, and you get it cleared, but then they change their minds. It was really hard work trying to cover people 24/7. You almost have to sit there and try to predict human behavior as to what is going to be interesting to follow. Luckily, enough happened that we were able to craft 13 episodes. But it was hard on so many accounts.
I think of that confrontation between Julie and Kevin, where she says he threatened her. The accusations are pretty harsh, but you didn’t film it.
That was a time where we didn’t have surveillance cameras running 24/7. Today, you would have that on a reality show. In a way, that argument was much more interesting because we weren’t there. And so when we had to approach the storytelling of it, we approached it like a whodunnit: What really happened? It was a classic he said-she said. We didn’t draw any conclusions. We let the viewers figure it out the best they could.
You also brought the fourth wall down a lot. You see the camera guys in the corner. You see the boom operators. Becky and a director even have an affair, and it becomes part of the narrative. It’s refreshing to see that acknowledgement that a show is being made and they are indeed in a somewhat artificial environment.
We felt like we had to tell the truth of what happened during these 13 weeks that the cast lived together. We had to understand why someone is doing something. As much as possible, we have to tell the whole story. So when Bill the director and Becky found themselves drawn to each other and had an opportunity in Mexico to do something about that, and we found out, we had to be, as much as possible, open about that story to viewers so they would understand what was going on, why Becky wasn’t dating anybody else.
It was all learning and figuring out, and MTV was a great partner in it. That’s what is fun about this opportunity now 29 years later. We’re digging back into some of the tape we had. We’re going back and looking at that meeting we had with the cast after the Bear Pond book. We’re looking at some of that original casting tape and how we were trying to explain the show. It’s interesting that we’re pulling back a little about that. There’s even a moment [in Homecoming] where Kevin Powell looks at the camera, and the two people shooting it, and he’s impressed that they are female camera people. He says, “We didn’t have any female camera people back when we did this in 1992.” One of the camera people says, “Yeah, and we’ve got a female director.” He says, “I noticed that. It’s good to see.”
As a young kid in the Midwest, I never really thought about white privilege until Kevin Powell talked about it on that show. Norman was certainly one of the first openly gay people I’d ever seen on TV, or really anywhere for that matter. I think for many people my age, The Real World was their first exposure to different views and different kinds of people.
Yeah. Part of it goes back to when I went to college. I was a kid that grew up in upstate New York outside of Syracuse. I went to a mostly white high school. It was full of kids from comfortable economic situations. And I went to the University of Missouri for journalism. My roommate was a black kid. He’d already been in the army. That was a totally new experience for me. I feel like some of those experiences I had went into The Real World.
Also, my mother yanked my brother and me out of school in America because she was British, and took us to England when I was seven years old, so that I’d experience what life was like living in England for two years. These kinds of experiences are very formative. Most Americans, unfortunately, don’t have them, because it’s such a big country. They don’t get out of this country enough, sometimes [for] economic reasons. They don’t grow up with people that are a different race than them. Certainly when I was growing up, you didn’t have a sense that you were around people that had different sexual orientations, because those people all felt they had to hide that. I know that’s changing now. I hear about young people who are able to be honest about who they are in eighth or ninth grade, which is exciting.
For me, as a young, gay kid, it gave me heightened observational abilities. I was always happy to fit in, but I was also happy observing everyone else. I think that probably gave me some of what went into The Real World. The Real World is observational filmmaking, and I was always curious about other people and their motivations. If you’re a kid who grows up as a white, straight guy who is growing up with a bunch of white, straight people, you don’t have to challenge yourself. You don’t feel like an outsider. That’s not true for all kids — some may have divorced parents that make them feel like an outsider or some other thing. But having those challenges early in life makes you more sensitive and more aware of where other people might fit or not fit in.
The Real World was obviously a big success from Day One. I’m always curious as to why it took the networks eight years to catch on and start doing reality shows themselves. What’s your read on that?
We were certainly knocking on network doors. There was just a feeling in the Nineties that it was too niche for the broad audience. At that time, it was NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. They just didn’t have faith that their audiences would watch programing like this. This kind of programming, particularly those early seasons of The Real World, we would jump in and out of scenes. We wouldn’t hold the viewers’ hands as much as maybe other shows did at that time. It really took the success in Europe of Big Brother and Survivor, and eventually seeing the success of Pop Idol, which in America became American Idol, to give the networks the courage to try it.
What gave you the idea to do this Homecoming season?
We knew the 30th anniversary was coming up, and we started talking to MTV over a year ago. We felt there was an opportunity to take a look back. I had kept up with the cast and heard certain things. I was just like, “Oh my God. Wouldn’t it be amazing to go back and tell this story? How often as a producer do you have all this material to revisit?” And Big Chill-like, we can be very current about what’s going on in these people’s lives today. What challenges are they facing today, and how did those early experiences impact their lives?
What sort of reactions did you get when you first pitched this idea?
Initially, it was like, “Yeah, I think we should do something, but we don’t quite know what.” And then as the plans for Paramount Plus came along, there was a realization that maybe there’s an audience that was there in 1992, but is now watching shows on CBS All Access, which will become Paramount Plus, and this could be an interesting thing to put on that. Again, we got lucky. There was an opportunity with this new network that they’re re-branding and, also, we were coming up on the 30th anniversary. Our luck continued when we were able to get the original loft for the cast to move back into. The stars aligned. Of course, we still had to deal with Covid, but the stars aligned.
Did you worry that you wouldn’t get all seven to say yes?
Yeah. All you do is worry when you put a show together. We weren’t sure until the last minute that everyone would agree to do it. And then we had to figure out how to do it in terms of testing people and quarantining people and re-testing them. It was a lot to worry about.
I’m sure they were shocked when you called them up and told them this would happen. They are in their forties and fifties now. I doubt they ever thought they’d be back in that loft with the cameras running.
We weren’t really sure it was going to happen until everyone had signed on to come on board. When that finally did happen, we were bracing ourself that everyone would actually show up. Again, we really wanted that Big Chill perspective.
In the footage I saw, it was very powerful to see side-by-side shots of them moving around the same space in 1992 and 2021.
We went back and studied the original footage and tried to capture those same angles to really draw the comparisons.
Did you worry that since they’re older now, they might not be as dramatic, and not much would happen?
Our team talked to each cast member and got a sense of why they were coming back and whether they felt there was any unfinished business, or whether there were any discussions they wanted to have with either the group or an individual. Once we had done those interviews, we felt like there would be something good here. Andre, for instance, feels that he was too cautious about really connecting with these folks and felt like he had missed some opportunities the first time around. He wanted to really embrace the experience in a way he felt he hadn’t before. Kevin wanted to revisit some of those conversations that he had about race. Then we talked about how we could trigger some of those conversations. We talked about having a monitor in the house and playing some clips from the earlier season for them to react to and to act as conversation starters. When you do a show like this, you have a big, loose-leaf notebook full of different things, almost like a coach with plays you can go to. There’s tape you can throw up. We were ready. At the same time, you have to be very much in the moment. We love it if something develops and we can just stay out of it and let it go where it goes. You have to constantly read what’s going on and know when to step in and when to step out of it.
A lot of the topics from the original show are very relevant now. They were talking about Black Lives Matter issues back then. In some ways, their debates are more relevant now than then.
It’s true. It was incredible how ahead-of-its-time some of those discussions were. We also had opportunities to give some of those discussions from back then a little more context. For whatever reason, we didn’t show the cast reacting to the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots. We were able to go back to the original footage, the original tapes that had all been sitting in [storage] for 29 years, and pull stuff out of them. Whether we were too busy or whether we were just overwhelmed at the time, there were things we didn’t use. This was an opportunity not to correct the record, but give the record more context.
Are you thinking about doing other old casts in future seasons?
There are definitely seasons that would be fascinating to revisit. But we’ll see how people react to this. My assumption is that if it’s successful, maybe MTV will want us to revisit some of the other seasons.
I think about Season Three, San Francisco. There were so many issues they confronted and things that were never resolved. And bringing Rachel Campos-Duffy back into the mix considering where she’s gone politically as a conservative commentator…
Yeah. And New Orleans, Hawaii… Even Season Two in L.A. was interesting. There’s plenty. The show did chronicle the times that it was shot in and some of the issues that were dealt with at those times.
Amaya Brecher from Real World: Hawaii tweeted that she’d been contacted by producers.
We did some general checking to see what interest would be when we were checking on the New York thing. There’s definitely some seasons where people would be interested in having the opportunity to come back together, so we’ll see.
Are you thinking about doing future seasons of The Real World with new casts? It’s been a couple of years.
I would love to. This series means a lot to me, since it was our first success as a company. We did it for 32 seasons on MTV and then a 33rd season for Facebook. I really liked that one, but I didn’t feel like it got the eyes on it as much as I would have liked. It certainly didn’t get the media attention I would have liked, because that season had some fascinating conversations about race. At the same time we did that one in Atlanta for Facebook, we also did one in Mexico City with a Spanish-speaking cast for Latin America and we did one in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a fascinating experience. I’m also excited to revisit some of those formats we did years ago.
You mention Michael Apted’s Up movies. It would be great if you kept checking on the New York cast like that and we could see them again and again as they age.
[Laughs.] What’s funny is they said to each other, “We always talk about getting together, but we never really do. It takes MTV to come along and really make us come together.” It would be interesting to see if anyone is up for it again in 10 years. I’m sure some of them would.