‘The Internet Before The Internet’: How ‘Pop-Up Video’ Changed The Way We Devour Pop Culture

The name should be familiar to you if you’re a ’90s kid who grew up watching MTV and VH1, or even if you’re a little younger and recall its second, more abbreviated run from five years ago or the re-runs on MTV Classic. Pop-Up Video was a little show filled with snark and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fact bubbles that inexplicably blossomed into an institution that was revered for its wit, humor, and rebelliousness. In the end, the show wound up penetrating the pop culture universe that it had been created to comment on and, twenty years later, its profound impact is still being felt online. How did Pop-Up Video change the world? As the show emphatically proved, the magic can only be truly understood if you look behind-the-scenes and talk to the people that made it all happen.

The Birth Of Music Videos 2.0

Like many other great notions, the concept for Pop-Up Video came together slowly, born from previous failures and a healthy disregard for an establishment that was in a state of flux and panic over the dimming fascination with music videos a decade after they first took over pop culture.

Woody Thompson, co-creator and producer: The idea came out of a pitch meeting that my partner (Tad Low) and I had at VH1. They had made a decision to brand themselves differently than their younger sister MTV who was starting to make non-music programming. VH1 decided to embrace the moniker “music first,” the problem was that in 1995, kids weren’t watching music videos like they were in 1985.

Tad Low, co-creator and producer: We pitched the show to John Sykes, then president of VH1.

Thompson: We pitched VH1 a game show, a news show, a behind the scenes show, and a comedy show and they seemed to respond well to all of our shows. However, none of them incorporated music videos or even live performance because we knew that would be the kiss of death. At the end of the pitch they said, ‘We love your shows and your tone but unless you can figure out how to put music videos into your shows, we aren’t interested.’

Low: The initial idea came from a combination of sources and influences, including some anti-establishment concepts I’d studied in college, the extensive use of footnotes by a favorite author, and a Reagan-Bush era satire magazine. But the real starter fluid was a growing mountain of behind the scenes horrors experienced first-hand by a close friend who was Mariah Carey’s stylist in the ’90s.

Thompson: We decided as more of an F.U. to their stupid mandate — why don’t we just take elements of all the shows they claim they liked of ours, and instead of inserting music videos into the formats, we’d put our information in bubbles on top of their videos.

Low: Initially, we were told that nobody likes to read while watching TV. The rationale was low digit stats for US rentals of foreign, subtitled films. At the time, Viacom (VH1’s parent company) owned Blockbuster video so they had those kinds of numbers handy. The rationale was ridiculous, of course. We convinced VH1 that reading our “pops” wouldn’t be a chore. We likened it to reading the back of a cereal box, which everybody loves to do.

Thompson: We made a pilot for $3,000 that was edgy and funny and informative and the music purists at the channel hated it and said it would destroy music videos, while the music programmers thought it was a brilliant way to get people to sit through videos that artists will have to embrace if they want to sell albums.

Low: Music videos in the ’80s and ’90s were the preeminent pop culture medium: they were fashion, music, celebrity, and dance combined. Early on, when MTV was just getting started, they didn’t have enough videos to fill the entire schedule so many of their earliest videos were repeated ad infinitum. We figured that the home audience would want to know more about how these were put together, what really went on during the shoots, and especially more about the artists themselves. People’s appetite for celebrity intel hasn’t diminished over time.

Thompson: For the most part, we only wanted to ‘pop’ the biggest, most recognized bands. We were not Mystery Science Theatre, talking about obscure movies. We wanted you to say, “Oh man, I remember this video” or “I love this song,” so we popped Michael Jackson and The Police as much as we could.

Staffing Up

To wrangle the various floating bits of info and gossip that swirled around those videos, Low and Thompson needed a team of writers and researchers. In the beginning, they were more a scrappy insurgency with a production assistant, a researcher (who got the most powerful desktop in the office, according to head writer Paul Leo, so that he could occasionally be frustrated by Ask Jeeves and the dearth of information in those nascent days of the internet), producer Liz Darst, and Leo. Just a couple of years later, the staff would blossom to more than 45, but there was a certain something that a Pop-Up Video team member needed to have. “They wanted weird, quirky thought,” says Alan Cross, a former morning radio DJ and Pop-Up Quiz writer turned eventual Pop-Up Video head writer, who explained that Low and Thompson resisted bringing in season TV vets when assembling their writing staff.

Paul Leo, head-writer and the author of the forthcoming book, “POPPED! The Making & Unmaking of a Millennial TV Phenomenon”: I was hired as the original writer for the show in September 1996. I was 31 at the time, and until about a year before had been supporting my dream of being a “serious writer” by kicking around in temporary, mostly part-time jobs — tutoring, selling vegetables at the Union Square Farmers Market, PA’ing on various film and TV projects — when a friend suggested I apply at MTV where she worked in the promos department. I applied but ended up in the MTV Networks videotape library — the lowest possible entry position available.

Liz Darst, producer: I worked with Tad [Low] and Woody [Thompson] on an ill-fated late night show called Last Call. Tad was one of five on-air talents and Woody and I were his producers. It was a bit of a disaster but we had a great time. When we all got fired, I got a job at VH1 and was there when Tad and Woody pitched Pop-Up Video to the execs. Once they got the greenlight, they hired me to help produce it.

Leo: Liz introduced me to two even more manic individuals, Tad and Woody, who ushered me into a dark room with a single media stack (TV and tape decks) on a rolling cart, quickly explained — in a perfectly synced and high-energy alternating patter, like a well-rehearsed vaudeville act — their idea for a graphic-driven music video show, then showed me the 90-second sample they had created to pitch the idea to VH1.

Alan Cross, head-writer: I read an article about Pop-Up in a now-defunct magazine by David Lauren. It seemed like an incredibly cool place to work, I had also seen the show for an episode or two and was captivated by the tone. I had just read a book of letters by Hunter S. Thompson and was inspired by his ability to write incredibly engaging letters for jobs he was applying for. Most of them involved him telling the prospective employer that they sucked, and if they didn’t give him a job, he’d kick their ass. So I wrote a one-page manifesto and faxed it to Pop Up.

Leo: They said, they were going to show me a boring music video, the most boring and uneventful one they could find, and I should write down all my ideas for things to talk about and call attention to while it played. I did just that.

Cross: They called and sent me the writer’s test, which involved “popping” The Wallflower’s “One Headlight.” It included some general background info about the band, a VHS copy of the video, plus some behind-the-scenes stuff the Pop-Up staff had found while interviewing the people who made the video. The instructions said to use whatever info I wanted, and I could do my own research for it as well. I went the latter route because I figured I had more of a chance to stand out. Turns out I had a thing for research — an obsession, really — that continues to this day.

So I had pops about the biblical Jacob—that he wore clothing made from the “hoary skin of goats”—and compared that to Jacob Dylan—he preferred Armani. I faxed my script in, confident that they would soon offer me a job. But I never got the call. A year later, I rewrote my script slightly, sent it back in, and landed an interview with Tad and Woody. These are the two most engaging, charming guys you’ll ever meet. You’re on a high when you talk to them.

Building A Show

Factoids and behind-the-scenes dish are ubiquitous now, meaning the concept of Pop-Up Video and the construction of an episode might seem basic or simple. But in a time before the internet became a way of life (less than 20-years-ago), researching, verifying, shaping, and stacking information in a pleasing and clever manner qualified as a herculean task, especially when the Pop-Up staff was charged with doing it for five music videos per episode.

Low: I remember researching one of our very first videos myself. It was TLC’s “Waterfalls.” When I learned about how the video was made, including that frog divers were underneath a plexi platform waiting to rescue T, L or C if they’d fallen in from what was essentially a wading pool because none of them could swim, it totally changed the way I watched that video. I knew we had something.
Thompson: When we started the show no one had ever really researched music videos. Leo: We relied mainly on old-fashioned print materials. Our first stop was the woefully unresourceful VH1 press library, a small room tucked away somewhere in the lobby of our building at 1515 Broadway, with about a dozen mostly empty filing cabinets dotted here and there with manilla folders bearing an artist or group’s name with a handful of grainy photocopied articles from Rolling Stone or Spin or Billboard or People inside.

Darst: The first season was essentially pre-internet.

Leo: We quickly moved on to getting our own stuff — books, magazines, and newspapers that we were running out at least ten times a day to buy with petty cash. By the end of our first run, we had at least a dozen badly battered copies of the Encyclopedia of Rock littering our offices.

Cross: You have to watch the video over and over and over. On my deathbed, I will still be able to give you a shot-by-shot breakdown of The Backstreet Boys’ “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” It’s glued into my memory. We had to watch those videos like the Zapruder film. Because that’s the only way you can take command of it.Darst: Some of our statistical research was totally unprofessional. For example, we’d need a number for a pop about men’s fantasies. We’d turn to four guys, ask them a question, and if three of them said yes, that became “3/4 of American males admit to fantasizing about lesbian sex.” On the whole, though, we put in a ton of effort to get real quotes, real behind-the-scenes info, and real facts.

Low: We would never pop a video unless we spoke to somebody who’d worked on the set.

Thompson: The circle of producers and directors in the early days of music videos was so small that often it would take months to track down a director and then when we got him we’d go through 10-20 videos in one sitting.Low: Our best sources were not the directors, but the limo drivers, caterers, stylists and make-up artists. They were on the front lines witnessing it all.

Thompson: Being an art director, I knew that these people were at cocktail parties telling stories about Mariah Carey or Four Non-Blondes that you can not get anywhere else.

Cross: You never knew who would give you something great. I interviewed the dog trainer for NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” video. There’s a scene in which Justin Timberlake is being chased by a dog. But Justin was way too slow — the dog kept out-running him. So the dog trainer stuffed hot dogs in Justin’s pants to ensure that that dog would follow. A fact like that is gold.

Leo: In a very early episode (maybe the first or second) I was popping Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul” video, which is set in a bathroom. All the print articles about Jewel mentioned she grew up on her grandfather’s raggedy homestead in Alaska. I had traveled through Alaska in the summer of 1984 working in salmon canneries and had encountered more than a few raggedy homesteads — most of them didn’t have indoor plumbing. I wanted to know if Jewel grew up using an indoor bathroom or an outhouse (I was hoping for an outhouse — better punchline). I couldn’t find the info anywhere; even the articles that mentioned the homestead stopped short of that obvious leap. So I called Jewel’s grandfather in Alaska. He was a great guy and happy to talk. He wanted to hear all about my time up there and my impressions, shared his own with me, invited me to stay with him the next time I came north. Oh and no, he never did have indoor plumbing and still didn’t; Jewel used the outhouse like everybody else.

It wasn’t long after that I was summoned into Lauren’s (Zalaznick, VH1’s head of development and production) office to explain why I had called a family member of Jewel. Apparently, Jewel’s grandfather told her about our nice conversation, she told her manager, and her manager had called Artist & Talent Relations, irate. I explained my side of things to Lauren. She nodded, said “Okay, don’t do that again” and let me go, a smile on her face.

Cross: We actually avoided talking to singers or members of the band, for a couple of reasons. They probably don’t know how the video was made; the crew would more likely be excited to talk to us; and finally, it’s hard to interview the singer, then pop the video, make fun of him, and feel good about yourself.

Finding The Right Tone

The rebellious streak that had brought Pop-Up Video into the world clearly aided in the show’s popularity as it matured and shaped the tone of the show, but with that rise also came pressure to conform and some blowback from artists and executives.

Darst: From the get-go the tone was gossipy, snarky, insider-y, and winky. Tad basically set the tone and we brought it to life.

Low: We knew that we couldn’t get through an entire 3-minute video just giving biographical facts about the artist and behind-the-scenes information about the production process. While those two elements were essential, we wanted to add another layer of tangential humor that challenged the audience to ride our reference train. Watching endless music videos can be mind-numbing so we wanted to elevate the experience and reward the cleverest of our fans for appreciating subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) connective tissue.

Leo: Liz and I wanted the show to be funny and engaging, and thought the best way to do that was through strong storytelling — telling the story of its creation by combining the gossip and technical info Tad and Woody wanted, punctuated by relevant bits of the artist’s own biography and whatever pop culture tangents and references that info and the visuals called to mind — in a sort of modern, stream of conscience, hyperlinked way of interpreting, and criticizing, and deconstructing and reconstructing this cultural artifact that was a music video — with irreverence and skepticism baked in.

Cross: The best description of the tone was from Tom Morrissey, a former head writer. He said to write the script so someone watching might slowly realize, “Holy shit. The close caption guy is drunk.”

Thompson: We didn’t have enough money to hire a team of comedy writers so research was always going to be the backbone of the show, so you felt like you learned something. If we tried to make it “funny,” we’d run the risk of pissing off fans and non-fans not getting the joke. From day one it was always about that: Let the video take the lead don’t take viewers away from what they are watching or else it’s annoying.

Cross: When I became head writer, I told the other writers to keep their fingerprints off the script. Make it subtle. Don’t wrangle it. But as the video goes on, the viewer will figure out your point of view. In a perfect world, all of the behind-the-scenes stories would be so interesting that we wouldn’t have to talk about anything else. That was rarely the case.

Darst: Tad and Woody always wanted to be let off the chain. They wanted no restraints, no limits, and no celebrity niceties.
Low: When we came around, most entertainment journalism revolved around a quid pro quo arrangement. If a celebrity agreed to an interview on Primetime Live or Entertainment Tonight or to a cover of Vanity Fair, it was well understood that the article or interview would be flattering. It was a secret handshake. Our show was one of the first to take a different, more honest approach, which was not always flattering. This ruffled some feathers at the time.
Thompson: The network was very concerned about tone because they had relationships with labels and artists that they were asking for favors all the time.

Darst: The development executives made a lot of angry calls to us during the first batch of shows, strongly suggesting that we tone it down so as not to offend stars and their management.

Cross: Fortunately, I didn’t have to be on those tone-down calls, but they definitely happened. Oftentimes VH1 was booking one of their made-up award shows — “Diva of the Year,” etc. — and they had to play nice with Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and whoever else they could get for the gig. So we’d have to pull it back because God forbid Celine Dion won’t accept her pretend award in person because she’s pissed at Pop-Up.

Thompson: VH1 would tell us to avoid artists who sued and we had a list on our wall. Henley, Streisand, Neil Young, Billy Joel.

Leo: We were shocked when, in later episodes and later seasons, we started encountering directors who wouldn’t cooperate, who felt we were ruining the purity on their work. One was Bob Girardi, a prominent director of TV commercials who made many of the epic production videos of the early ’80s (“Beat It”, “Love is a Battlefield”, “Hello”). He loved us at first and was very cooperative and complimentary — but in a Michael Jackson video (probably “Beat It”) we pointed out that he was responsible for accidentally lighting Michael Jackson’s hair on fire during the making of a Pepsi commercial. He never talked to us again.

Cross: We said [director] Mark Pellington majored in Rhetoric [which he did] at like Wesleyan [the University of Virginia], and he called us petulant assholes. So Tad and Woody named the writer’s award after him, which they’d award to the writer who had the most provocative pop in each episode.

Leo: Meat Loaf was the first artist to go ape-shit. I forget which video it was, probably “Bat Out of Hell,” and I’m not sure if it was in our first episode or an episode or two later — but it was early in our existence when we got word that the shit had hit the fan, we had made Meat Loaf furious. Funnily enough, it wasn’t that we called attention to his constant sweating or weight or made ridiculously obvious meatloaf jokes; he was upset that we mentioned he had gone bankrupt at some point in his career. That was the kind of information that just did not get talked about at that time, not if the artist didn’t want it talked about.

That always strikes me as the most representative incident of what the show was all about — this sacred line that we crossed, upsetting the coziness inside the music biz by not treating these artists as untouchables who could dictate an approved narrative to a blindly consuming public. We were brats and upstarts. We didn’t believe the hype. We didn’t automatically revere them based on record sales. We liked the dirt. We were the internet before “The Internet.”

Thompson: We wrote what we wanted without restraint and the network would send notes. We would fight for our pops mostly because they would read the scripts without watching the videos so they would see something like “Michael erected this for little boys,” which taken out of context sounds outrageous but if you see in the video the tower at Neverland Ranch that we are referring to and Michael Jackson’s not on screen… we’d try to get away with the most salacious things we could.

Leo: Once the show started airing there was immediate blowback from the artists to VH1, and our executive producer, Lauren Zalaznick, began scrutinizing the scripts much more carefully and demanding multiple sources for some bits of info. To her credit, she didn’t make us change or remove much, she just wanted to make sure we were on solid footing with our info. If, after the show aired, there was an extreme reaction to something we said from an artist, she might tell us the offending info had to come out in order to maintain “artist relations”; but she never reigned us in creatively ahead of time out of fear of what might happen — if it was verifiable we were allowed to say it.Thompson: Tad [Low] fought with the network on the show’s behalf to make sure they did not censor our pops. He won a few battles and lost a lot but those he won went a long way to cementing his/our reputation for being “bad boys” and the show being dangerous.

Pushing The Bubble Beyond Its Limits

A good idea can inspire adoration as easily as it can inspire those who wish to profit from it, and with the success of Pop-Up Video came both a welcome and unwelcome expansion of the brand with spinoffs and ripoffs (that Thompson says he was never compensated for).

Low: Lots of people tried to rip us off, but it’s one thing to overlay word bubbles on a primary source. It’s quite another to devote hours to digging up the research, triple-checking sources, and crafting consistent humor and tone. Eventually, we realized that the quality of the original was undeniable and quite timeless.

Leo: The spinoffs and applications did get kind of ridiculous by the end of our original run. Some of them worked and some didn’t. The VH1 Fashion Awards I think were pretty funny. Our attempt at popping Behind the Music flopped (too redundant, I think). To my mind, the concept worked best on pre-existing things that had some integral value of their own and existed, even slightly, in the past.

Thompson: We didn’t feel VH1 did anything to protect the concept. They let brands and other networks rip it off.

Leo: I really wanted to take the show in a new and different direction entirely — popping up even bigger, more seminal cultural events like the OJ chase, or the Nixon-JFK debate, the moon landing, all of WWII, etc. If we were trying to franchise the idea, let’s at least do it to some really cool and useful end. At one point The New Yorker ran a sort of parody/satire/backhanded dismissal of us. So I wrote them a letter thanking them for the exposure and telling them we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was kind of serious.

Thompson: We came to them early on and said we should pop everything on VH1 and then let us into the MTV, Nick, TV Land, CBS, and Showtime vaults – have this thing play out across all channels because it works to get people to pay attention or rebroadcast. I really wanted to pop Survivor as a late night show — instead, the other networks just did their own versions that all sucked because they didn’t get the tone, pacing, or timing of the show.
Low: The most well-known incident was the Arnold Worldwide ad agency which licensed the elements from Viacom for a TV commercial for the phone company, Bell Atlantic. It was terribly done. We couldn’t believe that Viacom would undermine the integrity of our brand by selling out to that phone company without consulting us. We staged a revolt on our website. We pretty much showed Bell Atlantic our favorite dialing finger.

The Divorce

Though the show was lauded by critics, nominated for awards, and a staple of every pop culture addict’s diet, things were brewing behind-the-scenes that would eventually cause Low and Thompson’s business partnership to come undone.

Low: We’d been nominated for “Best Music Series” for the live TV Guide Awards to air on Fox, when I discovered that most winners at made-for-TV awards shows are notified in advance (in order to guarantee that they’ll show up). I found out that Carson Daly’s show would win my category, but I attended the live broadcast anyway. When Carson was announced the winner, I was already half-way to the stage. So, I accepted his award, and announced to the nation what a true travesty his show was before being hauled off by security. Carson just stood there as I accepted his award. All way pre-Kanye.

Thompson: The Carson Daly incident was all Tad and kind of captured who he was and how difficult it was to be business partners with someone who just could not play by any rules.

Low: A healthy disregard for the rules was what gave birth to Pop-Up Video in the first place.

Leo: Things got progressively uglier and more tense between them. The last six months or so before they actually split it felt like the rest of us were miserable kids at the mercy of our parents going through an extremely nasty divorce.

Cross: That was a strange time.

Thompson: He [Low] was the wild child who was carrying the rebel flag and I was running the factory.

Cross: I remember Tad walking around in head-to-toe orange clothing, plus orange sunglasses (but But Tad’s a genius, and he can dress anyway he wants). Woody and the rest of us are screening an episode in one room, Tad’s throwing Snap ’N Pops on the ground.
Thompson: He [Low] went to Burning Man in 1999 saying Y2K may be the end of everything, and I stayed in New York overseeing 45 kids who wanted to make TV shows for us. He took four months off and when he got back I realized I’d be better off on my own.

Leo: The show itself had already ossified a bit by the time Tad left, but there was a big difference in the spirit and energy of the workplace after his departure, for sure. He brought a sort of manic energy and love of chaos to the office in general, so things got a lot quieter and a lot less “inspired” after he left.

He and Woody together created a sort of perfect yin and yang — Tad was a creative instigator and a button pusher in the best possible way, a disruptor, and Woody was always much more a keeper of the peace, concerned with process and operations and deadlines and budgets. He was a much more staid and rational person, more straight-edged and conservative. So together they balanced each other out.
Thompson: We continued to make shows in 2000 and 2001 without him and then again in 2011 and 2012 and I think they still carry the spirit of the original shows.

Popping Back Up

Absent Low, Darst (who left after one season), and Leo (who left some time after Low), Pop-Up Video returned in 2011 following a nine-year hiatus with Thompson, Cross, several other staffers, and a new world in front of them that had been shaped by the information technology revolution — and an audience that was well versed in pop-culture minutia.

Low: While I was thrilled to see the concept on air again, I do think it worked best when music videos were a dominant cultural force, which was more the case throughout the ’80s and ’90s than in 2011. Also for me, Pop-Up works best when you’ve already seen the original video a number of times. By 2011 there was just more volume and fewer repeats, so you ran an increased risk of viewer fatigue.

Cross: We had 300 videos to pop in 6 months, which is more than we ever did in the original run of the show. VH1’s reasoning? “Use Wikipedia.” This really pissed me off. They made it seem like writing and producing the show was easy. “Just throw some facts up on the screen. Tell some jokes, you’re done.” But that was never the case.
Thompson: The internet had co-opted our concept and done the research and made the jokes and created the memes that we were making on our own without any global input. We had to be very strict with our writers and researchers to find info that did not exist on the web. The interviews became that much more valuable.

Cross: Tracking down the people? Definitely easier. Google “Enrique Iglesias,” the name of the video, and “résumé” and instantly I’m on someone’s LinkdIn profile who worked on it. I could tweet them. Contact them on Facebook. Whitepages.com. Whatever.

Often times the best stories would already be on Wikipedia. I made it a point to never look at the site until I was already done with my own research. But it created a philosophical problem — was the value of Pop-Up lost in the age of Wikipedia, TMZ, and Radar Online? I would argue no, there are still things we could find that nobody else could. Or if the info is already out there, we could contextualize it in pop form and give it more meaning.

Thompson: Bands grew up with the show so they were hoping they would be on it. They were honored but we live in a time when nothing is shocking, piercings and tattoos that we would make fun of were now givens on every rock star. We just had a hard time coming up with observations and snarky comments that hadn’t been done on Twitter or some super fan’s blog.

Assessing Pop-Up Video’s Value As A Cultural Artifact

Though the second iteration of Pop-Up Video failed to attain the same lasting success as the original due, in part, to the rise of the internet, it’s worth considering what that societal sea change from 1996 to 2011 and today says about the show’s ultimate legacy.
Leo: Pop-Up was like a very loud and powerful blip that happened in a very particular transitional time [in] our culture — post-computer but pre-digital saturation, post-Monica Lewinsky but pre-9/11, post-dead Elvis but pre-dead Michael.

Low: I think it’s led to more original and braver journalism in the pop culture space where reporters realize it’s okay to demystify the process behind the machinations of celebrity rather than regurgitating a press release.
Thompson: Because it was text, and people had to do the work, there is a very strong nostalgia for the show and we get credited for inventing pop culture trivia, which is far from the truth. But it may feel like it because we took it from the page to the screen.

Low: I’m very proud of the show and its enduring legacy — I see its DNA in social media feeds, magazines, blogs. Pop culture is the water in which we all swim. Since you can’t have the conversation unless everybody starts on the same page, we used the easy-to-grasp elements of celebrity and music culture as starting points for a smarter viewing experience. I’m especially proud that on our show, the printed word ultimately triumphed over video.

Leo: It was one of the first — if not the first — media entity to value and demystify and have merciless fun with pop culture, all at the same time. To speak pop culture, in a sense.

Low: I would hope that it’s helped to curb some of the more egregious celebrity antics by putting artists on notice that the crew is watching and aware when they overstep the bounds of decency.

Thompson: When the internet and things like Buzzfeed and Twitter came along you could see how people got better at being pithy with their language and more shocking with their headlines to get you to click, engage, share… that’s what we were doing 50-80 times in a four-minute video to get you to sit through something you had no interest in watching. For us, that was the whole game: Can I get you to the next pop? The next video? The next episode.

Leo: By taking music videos semi-seriously, we were recognizing that even the most disposable detritus of our culture, originally meant to sell the actual product (the artist and album), were valuable and worth examination and consideration and repurposing.

Thompson: You sit through a marathon of Pop-Up Video and you’ve read a pretty decent sized novel on pop culture.

Pop-Up Video’s spot in the pop-culture pantheon is doubtlessly secure for as long Gen Xers and more senior millennials keep it in their hearts, but while it sounds like hyperbole, the show deserves a place of higher relevance because it did, in truth, change the world. Websites like us that people visit every day for a dose of information, entertainment, and the embrace of nostalgia and culture are here, in part, because Pop-Up Video recognized and popularized people’s collective fascination with the things that entertain us, both in how they work and how they sometimes fall apart. And it had a hand in making snarkiness the official language of a generation of social media smartasses who live to poke at the establishment and the holy cows. Trivia and that disregard for authority, as concepts, do predate the show (as Thompson says), but to that point in 1996, they had never seemed as exciting and accessible as they did when viewers first saw them in Pop “bubble” form.

Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.