The channel once known as a home for music videos and, later, reality television, has reinvented itself again by broadcasting a comedy clip show for hours each day. But…why?
There are lots of reasons why Chappelle’s Show is rightly hailed as one of the best comedies ever—including its uncanny knack for periodically predicting the future. In one prescient episode from the first season, the show flashes forward to give us a glimpse of what eventually becomes of one of the most well-known television personalities from the turn of the millennium. In classic Dave Chappelle fashion, it is mean and telling and funny in all the right ways—and for more reasons than were initially intended.
In the sketch, we see 10 years into the future of MTV mainstay Carson Daly. To Daly’s dismay, his career remains largely unchanged. He’s still hosting Total Request Live, better known as TRL, a once wildly popular program that promoted new music videos and featured celebrity appearances from artists in front of an adoring, age-appropriate crowd. Alas, while the imagined TRL of the future is still on the air, time has not been kind to Daly. He’s gone fat and mostly bald, save for a thin patch of hair on the crown of his head that flows as a tributary into a mighty mullet along the base of his neck. He has bags under his eyes and his skin is as gray as the V-neck he rocks along with an ugly mustard-colored plaid shirt. He looks tired—physically, and with his gig.
“How excited can you be,” he whines to the camera, “about a video you’ve seen 58 times in a row?”
Perhaps the episode didn’t precisely predict Daly’s fate—TRL went off the air in 2008, and Daly still has his hair—but it was pretty spot on about what would happen to the network itself. Because while MTV moved on from Daly, it’s since leaned all the way into the idea of replaying shows on loop. Or, rather, one particular show on loop.
Turn on MTV—on any day, at any time—and you’re likely to find an episode of Ridiculousness, a home-videos-ripped-from-the-internet-style show hosted by skateboarder Rob Dyrdek. Actually, is he still a skateboarder? Is that how he identifies these days? He’s 46 now and Ridiculousness is his third show for MTV, following Rob & Big (RIP, Big Black; do work for eternity, son) and Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory. It has been a very long time since Dyrdek was just a skateboarder, and he has made oodles of money since then as a reality show star. Rob, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I know that you contain multitudes and that it’s no easy thing to account for how you arrived at this unexpected and highly lucrative moment in your long career.
Which brings us back to Ridiculousness. It is on all the time. All. The. Time. ALL THE TIME. That’s not hyperbole. The night before I started hammering away at this story, I turned on MTV around 8 o’clock in the evening. Ridiculousness was on. And it stayed on. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. the next morning that MTV took a break from the show to broadcast Men in Black. But unlike the protagonists of the sci-fi buddy-cop comedy, MTV and its parent company, ViacomCBS, have no need for a memory-wiping device. Apparently, consumers are willing to watch repeat programming with their memories fully intact.
Four years ago, The New York Times ran a study about the 50 most-liked TV shows on Facebook and then mapped those preferences by geography. Ridiculousness ranked 13th overall and was most popular in “rural Alaska, New Mexico and Montana, and least popular in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and San Francisco.” That tracked with the rest of the study, which found that only Duck Dynasty and The Voice were more popular in Red America zip codes.
But while Ridiculousness has been a regular winner for MTV for a while, it has lately been on so much that it has all but taken over the entire network. Variety reported that during a stretch of 168 hours on MTV in late June, 113 hours of programming were gobbled up by Ridiculousness. That approach remains unchanged. When I randomly checked in on the station one weekend in August, the show ran for more than 36 hours uninterrupted from Saturday morning through 3 a.m. on Monday, when it finally went off the air in favor of Catfish: The TV Show. What is it about Ridiculousness that makes MTV want to run it constantly when Comedy Central, another ViacomCBS property, recently decided to cancel the similar Tosh.O?
It’s certainly not that Ridiculousness is new or that Dyrdek is a fresh face. Ridiculousness first premiered in 2011 and has shot 17 seasons to date, and Dyrdek has been a fixture on MTV for 14 years and counting. (Despite being a near-omnipresent fixture on TV, Dyrdek is surprisingly elusive; several attempts to contact him—through his agent, his production company, his website, ViacomCBS, and personal intermediaries—were unsuccessful.)
MTV has reinvented itself countless times, from its roots as a music video station that made it part of the pop culture firmament in the ’80s and early ’90s to a transition that produced an extensive catalog of reality shows including The Real World, Laguna Beach, and The Jersey Shore. So why has this particular time in TV history—both for the content-consuming nation and the network—brought about this latest programming metamorphosis at MTV?
The mutually beneficial union between the network, the show, and the former (current?) skateboarder turned reality TV personality is fascinating. Because if we’re actually asking—as future, fat Carson Daly once did—how excited viewers can be to see something they’ve seen 58 times in a row, the answer turns out to be pretty fucking excited.
HaveHave you seen Ridiculousness? I had not seen Ridiculousness. One of my editors had, and he asked me about it, and so I said, Of course I’ve seen … Ridiculous … uh … ness. It’s the one that has a “ness” at the end! Everyone knows that. Then I immediately and frantically took to Google to learn about this thing I thought I was supposed to know about. This is how I operate roughly half the time, not knowing about the thing that everyone else at our company knows about, because I work at The Ringer with a bunch of very lovely but young humans who are only slightly older than zygotes and who are plugged into every possible part of modern pop culture before anyone else even knows it exists. (If the GOP had consulted us, they could have freaked out about “WAP” months in advance.)
Thus, I resolved to binge the show and throw myself headlong into one of the many marathons forever running on MTV these days. I would strap myself to the couch and not get up until all the Ridiculousness had been consumed.
I lasted three episodes.
It’s not a bad show, not as these things go. But it did quickly feel familiar and formulaic. Every episode opens with the same don’t-try-this-at-home whiff of a warning that used to come stapled to the front of every installment of Jackass because corporate lawyers exist and those billable hours do not come cheap. The disclaimer: “Please do not attempt to perform any of the stunts or activities in this show, as they are dangerous and could lead to serious injury. Video submissions of any kind are not accepted by MTV or the producers.” With that necessary bit of business out of the way, Ridiculousness quickly gets to all the stunts and activities that are definitely dangerous and would certainly lead to serious injuries. For laughs. Also, there are animals—lots of them, because everyone loves cute pets and they’re a good respite from the violence and near-death mishaps.
The show pretty faithfully sticks to a script: Rob—joined by friends Chanel (last name: West Coast) and Sterling—reviews various video clips and laughs along at the expense of others. In the episodes I screened, there were trust falls gone wrong, soap box derby collisions, a toddler smacking a slightly bigger child in the face, and endless face-plants into walls, rocks, and the side of a pool. This mostly resulted in lots of “Oooohs” and “Oh nooooos” from Rob, Chanel, Sterling, and the studio audience.
There was also no shortage of deeply questionable material. In one segment, Rob and the gang make fun of a man with a mustache and thick black eyebrows who gets assaulted by a camel. In another, they guess whether the videos came from Florida or Georgia after rolling clips of a woman shooting a 12-gauge shotgun in the woods and a man sharing a dip with his girlfriend, which gives Rob the opportunity to try out his Southern accent. (It needs polishing.) There was also a discussion about cheerleaders, specifically male cheerleaders, whom Rob labeled “manleaders.” Rob asked Chanel, a former cheerleader, how many “manleaders” she’d dated. Chanel replied that she would never date a fellow cheerleader, which prompted Sterling to chime in that “they would never date her either.” Then Rob put a bow on it by singing “Whoooooaaaa he’s a manleader” to the tune of Hall & Oates’s “Maneater.” It was around that time that my wife, who had been cruelly subjected to my latest reporting endeavor without warning and against her will, declared, “I hate everything about this,” and walked out of the room. I kept watching. For journalism.
What followed was more of the same: diving board mishaps, double Dutch disasters, and gnarly bicycle crashes. In one episode, longtime NBA swingman Iman Shumpert joined the show to play a game called “block or charge” in which he watched various people get demolished and then made a call. Shumpert said he was “not a charge guy” on the court (fact check: true), then hooted along with the crew as a bull trampled a matador. In another segment of a different installment, the gang played “heads or tails.” It was exactly as it sounds, though Dyrdek helpfully explained that it’s “no different than tossing a coin. It’s just tossing bodies.” For game purposes, they paused each clip while a person was in midair, then Chanel guessed “heads or tails.” She went 6-for-7. On the penultimate video, they showed a wrestler fail to execute a moonsault and crash down hard on his face, which Chanel speculated resulted in “a full broken neck right there.”
The grand finale of that episode featured a video where one dog cleaned another in a way that implied fellatio.
TheThe violence and raunchiness of Ridiculousness aren’t bugs, they’re features. The program exists because of the lowbrow content, not in spite of it. It’s a very specific taste in TV, and not everyone acquires it.
“I have never found humiliation funny,” Rob Tannenbaum told me. Tannenbaum and his writing partner, Craig Marks, literally wrote the book on the network: I Want My MTV. To Tannenbaum, any show that centers on someone’s degradation is “repulsive.” Although, in fairness, Tannenbaum hasn’t watched a lot of MTV lately and had only a fuzzy understanding of the program.
“It seems that Ridiculousness is the show that has the longest tenure at the station,” Tannenbaum said. “I sort of think I know what it is. There’s a host and I’m supposed to know who he is. His first name might even be Rob.”
“And he has a couple of guests who come on and they look at videos of people doing Jackass-type stuff. And then they make fun of it.”
You nailed it.
“What a relief. I don’t fucking get the appeal.”
And yet plenty of people plainly do—especially during a pandemic with a literal captive audience that is home regularly and might be looking to switch off their brains and momentarily tune out the flood of bad news. Tanya Giles, the general manager and head of content strategy and programming for ViacomCBS’s entertainment and youth division—that is a very long title and it makes me tired imagining how often she has to type it—told The Ringer that Ridiculousness is a good show for the moment because it has that “comfort food” appeal across multiple generations. Giles said that since MTV began running the show in giant chunks, it’s seen repeat viewers jump from twice a week to six times a week, and the network has “increased our time spent viewing by 21 percent with our stacks of Ridiculousness.”
“One of the things they’re getting with Ridiculousness, they’re finding this appeals across the board to everyone in the house,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University who has been an industry expert for three decades. “I could see how Ridiculousness would do that. Ridiculousness is equally ridiculous for grandma as it is for the 10-year-old. There’s a broad sort of appeal in a way that maybe Jersey Shore and The Osbournes and Real World and certainly music videos and TRL would not have been.”
Some people might not get a certain laugh line from Curb Your Enthusiasm or Atlanta, but everyone can understand large trees falling and smashing things. That’s fun for the whole family. That’s not a hypothetical, either.
An episode of Ridiculousness from Season 12 featured a segment called “Bad Tree Vibez.” In one clip, a very large tree collapsed on a much smaller car, crushing the driver’s side completely. Upon watching and rewatching, I was utterly convinced I had just seen someone perish—and I was not alone.
“That person died,” Sterling shrieked. “We just showed a murder.”
“Nobody’s out here dying,” Rob replied. “We do a background check on these videos. This person got a bruised collarbone.”
Shows of this kind have been exploiting the near-death experience for decades, though Ridiculousness has perhaps pushed the boundaries of that brand of niche entertainment more willingly than most. Every time you assume the line has been drawn, that an especially violent video represents the absolute limit of what is permissible, something even more cringeworthy comes along to disprove the notion.
“If someone gets hit in the nuts by a baseball, people want to see that,” Bob Saget told me during a different discussion. As someone who had an eight-year run hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos, he’s no stranger to voicing over clips that make you question whether someone just got seriously injured. “People don’t look away at that. If someone falls in a manhole and they don’t get out, that’s not quite as funny. But if you see them start to get out you get a hard laugh, you get a double laugh because you think the person is dead but they’re not. Yay. They’re not dead.”
As Saget sees it, home video shows and the attendant injury fetish clips are inseparable and have been since he was hosting. That worried him then and now. In his day, the production crew would show something that he didn’t find funny—say, someone catching on fire—only to watch as the audience doubled over with laughter.
“And I’m like, ‘Guys, no, no, no. This is snuff. I can’t watch snuff,’” Saget said. “And they’d tell me, ‘Oh no, he was OK. He just burned 80 percent of his body.’”
With each successive clip, Saget figures we’re sliding collectively toward a “cage-match mentality.” He said we’re closer to that now than ever. He might be right, but American television viewers have always had a strong stomach for violent content and a never-ending appetite. But in reality, whether MTV should air shows like Ridiculousness is moot. ViacomCBS has quite clearly made its peace with that. Maybe that’s because Rob and the show have helped MTV do something it’s done since the network launched: adapt and survive.
“Is“Is MTV still on the air?” Craig Marks, the coauthor of I Want My MTV, asked when I called to ask him about the network. “I’m surprised to hear that.”
He was mostly joking. As his writing partner, Tannenbaum, explained it, MTV launched August 1, 1981, with the first in a limitless wave of “MTV is washed up” stories following shortly thereafter. Like Saturday Night Live, or baseball, people have been writing MTV’s obituary for nearly as long as it’s been on the air. And while people of a certain generation fondly remember the music video era and don’t recognize what the network has become, Tannenbaum and Marks see the station’s eager embrace of Ridiculousness as little more than business as usual at MTV. Just consider, as Tannenbaum mentioned to me, the symbolism of MTV’s first logo, which has shifted and changed constantly since its inauguration. The network itself has done the same for nearly 40 years.
MTV might have started out as music television, but it wasn’t long before original VJs like Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, and Julie Brown were competing for airtime with game shows like Remote Control in 1987 and Singled Out in 1995. The first season of The Real World aired in 1992. According to Billboard, from 1995 to 2000, the number of music videos shown on MTV dropped 36.5 percent. In February 2001, the network’s president at the time, Van Toffler, told Billboard that “clearly the novelty of just showing music videos has worn off” and added “our non-music shows like Jackass just get more press.”
“It’s required us,” Toffler summarized, “to reinvent ourselves to a contemporary audience.”
’Twas ever thus. That was two decades ago. MTV has been reinventing itself ever since, launching and then forgetting about programming almost as quickly as it was created. That graveyard includes shows such as Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d, Xzibit’s Pimp My Ride, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica starring Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, Viva La Bam with Bam Margera, Shot at Love With Tila Tequila and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF. (Justice for Nicole Richie!)
After a while, MTV reinvented itself so many times it started rebooting old properties it had previously abandoned. In 2009, the network revived MTV Unplugged. In 2017, TRL was brought back from the dead—and then canceled once again the next year. In 2018, the Jersey Shore cast was dusted off and put back to work. MTV’s mega-commitment to Ridiculousness isn’t surprising, it’s straight from the playbook.
“I think more and more we look at each of those brands as content factories, as makers of content for a particular group or demographic or psychographic group that exists beyond the cable channel,” David Nevins, CBS’s chief creative officer and chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, told Variety. Ridiculousness exists as a traditional TV show, but a single clip can be chopped up to drive engagement and traffic to MTV’s social media platforms and website. It’s the YouTube or TikTok experience produced on a macro scale with assembly-line efficiency. Reshowing giant blocks of the program on loop is just another way to maximize the number of eyeballs who seek out a specific kind of content.
Tom Nunan, the former president of NBC Studios and UPN who’s now a lecturer at UCLA, told me that if a network has “the time and patience” to run a show like Ridiculousness in a “wall-to-wall” fashion it can be “extremely effective.” He used FXX and endless reruns of The Simpsons as a primary example, though you can find the same strategy at work with NCIS on USA, Seinfeld on TBS, and Two and a Half Men on Paramount Network. “Stunts such as these,” Nunan said, “are the best way to send a loud and clear message to viewers: This show is what we’re all about and we want you to look forward to more shows like it on our air.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Ridiculousness is ostensibly cheaper, by comparison, to produce than a reality show like The Challenge, which shoots on location and requires a big budget. MTV has to pay Dyrdek (and Sterling and Chanel), but the videos are ripped from the internet and the show is shot in studio. ViacomCBS also has the show’s distribution rights, something that wasn’t true for a property like Laguna Beach, which was distributed by Trifecta Entertainment and Media. But while that bottom-line factor works in MTV’s favor with Ridiculousness, it also points to a problem: how to gin up more shows that are cheap to produce, are distributed in house, are relatively successful and yet also fit with an ever-saturated traditional and social media market. As Giles told The Ringer, MTV “doesn’t have any acquired series” like The Office or The Simpsons that it can run in big blocks to fill airtime. “We rely on our own IP,” she said. In that way, Ridiculousness is perfect for the network—even while MTV could clearly use more shows that tick those same boxes and gobble up programming slots.
“They were like a record label that just relies on hits,” Marks said about MTV’s constant reinvention, referring to erstwhile peaks spurned by Punk’d or Jersey Shore. “And if they have hits, everything is great. But hits are expensive and hard to come by. And if you don’t have hits, you’re fucked.” Marks argues that MTV currently finds itself in that position—“If Ridiculousness is 100 or 80 percent of their programming, then I’m going to venture that they still can’t buy a hit”—but rather than trying to find the next Real World, the network appears content to lean, almost entirely, on a mid-level yet sure bet.
What comes next for the network is a different problem to solve altogether. ViacomCBS is more pressingly concerned with what to do about programming the network right now, and it seems to have found its answer. People have been trying to bury MTV for nearly four decades—but thanks in part to Ridiculousness, it’s not dead yet.
FindingFinding a product to peddle that people want to consume is a smart business decision, or at least a necessary one. But it also comes with a perhaps-unanticipated ripple effect. Viewers might want to watch trees fall on cars or some poor sucker land on his head, but that doesn’t go very far in terms of cultural cache. For a long time, MTV was a massive part of the zeitgeist. No longer (unless you count the memes about Ridiculousness’s ubiquity).
There was a time—when music videos were king and Kurt Loder delivered counterculture news straight to the camera—when the network not only had buzz, it created it. That hasn’t been true for a while now, and the recent rise of Ridiculousness is unlikely to change that. Of course, that might not matter to kids these days anyway. It’s unlikely that anyone under 30 (or even 40) is sitting around lamenting why MTV isn’t cool anymore—probably because MTV was never cool to their generation in the first place. It was just another content provider that allowed you to zone out and watch something like 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom. Besides, as my lovely zygote editor guffawed, who even watches linear TV these days? And if that’s the case, if hardly anyone is watching the proper network on cable the way they once did in the old days (sadly defined here as, say, the early aughts), you might as well run marathons of something cheap and dumb that will get some eyeballs as opposed to something expensive and dumb that might not.
Maybe this is all we should expect from MTV going forward. Marks joked that “Ridiculousness is to MTV as Law & Order is to Ion Television,” though he doubted that Rob Dyrdek and friends have “27 seasons of Dick Wolf narratives, but maybe in a pandemic people just want to watch videos of people getting their balls busted on a skateboard.” Either way, as far as Marks is concerned, nothing about the network is actually cool anymore. The Video Music Awards—which he called “by and large the crown jewel of MTV’s programming”—have “really fallen off as far as star power goes.”
That might be overstating things a bit considering this year’s VMAs featured a joint performance by Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, while Miley Cyrus sang her new single “Midnight Sky.” Still, Marks has a point as it applies to the long-term appeal of the network, which naturally led into this year’s VMA’s with … several episodes of Ridiculousness. Who knows what MTV will look like a year from now if the slow slip from cultural relevance continues, or what kind of celebrities the VMAs will attract in the future. Marks feigned concern about that for a moment, then offered a solution.
This article first appeared in knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu
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