2:13pm PT by Mickey Rapkin, Billboard
An Oral History of 'TRL': Trump's Demands, Mariah's Meltdown and Anthrax Scares
On Sept. 14, 1998, MTV’s Total Request Live debuted, airing from a glass-box studio hanging above New York’s Times Square. There was no studio audience, no fans waiting outside carrying imploring signs. The glory days of ’90s music videos seemed to be waning — and here was a network offering an American Bandstand for a new generation, hosted by a neo-Dick Clark in black nail polish named Carson Daly. Fans would vote on their favorite clips by phone and email, and the top 10 videos would be broadcast live every afternoon at 3 p.m.
But within six months, TRL became appointment after-school TV, its studio at 1515 Broadway a pop-culture fishbowl where rabid teens could catch a glimpse of their favorite stars (when the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync would drop by, the police would have to shut down Times Square). The thrill of the show was built into its name: It was live, so anything could happen. Eminem teased a post-Funky Bunch Mark Wahlberg on-air. Sean “Diddy” Combs spent an entire hour running on a treadmill, while Britney Spears stood by with a hand towel. In one of the show’s most infamous moments, Mariah Carey came by with an ice cream cart, apparently unannounced, to promote Glitter, rambling, “I just wanted one day off when I could go swimming and look at rainbows and eat ice cream and maybe, like, learn how to ride a bicycle.” (A week later, she was hospitalized for exhaustion.)
When Daly departed his post in 2003, a rotating cast of new, attractive young VJs kept the show thriving. But with the advent of YouTube in 2005, TRL’s viewership sagged, falling below 400,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. (The “unscripted” series The Hills, meanwhile, was getting 4 million viewers — a harbinger of where MTV was headed.) After 10 years and 2,247 episodes, TRL went off the air on Nov. 16, 2008, with a three-hour finale that played like the world’s most insane class reunion (BSB! Snoop! Korn!).
In advance of the relaunch on Oct. 2, the original show’s creators and VJs, along with members of core TRL acts like 'N Sync, Destiny’s Child and blink-182, remember teenage Daly-stalkers, Eminem’s tears, Mariah’s meltdown and all the moments that made TRL — in the words of Korn’s Jonathan Davis — “just a cool-ass time.”
IN THE BEGINNING
JC Chasez (’N Sync): Every generation has their Soul Train or American Bandstand. And TRL was the biggest show in music television.
Brian McFayden (VJ/MTV News anchor 1999-2003): Call it “the frosted-tips era.”
Bob Kusbit (co-creator/executive producer; MTV senior vp production): When I said Carson should host, there was silence in the room. He was too white bread for a lot of the brass. There had been talk of, “Let’s get Chris Rock to host it!”
Tony DiSanto (co-creator/executive producer; MTV president of programming): Some people thought Carson was just another Simon Rex. The Times Square studio had been a bank. It was unorthodox. There were sound issues when The Lion King was playing matinees on Wednesdays.
Kusbit: At first, we didn't have a studio audience. It was more like Wayne’s World. We had to beg people to request videos. Then suddenly, someone shows up with a sign: “Carson, bring me up to the studio!” In the control room, we’re like, “Carson, bring him up!” The next week, there are 10 people outside. Then 40.
Deb Savo (senior producer): At 8 a.m., I’d check this fax machine for the 1-800 number results for the day’s top 10. People would say, “It’s rigged!” I was like, “Listen, you can wake up at 7 a.m. and come get the results with me if you want.”
Dave Holmes (VJ, 1998-2002): The timing was just perfect. If the pop and rock moment had still been bands like Fastball and Semisonic, I don’t know that the show would have exploded. But suddenly, there are all of these young personalities that our audience is interested in.
Savo: It got to the point where the city was like, “What the hell is going on between 44th and 45th Street every day at 3 o’clock?”
Chasez: It was great for the ego. You felt like a dignitary.
Kusbit: Six months after we launched, when the Backstreet Boys came, there were 5,000 people in Times Square. The police told us to lower our blinds because kids were backing up into traffic to try and get a view into the studio.
Shawn Witt (production assistant and, later, showrunner, 2001-08): Eminem had an Eminem lookalike called Partial Mathers. They would use him as a decoy, then scoot Eminem into the car.
Kusbit: Here’s the dirty secret: The glass was not bulletproof. Bulletproof glass costs so much more. Anytime all these people went and stood in the window, you would sort of hold your breath.
A CULTURAL JUGGERNAUT
David George (production assistant and, later, executive producer, 1998-2008): You never knew who would pop by or who might be talking to each other.
Damien Fahey (VJ, 2002-07): Eminem was on for 8 Mile [in 2002]. He had the No. 1 album in the country and the No. 1 movie. Times Square had to be shut down. There were, like, 10,000 people on the streets waiting to see him.
Lauren Waters (casting assistant, then casting director, 2002-07): He started to tear up. This tough guy was so touched that all of his fans had come.
Susie Castillo (VJ, 2005-06): Mariah Carey would show up with her own lighting crew. Bruce Willis showed up in a cab — like, he took a yellow cab to the studio by himself.
Savo: Britney Spears came to the show with her mom and younger sister. We were like, “Who’s the fan who got past security?”
Fahey: I remember Taylor Swift came with her mom, when she wasn't Taylor Swift yet. They had a couple of Flip cams, and they were geeking out, goofing around.
La La Anthony, née Vasquez (VJ, 2001-07): LeBron James came on when he hadn't started his rookie year. I remember him being so in awe — like, “Wow, I made it. I’m on TRL.”
Kusbit: Harrison Ford wanted to come on. We were all massive fans, but we knew the kid who wanted to see Justin Timberlake might not buy into Harrison.
Paul Scheer (comedian; creator of the web spoof Scheer-RL): The most awkward one was Céline Dion. You watch, and the audience is just not into her at all. She’s making jokes, like a dad who’s like, “Hey, guys! I drink beer too!”
Holmes: We were supposed to do a whole hour based around Prince. He showed up 10 minutes before the show was over, with an entourage including one huge guy who held an empty tub of like, cheeseballs, but with a sign on it that said, "Swear Jar." If you took the Lord's name in vain, you had to put coins in. Carson said to [Prince], “We were expecting you a little earlier, so there’s a lot we have to get through. We don’t have a lot of time.” And Prince said, “I don’t use time.” Carson, to his credit, said, “So what do you use?” Prince paused for a moment and then said, “Truth.”
Castillo: The photo booth was a rite of passage.
George: Everybody went into that thing. [Arizona Sen.] John McCain was in there. One time, I look down at the monitor and Jewel is in the photo booth with her shirt off.
Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child): The photo booth! Beyoncé knew how to cross her eyes. And I stuck out my tongue. Somebody stuck up the middle finger. We were being bad little girls.
Vinnie Potestivo (director of talent and series development, 1998-2007): I’d hang out backstage or in the green room because I was trying to make relationships with talent we could build shows around. I met Beyoncé when she would visit with Destiny’s Child. She didn’t want to be a VJ — trust me, I tried — but she did want to get into acting. Which led to her first major role in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
Fahey: In early 2000, Tom Cruise came by, and he was really into Joss Stone. He was backstage meeting everyone, and in every room he just talks about Joss Stone. The next afternoon, this giant box full of Joss Stone CDs arrives with a note, like, “Check it out. Love, Tom Cruise.”
Anthony: Tom Cruise asked me to teach him how to dance to hip-hop on the air. I think I was smacking his butt, or he was smacking mine.
Fahey: Donald Trump came once for The Apprentice. For the cold open, we were shooting a comedy bit -- I think he was firing the camera guy. Before we started, Trump goes, “No, no, no. This isn’t happening. I need that camera to stand on an apple box. I don’t like a low camera.” He said something about how it didn't make him look good. I remember this phrase specifically: “I’m a guy who likes a high camera.” That’s not a thing. He was a total egomaniacal monster.
THE THRILL OF LIVE TV
Scheer: If it happened, it wasn’t going on Twitter or YouTube. TRL was like the last pure view of these big celebrities. You were getting unadulterated ego.
Tom DeLonge (formerly of blink-182): The first time we went to TRL, [bandmate] Mark [Hoppus] got naked and rode around the studio on a tricycle.
Vanessa Lachey, née Minnillo (VJ, 2005-06): I was interviewing Mark Wahlberg. All of a sudden we hear whomp. This girl jumped onto the stage and literally checks me like a hockey player and grabs him from behind. She grabbed everything from behind, if you know what I mean.
Waters: We wanted Mark to press charges, but he wouldn’t. He was like, “Oh, my God, this is going on Entourage.”
Kusbit: We had heard [Wahlberg] didn’t want to be called Marky Mark anymore. So Eminem comes in and decides to take a shot at him: “We’re all just one big, fun bunch.”
Jesse Camp (winner of the 1998 Wanna Be a VJ contest): It was like someone dropped an F-bomb on Saturday Night Live. You could tell Mark Wahlberg was using every bit of Zen that he could to not go ballistic on Eminem.
Kusbit: One day, Mariah comes in, pushing this ice cream cart, wearing really short shorts and a skimpy top. A guy runs into the control room and says, “No wide shots!” It was her lighting director. Meanwhile, Carson is looking around the studio like, “Is this really happening?”
Michael Scher (casting coordinator, 2002-07): Diddy really wanted to out-promote everybody else.
Kusbit: Diddy’s office was across the street. We called him at a moment’s notice and said, “Hey, we want to play a game where we spin the wheel” — like Wheel of Fortune — “and it lands on your office, and we move the entire TRL audience across the street to your office.” He said, “Sold.”
Fahey: Diddy was going to run the marathon, so he came to the show and ran on the treadmill for the whole hour. He didn’t stop during the commercials. But he’d randomly shout out the names of products he was endorsing while we were on-air.
Kusbit: The smart artists understood that TRL was a place they could use to their benefit, and they became superstars because of it.
John Norris (MTV News correspondent, 1998-2005): It’s an interesting debate whether ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney, Christina [Aguilera], Jessica Simpson [and] Good Charlotte would have had the careers they had without TRL.
Kusbit: That’s the million-dollar question: Did TRL create Britney and ’N Sync? Or did ’N Sync and Britney create TRL?
Chasez: It was a symbiotic relationship.
Lachey: I’d broken up with my longtime boyfriend, and [now husband] Nick [Lachey] was getting divorced. He asked me to do the video for “What’s Left of Me.” He was like, “In my grand marketing scheme, if I get the girl who’s on TRL to do my video, she’ll play it on the show.”
DeLonge: When we got a video to really pop on TRL is when we started to sell a lot of records. But we were a hardcore punk band. [A couple of albums] later, we were like, “No more of this shit. People are starting to think we’re a boy band.” You’d have young kids come to the arena because of TRL. And we’d open the show with a flaming, 30-foot-long “fuck” sign.
DiSanto: You felt like these artists were all growing up together in this class.
Williams: That was the cool thing about TRL. You did form relationships with people.
Jonathan Davis (Korn): It was just a cool-ass time. We all co-existed in this one place.
Taylor Hanson (Hanson): We were in that back dressing room with Fred Durst. He was hunkered down, eating Chex Mix. The thing about those situations is: We all have the same job. We tour and play music.
Norris: On a typical TRL show, we had two News hits. Occasionally, there was a little bit of moaning from the producers: “Here comes News to be the downer for the day.”
George: When Aaliyah passed away, she was part of the family. When AJ McLean from the Backstreet Boys had to go to rehab, the group came to TRL to talk to their fans.
SuChin Pak (MTV News correspondent, 2001-11): My first real big news story was 9/11.
Norris: We did a TRL special from what we called our “Midtown studio.” Not the one with the windows.
Hilarie Burton (VJ, 2000-08): When they called us back to work, we didn’t know if there were going to be anthrax attacks. We were in Times Square; we were a target. But there were masses of kids that needed us to go back on the air.
Pak: For young people, TRL was not only where you got to see your rock idols and pop stars, but where you connected with the major events happening around the world, outside the small town you were living in.
Kusbit: The New York Times ran a story: “You Know, Mom, What’s That Guy’s Name? You Know, Mom, He’s Sorta Like — Dick Clark.” Then you’d watch SNL, and Jimmy Fallon is like, “I’m Carson Daly, and I’m a tool.”
DiSanto: Carson is a regular guy. If someone is making fun of you, you don’t know how to take it. But we took it as a compliment. The show was becoming this thing that was not only reflecting pop culture, but it was also part of it.
Williams: We never had to worry about Carson gossiping or tearing down an artist.
Camp: I was a little unfair to Carson. I’d pretend my mic wasn’t working. I’d tell him I just saw his mom at Au Bon Pain having a passionate moment with Jon Voight. I unfairly lumped Carson in with the things about late-’90s pop culture that I didn’t like.
Scheer: Carson needed to be a blank canvas because the colors of these celebrities were so vibrant. But the self-seriousness, in retrospect, is laughable. That sitdown with Marilyn Manson was treated like Barbara Walters talking to Qaddafi.
Potestivo: People knew where Carson’s office was. They’d get a room at the Marriott Marquis [across the street], and there’d be naked people in the window, putting signs up: "We want into TRL. We know you're there."
Carson Daly (in Elle in 2012): Teenage girls would throw themselves at me. But it was a very frustrating time. You know, I’m cursed with morals.
Kusbit: Carson met Jennifer Love Hewitt on the show, and they became an item. She was in L.A.; he’d go out to the bars in New York and it would be in the papers. So [Hewitt] bought him one of those Golden Tee golf games to put in his apartment, hoping that he’d stay home. When they broke up, he said to me, “Do you want this?” We had it right outside my office. Everybody would stop by to play; we'd create shows over that Golden Tee.
Scher: Carson was best friends with Kid Rock. They’d go out together for drinks, and the next day they’d make these inside jokes.
Kusbit: Lars [Ulrich] from Metallica said to Kid Rock, “Why do you like [Daly] so much?” Kid Rock was like, “Cool people stand and judge other people. But, at the end of the day, the people who are themselves and comfortable with themselves are really the cool people.”
Trevor Penick (O-Town): I went to Scores with [our manager] one night, and he was like, “Carson goes there all the time.”
Daly (in Elle): I took [the Backstreet Boys] to their first strip club... Scores was an extension of my living room. We knew the bartenders, the girls, the owners. It was where celebrities went to be alone.
Chasez: We didn’t go to Scores. We went to Suede. On Carson’s off time, he was more into hanging out with rock bands — Limp Bizkit and those guys.
Kusbit: I don’t remember anyone saying to him, “You have to stop going out.” He wasn’t 13. He just happened to be running a show that 13-year-olds loved.
Scher: There were very few people on the VJ side who didn't need to rehearse or didn't need to be fed lines. Carson was very quick on his feet; he wasn't a hired gun. He actually knew music.
DiSanto: When the NBC offer came in [for Last Call With Carson Daly], I had a feeling that was going to be his segue out.
George: We wanted Nick Cannon to be the replacement, but Nick at the time was like Will Smith’s protege. He was really about the movie career. We made it a committee approach, and got Damien, La La, Quddus.
Norris: Carson had become as big as the show. With four or five hosts, the producers said, “Let’s bring it back to the show.” But Damien emerged as the new star.
Fahey: You get handed the key to New York City. One night, I was hanging out with Lindsay Lohan at some nightclub. The next day, Carson is in the makeup room holding up Page Six [in the New York Post]. He said something to the effect of, “There’s my boy!” His advice was, “Get in the papers.”
Witt: Videos started to leak online days or weeks before we could premiere them. That sense of urgency to tune in went away.
Fahey: Suddenly, everyone is downloading albums on Napster. There were a lot of these meetings: “We’re not getting the ratings we used to get. Kids want the multiscreen, multiplatform experience...” Once we started trying to make the show like the internet, I said, “Oh, God, this isn’t good.”
George: I knew the show was done when Justin Bieber came around. He was the first mega-artist who was not broken by TRL. He proved TRL was no longer necessary.
THE GRAND FINALE
Fahey: I remember doing this walk-and-talk with Carson at the start of the last show. I realized: this is all going to end when a construction crew comes in and heartlessly demolishes the place where Mariah Carey lost her mind, where Eminem cried.
Davis: [The TRL finale] was like a big old high school reunion. There was a yearbook we signed. Taylor Swift actually handed me my yearbook and said, “I’m a huge Korn fan!”
Norris: I was given one segment with Backstreet. They did “I Want It That Way” one final time live. I probably cried at the end of the show.
Holmes: There was a big toast on-air. And Carson said, “Kid Rock should have the last word.” And Kid Rock burped or something and said, like, “I’m really drunk.”
Camp: I remember Kid Rock said he felt really silly being there. He’d gotten too old for this.
Kusbit: We all sort of looked at each other and thought, “Man, that might be the last great ride in pop television.” We threw the greatest party, and we invited the entire teen world to come and join us.
Camp: It was one of the most magical things that could happen to a 19-year-old — like a rock’n’roll Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Hanson: Before you could see what an artist had for breakfast from Twitter, TRL was the place you were going to hear about it.
Norris: Destination television is not something young people today even get, with the exception of things like Game of Thrones.
Kusbit: My 17-year-old watches stuff on her phone. I don’t know that she’d rush home even if Ariana Grande was getting married live on TRL.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of Billboard.