Like many ‘80s kids, I often complained about one of the biggest disappointments of my youth: MTV.
“What happened to MTV?” we would ask, albeit rhetorically. We knew what was happening, we just didn’t know why. Now when we mention MTV to fellow Gen Xers, it’s become more of a punchline than grievance.
For those of you who don’t know, by the late-1990s, the first-ever, full-on music television channel was morphing into something barely recognizable from its origins. Music videos went away only to be replaced with reality tv and variety shows. The only music videos on MTV these days come from the short clips played during their annual awards show.
Music fans had to say goodbye to the music. Gone were our favorite artists. Gone were our favorite MTV VJs like Martha Quinn (my teenage crush), Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson and Adam Curry. Gone were MTV News updates via Kurt Loder. These days it’s refreshing to see old VJs show up in new places, like Matt Pinfield in an odd music documentary (he’s a walking music encyclopedia), or Carson Daly on a morning show. Even Alternative Nation VJ Kennedy has her own talk show on, of all places, the Fox Business Channel.
The format change led to the extinction of all MTV VJs. Search Wikipedia for a list of MTV VJs and you’ll find “past” VJs by channel. Turns out MTV had a lot of channels. But for obvious reasons, the “current” MTV VJ list is blank — obviously, because why would you need a VJ if you no longer play music videos? OK, no more rhetorical questions. I promise.
I watched a lot of MTV in the '80s. Probably too much. Watching MTV was part of my after-school routine, even if it was just on in the background while I was doing homework. My sister and I often watched until the wee hours. I watched with my friend, David Lovic, because, as he liked to point out, it was “educational.” How else were we going to become the next U2 if we didn’t consume their videos as often as we could.
There was something extra comforting in this routine. Seeing my old “friends” like Duran Duran, Talking Heads, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Tom Petty — names now synonymous with some of the most classic music videos — energized and inspired me.
Over the last decade, I would occasionally stumble upon an MTV show and get sucked in by a “Teen Mom” or “16 And Pregnant” storyline. But when I realized I was watching this play out on MTV, I would quickly reject it out of protest, or maybe it was fear — as if my eyes would somehow melt away from seeing the ruins of music television (yes, that’s an "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark" homage; again, ‘80s kid).
This was true until, during the pandemic, Oscar and I discovered “Ridiculousness.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s a lot like “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” with the exception of one important rule. See, AFV viewers are encouraged to submit their own silly videos. Ridiculousness forbids this, in part because they don’t want to be held liable for injuries some people clearly receive in these clips.
In truth, I knew about Ridiculousness long before Ozzie and I started watching. It was one of the few shows on MTV I could tolerate for more than 2 minutes. Sure, "Jackass" — another former MTV staple — was fun and certainly entertaining. But there was something pure and unadulterated about listening to host Rob Dyrdek banter with his longtime co-hosts Sterling "Steelo" Brim and Chanel West Coast about the “ridiculous” videos they found and cleverly edited together into related categories.
Plus, there was a short, albeit slightly irrelevant Ohio history lesson to teach Ozzie while watching Ridiculousness. First, Dyrdek, who gained fame as one of the world’s greatest skateboarders, is an Ohio native (Kettering). Second, the theme song is based on Devo’s hit “Uncontrollable Urge.” Devo (another great ‘80s band) hails from Akron.
Like the MTV of my youth, watching Ridiculousness marathons with Ozzie has become a sort of morning ritual during the pandemic. We record a bunch of episodes (it’s not hard, MTV programs the show for several hours nearly every day) and then fast-forward through the commercials and some of the banter (especially when a guest is on the show). I’m also careful to fast-forward through some of the more R-rated clips, the stuff that's a bit too inappropriate for my little guy’s eyes. We like to get to the good stuff — the videos.
When we watch. We laugh. We laugh hard. In fact, we often rewind to rewatch the clips that made us laugh the hardest. I know it sounds wrong to laugh at someone else’s pain. I’m careful to explain to Ozzie that these people are “OK” and that aside from an unlikely trip to a doctor’s office, they’ll probably walk it off and feel okay.
“Like twisting an ankle,” I explain. “You walk it off and forget about it.”
While writing this column, we’re watching Season 10, Episode 23. The category “Player Slayers” is a collection of videos of people being rudely interrupted while playing video games. Each gamer is focused on the screen in front of them, headsets on so as to block out all other distractions in the room, about to slay a dragon or beat a game when — BOOM! — someone kicks a ball into the gamer's face, or smashes an egg on their head, or pulls a power cord.
This particular category is extra funny today because, as Ozzie notes, “Oh man, this one hits a little too close to home. I’m just glad it’s someone else and not me.”
We stop. We rewind. We watch again. We pause. We laugh, sometimes harder than the first time. There’s something deeply cathartic about watching someone land the wrong way on a railing (often on their crotch) or face planting into the carpet while performing a risky living room maneuver. I explain to Ozzie that while it’s wrong to laugh at someone else’s pain to remember that, well, they also recorded this and uploaded it for the world to see.
Maybe they want us to laugh along with them. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just a horrible parent. We’ll know soon enough.
All I know right now is that the routine of waking up, loading up a recording of our new favorite show, and laughing together is more important now than it ever was. The pandemic has given us more time to spend together (maybe too much), and I can’ think of a better way to spend it than laughing with my son.
I’ve come to understand that the MTV of my youth will never come back. Music videos drop on YouTube and Vimeo now and that’s okay. I can even find my old favorites. Now I can load up Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf and watch whenever I want. But I’ve made my peace with this because MTV has come to mean something different now.
Similarly to how I used to watch music videos with my friends, I now watch funny videos with my family. It’s part of what we’re calling the “new normal” that speaks to my evolution.
Introducing my kids to musical acts via MTV and music videos is harder to do now, and that’s OK. Because just like classic ‘80s music videos, a perfectly timed crotch shot or header into a ceiling fan or an out-of-control dance move at a wedding reception will never go out of fashion.
Those kinds of videos are capable of bringing us all great joy when we need it most.
— Adam Earnheardt is professor and special assistant to the provost at YSU and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists executive board. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.