When VH1 debuted in 1985, it seemed like the duller, more responsible sibling of bad boy MTV. But the basic cable music network started establishing its own savvy identity in the 1990s thanks to clever original programming like Pop-Up Video, which first aired 20 years ago on October 27, 1996. By that time, music videos had long since lost their novelty appeal, but series creators Tad Low and Woody Thompson made them entertaining again by adding onscreen bubbles containing behind-the-scenes information, random fun facts, and snarky asides. As Thompson revealed in a 2015 interview with People, VH1 was originally skeptical: “Wait, you’re going to have people read TV?” But the series quickly became a hit, even reigning as the network’s top-rated show until Behind The Music came along. It ran until 2002, with a revival in 2011-12.
At its best, Pop-Up Video could make just about anything more enjoyable:
In retrospect, Pop-Up Video’s running text commentary was a precursor to today’s live-tweeting. The show’s legacy also survives thanks to plenty of YouTube clips. Pop-Up Video always used a mixture of current and classic videos, with the oldies often becoming highlights. Take, for instance, the show’s version of “Hello” by Lionel Richie. Thompson called this “by far the greatest video we ever popped.” With its contrived “romantic” storyline and stiff acting, “Hello” made a perfect target. But the producers did their research, too, even seeking out the sculptor who made the hideous bust of Richie that appears at the end.
Pop-Up Video always treated the videos with a certain measure of healthy irreverence. The show’s take on “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen includes interesting facts about the origins of the song and video (plus tidbits about queen bees and the planet Mercury), but the writers also threw in a digital clock that lets viewers know how much longer the six-minute epic has to go.