The Colgate Scene ON-LINE


by John D. Hubbard

Success didn’t just pop into Woody Thompson’s life. Thompson ’89 and partner Tad Low knocked the pavement and pounded on doors carrying with them 10 ideas for television shows.

The two, who had met at summer camp as kids, worked together during the making of Last Call, an ill-fated Brandon Tartikoff vehicle that never got rolling. Low was among the on-air talent and Thompson was trying to do the funny bits. While Last Call suffered a quick curtain, Thompson and Low developed their roster of program possibilities, twists on television mainstays.

"The most daunting thing when you are two guys working out of an apartment is how to break in," says Thompson.

For two years the duo pitched their schemes, but no one was willing to take a risk on a couple of 28-year-olds with no executive producing credits. They finally made their way to the cable video network VH1, which was in a bit of a ratings slump and was looking for ways to add luster to its library of videos.

According to Thompson, who used to race home from school to catch the latest Madonna offering on VH1, videos had evolved into technical short movies and opportunities for directors’ innovations, but had lost some of the punch of the genre’s early work.

"VH1 wanted to bring some life to these gems," says Thompson, and so he and Low combined a bunch of their ideas — the twists on game shows, gossip shows, behind-the-scenes shows, fashion shows — and drew upon their vast "reservoirs of useless knowledge" to create Pop-Up Video.

The idea is simple. During the course of a video, while Boy George is dressed like a freak or Madonna cavorts on a gondola, a balloon appears — pops up — containing a nugget. It may be informational, it may be a wisecrack, but the pops keep coming and keep viewers watching.

Pop-Up Video was an instant hit. "This is the only show that people read," Thompson has said. It was a concern at first. Would VH1 viewers actually read their videos and could the Pop-Up Video team, which now numbers 35, create blurbs that were both interesting and digestible in just a few words? Ratings say yes — and the numbers are backed up by the buzz and imitations. The idea has spread to other shows, from ESPN to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, though no one has been able to pull off the concept with the élan and edge of the originators. Sample from a special C-Span version: "Newts weigh two ounces. Newt Gingrich weights 240 pounds."

As Thompson told TV Guide, "We might take a few potshots, but we always point to something you didn’t know" — Women’s Wear Daily coined the phrase hot pants in 1971, for example, or that the five members of Aerosmith are a combined 219 years old. "You learn something," adds Thompson. "We wanted to get some alpha brain-wave activity going."

"You have to have a command of monosyllabic words," says one of the show’s writers. That useless knowledge comes in handy and so does a background in production — many pops share inside stories and credit camera operators and makeup artists. A tip line generates 50 calls a day, often with one bandmate dishing the dirt on another. Most important is the ability to embrace the irreverent and make it pithy in a hurry.

Imagine a gathering of sharp-witted friends providing a running one-liner commentary while watching the tube. Pop-Up Video may just be the ’90s answer to the Algonquin’s Round Table.

The trick, of course, is in the writing, and Thompson says he and Low decided to "shoot high. Viewers won’t get all the pops, which makes it kind of a game show. You can actually watch them four or five times to catch the subtleties."

While Pop-Up Video is not an expensive show to produce — the pilot cost a mere $3,000 — it is not simple to create, demanding more content for the 30 or so pops per video than the script of a typical sitcom.

The staff watches a video endlessly, scours magazines and newspapers and interviews people who were involved in making the piece. Thompson, who had worked as an art director on several videos after studying painting and sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, knows the scene behind the scenes. "I’d spend hours decorating a warehouse for a bad rap song and then all you’d see on the video would be a closeup of the singer’s lips," he says.

Thompson also worked as a set dresser for My Cousin Vinny ("Moving furniture, basically") and Woody’s experiences impressed upon him the fact that the great stories were going untold — the on-set food fights and the Ryder truck being crashed just weren’t making it unto the final cut. "It’s outrageous, the stuff that goes on. Now the people slightly lower on the production totem pole have a chance to spill their guts."

Pop-Up Video began as a half-hour show with five videos in October of last year and was instantly a hit. A pop every 10 seconds or so makes it unnecessary to hit the remote and fans love the attitude. Pop-Up Video doesn’t say singer Alanis Morrissette has a big butt but when she walks away in her video it pops Thigh Master sales.

"Someone can be singing about losing her virginity and we have the stats on when. It makes it seem like a very dangerous show," says Thompson. Videos provide their own inspiration. When Sheryl Crow sings "If It Makes You Happy," up pops a bubble saying, "18 million Americans use Prozac to make themselves happy." During the course of the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" a pop informs viewers, "Fifty people are ‘stayin’ alive’ by having their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen/ Walt Disney is not one of them." And Cher’s "If I Could Turn Back Time" inspired this pop: "Cher has found a way to ‘turn back time’/2 breast lifts. 1 nose job/3 hours of exercise a day/7 boyfriends younger than her."

The artists were taken aback at first. "Publicists would call: ‘Hey, you can’t say that about Meatloaf,’" reports Thompson gleefully, but the show’s popularity has changed minds. Duran Duran is producing its next video specifically to be popped. They and other bands recognize videos are infomercials for their albums and Pop-Up Video has increased ratings 10 to 20 fold.

"This was a little tiny show idea," says Thompson. "We had no idea it would be so successful or open so many doors." He and Low are negotiating a movie deal, a 20th anniversary pop of Grease, a series of books is being planned and different incarnations of the show itself are in the works. One elementary teacher called to say she uses the method to help her students learn.

"It’s what’s in these bubbles that are our babies and we need to protect them," says Thompson, who is moving cautiously with Low while parent company Viacom charges ahead. "If one bad pop goes out the brand suffers."

Seeing that doesn’t happen makes for "insane" days. A recent mid-week example: Following a dental appointment at 9 a.m., Woody has a meeting with a book agent, gets off the air with a San Antonio radio show at noon, meets with "a movie guy" at three and screens new videos with his team at five.

"We’ve created this family that gets its sensibilities from its parents and the children are smart enough to respect the parents while going off on their own, too."

The staff brings the rich diversity of pop culture to the table. A former banker sits next to veterans of magazines, film and fashion. The graphics guy is a heavy metal-head and there is a Superman authority, too, spinning ideas.

"The show feels like sitting around your living room with smart, funny, cool friends. The pops hit you from out of nowhere. ‘Where did they come up with that?’ Well, it was somebody on our staff who has a phobia or affliction," explains Thompson.

"We get thousands and thousands of resumés. The first thing we do is flag communications majors from large universities. Liberal arts majors bring so much more value to television, which draws from the broadest possible scope. You never know when that philosophy class or sociology with professor Ramshaw will come in handy."

Colgate also provided Thompson the opportunity to learn about audiences. "One of the great things about going to a small, self-contained school is the familiarity. You learn from how a sporting event, lecture at the Chapel or night in the Jug affects everyone. It was interesting for me to try to figure out what captivates an audience.

It was a real confidence booster for me that there was enough of a mix to learn what works. Among all these future bankers, lawyers and doctors, I knew I was going to struggle and have to promote myself. When you major in art, it begins to direct your life."

Today, Thompson is co-president of Spin the Bottle Inc., and still looking for opportunities, still looking for "someone who needs content and will let us produce."

Here’s betting something will pop up for Woody Thompson.