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For a Time, the Story of Culture Was Told Through ‘The Real World’

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, the MTV reality show was so prevalent that countless other shows and movies—from ‘Reality Bites’ to ‘Chappelle’s Show’ to ‘Scrubs’—used it as a reference point

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“This is the true story … of seven strangers … picked to live in a house … work together … and have their lives taped … to find out what happens … when people stop being polite … and start getting real: The Real World.”

The Real World: New York. The Real World: Seattle. The Real World: New Orleans. The Real World: Sacramento. The Real World: Ibiza. The Real World: Mission Hill. The Mad Real World. Some of these things are not like the other ones. Some of these things are fakes. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery (a dubious claim to begin with), it can also be a useful tool for cultural commentary, and throughout the ’90s and into the ’00s, parodying or otherwise referencing The Real World was basically a rite of passage for TV and movies. Even MTV got in on the game with the production of The Real World Movie: The Lost Season in 2002.

The Real World, MTV’s first foray into non-music programming that has now aired for 33 seasons (the latest on Facebook Watch in 2019), was a near-instant success after its premiere in 1992. According to original coproducer Jonathan Murray in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, the show’s first episode tripled the rating of the lead-in music video programming. It was a low-budget combination of “documentary filmmaking with a soap opera,” as Kevin Powell, Season 1 cast member, describes it in that same book. Powell also recounts the uproarious reaction to the cast at the VMAs, but not every reaction was positive—Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran’s keyboard player, calls the birth of The Real World “when MTV ended,” and Ken R. Clark, VJ production assistant and on-air talent manager, recalls people yelling “MTV sucks!” at him in the street. The Real World hit a nerve, for both better and worse.

As with anything that invades the cultural landscape so wholly, The Real World immediately started popping up in other pieces of pop culture. It was parodied on comedy sketch shows and referenced in various films, TV, and music videos—oh, the irony—for years to come. Each parody and reference highlights common hallmarks of the show as well as real-life questions and concerns about it, fueling the conversation around The Real World by asking: What is The Real World, and what is the real world?

“This is the true story of six motherfucking strangers being put in the motherfucking house and have their motherfucking lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being all polite and shit and start getting real. Mad real. The Mad Real World, son.”

Saturday Night Live did two sketches spoofing The Real World, one in 1993 with Shannen Doherty and one in 1996 featuring Norm Macdonald as housemate Bob Dole. In 1994’s Reality Bites, an MTV-like channel co-opts Winona Ryder’s Lelaina’s documentary footage. In 1995, the Beverly Hills, 90210 characters film their own Real World knockoff. Matthew Lillard plays a self-centered former Real World cast member in 1999’s She’s All That. There’s an episode of animated show Mission Hill in which Kevin discovers his older brother Andy once infiltrated a season of The Real World to destroy it from the inside. A 2003 episode of Chappelle’s Show features a “Mad Real World” sketch that chronicles a season of The Real World in which the typical cast dynamics are flipped, featuring five black roommates and one white guy. Comedy Central’s Drawn Together is an animated reality show (an oxymoron) that mirrors The Real World format. Audrey (Busy Philipps) auditions for The Real World: Ibiza in a Season 5 episode of Dawson’s Creek. The Happy Endings crew watches footage of the un-aired The Real World: Sacramento that introduced Max (Adam Pally) and Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) in 2012’s “More Like Stanksgiving.” Even Muppets Tonight and Nickelodeon’s All That aired Real World spoof sketches, and Pinky and the Brain featured an MTTV Real World-like program in an episode about (what else?) an attempt to take over the world. Eminem’s “Without Me” video features Real World cast members Syrus, Julie, and Puck in a quick fake of the show, both Futurama and Charmed made reference to future seasons of The Real World taking place on the sun and the moon, respectively, and Scrubs included a Real World introduction gag in an early season episode. (Surely there are even more—if only I could hop in an actual time machine and rewatch all the television and movies from when The Real World was at the height of its powers.) The elements each spoof or reference share are as important as what sets them apart, proof that the conversation around The Real World was widespread and popular enough to seep into programs as different as Pinky and the Brain, Chappelle’s Show, and Beverly Hills, 90210.

Mocking or highlighting things like revealing confessionals, the reliable fights over food and dirty dishes (like Happy Endings, Mission Hill, 90210, Muppets Tonight, and SNL’s Bob Dole sketch all do), constant house meetings (as showcased on Muppets Tonight, Chappelle’s Show, and SNL), The Real World’s quirky interior design choices (as in Mission Hill, SNL, and Happy Endings), or the omnipresent hot tub (utilized in Drawn Together and referenced in Happy Endings) was common; these all poke fun at some of The Real World hallmarks that when examined further, pulled back the curtain on how predictable and staged the reality program could feel. Details like these would likely be recognizable to any Real World viewer, lending some authenticity to the spoof or reference, as well as serving to spotlight the fact that, for all its talk, the show wasn’t exactly all that realistic all the time. It’s natural for roommates to fight about dishes. It’s uncommon to have an aquarium, a traffic light, or shelves made of old suitcases in your apartment. It’s natural to privately vent about your roommates, though less so when you know the venting will be made public. It’s even less realistic for roommates to work together every day and hot tub together every night.

“This is the true story of several strangers picked by a huge corporation to embarrass themselves on national TV. The Real World: Mission Hill.”

There were also concerns about overall authenticity, diversity, producer interference, and cast behavior surrounding The Real World phenomenon as it gained ground after the first season’s success. Plenty of pop culture representations tackle these pieces of the puzzle, too. Chappelle’s sketch flips the script when it comes to diversity in The Real World and the preconceived stereotypes roommates carry with them into the show—“The Mad Real World” features white guy Chad moving into a house with five black roommates and eventually getting kicked out because the roommates don’t feel safe with him there; the sketch was reportedly inspired by Chappelle’s friend David Edwards’s eviction from The Real World Season 2. Drawn Together also engages with questions of racism and stereotypes in reality TV in its shock-comedy way. In the first episode, Princess Clara immediately displays her bigotry toward black roommate Foxxy Love; they later make out in the hot tub. The show was met with mixed critical reaction.

In I Want My MTV, Season 1 roommate Eric Nies recalls the producers leaving a book of Bruce Weber photos that he’d posed naked for on the coffee table—“They felt they had to create conflict,” he explains. In Mission Hill’s “Andy vs. The Real World,” Andy discovers a producer control room and bugged plants when he infiltrates the house, speaking to the notion of producer interference in how “reality” played out. Reality Bites and Happy Endings both touch on the powers that be editing footage to tell the story they want to tell. “These shows … they really edit stuff to make you seem like a jerk when you really just love your wife so much!” Brad exclaims in Happy Endings. Mission Hill, Dawson’s Creek, 90210, and Drawn Together all also comment on the idea that Real World cast members often portray seemingly archetypal characters. The Mission Hill Viacom producers specifically need Andy to fulfill the “charismatic troublemaker” role after a roommate is hit by a bus; “Do I go for vamp, vixen, or all-out slut?” Audrey wonders while plotting her audition tape on Dawson’s Creek. She’s All That’s Brock Hudson (Lillard, underrated comedian?) is a caricature of a Real Worlder who’s using the reality show as a springboard to an acting career that could take him to Aaron Spelling’s latest drama ... or maybe just All-Star Road Rules. Explaining a joke kills the joke, but go ahead and call me a murderer: In these instances of lampooning The Real World, the humor comes from pointing out something that’s true (the constant hot tubbing is ridiculous, roommates can bring biases with them to the house, etc.) and perhaps worth more consideration. And in some cases, the humor goes a step further—when it comes to a program that purports to be “reality,” what better way to comment on it than by playing with the dichotomy between how real it claims to be and how unreal it sometimes seems? It’s funny because it’s true … that a supposed true-life show is actually kind of untrue.

“This is the true story of five Muppets picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when Muppets stop being polite and start being real. The Real World: Muppets.”

The pop culture references to The Real World in non-sketch shows also made the aspirational attainable—who among us didn’t dream, for just a minute, of one day auditioning for The Real World? In the world of Happy Endings, Mission Hill, and Dawson’s Creek, the characters did, too. To present fictional characters as real people on The Real World once again asks audiences to consider authenticity and realness. Some of these references don’t even mention The Real World by name—in Reality Bites, Lelaina’s documentary footage is first warped into a Real World–like show (called Reality Bites) by In Your Face TV (described earlier in the film as “like MTV but with edge”), then fully fictionalized, perhaps suggesting that The Real World is as real as the Reality Bites Lelaina hates. And both Reality Bites and 90210 point to the real-world doubts about The Real World’s realness. In Beverly Hills, 90210, David (Brian Austin Green) and Clare (Kathleen Robertson) enlist their friends to be filmed for a video essay project called “Real Life” after the original subjects drop out. Because they’d already submitted a proposal with character sketches, the 90210 group has to play these characters, improvising in scenes teed up by David and Clare. Naturally, their own personalities and dramas shine through, leading to “the best material,” according to Clare. Fictional characters … acting like other fictional characters for a “reality” film project … and then dropping the facade and acting like their “real” selves—it’s the galaxy brain of referential writing, before the galaxy brain even existed.

What is reality anyway? This is ultimately the question The Real World and its pop culture reflections brings to mind. No biggie; hardly likely to trigger an existential crisis in searching for an answer. For a generation raised on television that blurs the line between reality and fiction, maybe asking the question is enough. Maybe The Real World—and its parodic iterations—even taught us to ask the question to begin with. The show might not be breaking television ground on TV (or on Facebook Watch) anymore, but as long as Gen X and millennials are making and consuming media, it’ll be a relevant cultural touchstone to reference and use as a lens through which we can examine our complicated, ever-changing relationship to reality TV and reality itself. That’s about as real as you can get.