Viewers won't take long to sense something unusual about NBC's "NewsRadio" rerun on Wednesday. A bubble reading "Empty" pops into the opening scene and points to a coffee cup in front of egomaniacal reporter Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman).
When a mental patient (guest star Jon Lovitz) lights a cigarette and talks to it, a bubble will bounce up with a familiar-sounding bloop to reveal that 95% of schizophrenics are smokers. More bubbles will point out the show's writing staffers being used as extras, and will tally up the additional pay they earn for speaking the lines that they wrote.
And so on, as "NewsRadio"--about a quirky family of co-workers coping with life at fictional New York station WNYX--meets "Pop-Up Video," cable outlet VH1's irreverent vehicle that uses edgy factoids to spice up often-timeworn music videos.
NBC hopes that the crossover stunt will expose the brightly written sitcom to the MTV crowd. "Pop-Up Video" creators Tad Low and Woody Thompson want network executives to discover a new way to freshen up old prime-time material.
"Let's face it," Low said. "This could bring a whole new life to network reruns."
"For less than $100,000 an episode," Thompson adds.
Low and Thompson, both 31, had a string of modest writer-producer credits when they teamed up on VH1 barely 18 months ago to create "Pop-Up Video."
The show has rapidly become a cultural phenomenon with a deceptively simple formula: Bubbles containing text overlay music videos with intriguing tidbits unearthed and double-checked by a staff of 30 researchers.
The pops dish up scooplets such as where and when a video was shot, who's wearing a clip-on nose ring and which musician got seasick during that yacht sequence. And they wryly deflate any hint of pretension, as in, "You Were Meant for Me," when singer Jewel slithers, snakelike, out of a long, tight dress, and a bubble declares: "The average person sheds an entire layer of skin every month."
" 'Pop-Up Video' is part of the reason we had our best year ever in 1997," said VH1 President John Sykes.
The concept intrigues popular-culture experts.
"When I first saw it, I said this is an interesting idea," USC cinema-television professor Todd Boyd said. "When you think about the popularity of the Internet, we consume information at a very rapid pace, and our desire for information has increased."
And so, after popping nearly 300 music videos, Low and Thompson saw the sitcom assignment as a possible springboard to bigger things. So they headed west to spend two days on the "NewsRadio" set in Hollywood at the invitation of Paul Simms, the sitcom's executive producer.
Simms admitted that he had a few anxious moments after overhearing Low cackling that letting the "Pop-Up" duo into your project is like inviting Mike Wallace over for dinner. But Simms said that as soon as he watched the show and saw a bubble revealing that he had paid $1,500 to sweeten the laugh track, he realized that his instincts were on target.
"I told them the only way this will be really good is if you guys are as irreverent about our show as you'd be about a Duran Duran video," Simms said. "I said that there's nothing they could put in there that would offend us."
Thompson responded with zeal: "Our shows share some of the same sensibilities. 'NewsRadio' has kind of a testy relationship with NBC and we have sort of a dysfunctional relationship with VH1. Paul thought that it was a perfect fit for the two shows and we were willing to go for it."
Indeed, "NewsRadio" cast members have appeared recently in network promos grumbling sarcastically about a time change to Wednesday from Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Low and Thompson posted a page on their Web site excoriating VH1 for selling "Pop-Up Video"--without the two creators--for a Bell Atlantic TV commercial and to ABC's "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." Low and Thompson were cut out of those projects because, early on, they sold VH1 their rights to the name and likeness of "Pop-Up Video"--bloop sound and all. VH1 agreed to license out the property and to let Bell's ad agency and the "Sabrina" crew write their own pops.
On the teen-targeted "Sabrina," which last September became the first popped sitcom, the bubbles clearly lacked the familiar VH1-style bite. But although the crossover pulled respectable ratings, it probably won't be repeated, according to "Sabrina" executive producer Paula Hart.
"It's a cute idea but it's not consistent with our show," Hart said. "It was a lot of work for a little bit of return."
Low and Thompson remain under contract to produce popped music videos for the cable network for up to two more years.
Sykes said that VH1 will try to keep Low and Thompson involved when "Pop-Up Video" is licensed out, and the pair can work on any project with the OK of a licensee such as Simms on the NBC series.