Pop-Up Video: The making of VH1's highest-rated show

If there were a bubble over Tad Low’s head right now, it would read Mad as hell.

”It’s a huge disaster,” roars Low, the excitable 31-year-old cocreator of VH1’s Pop-Up Video. ”Bell Atlantic is the evil empire. It’s no coincidence that their spokesman [James Earl Jones] is Darth Vader.”

Ah, the pitfalls of success. It was only a year ago that Low and his partner, Woody Thompson, 30, launched a diverting little program that laced music videos with snarky, factoid-filled text bubbles (e.g., Adam Duritz has dreadlock extensions). Since then, not only has Pop-Up bubbled to the top of VH1’s ratings, it’s become a genuine zeitgeist phenomenon. Imitations of the format have popped up on everything from McDonald’s ads to an ESPN SportsCenter segment to Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Oprah Winfrey did a special ”popped” episode of her show this summer. Low and Thompson had even talked to Paramount about popping a big-screen version of Grease for theatrical release next year. (When those talks recently fizzled—Paramount says it didn’t want to mess with tradition—Low snickered, ”They’re worried about our version outgrossing the [original].”) In short, everyone wants to hop on pop.

You’d think all the exposure would make Low and Thompson happy. But as they’re quick to point out, too often the Pop-Up wannabes produce flat results. Case in point: For its new ad campaign, Bell Atlantic licensed the popular concept from VH1, which owns the rights. As if that weren’t irksome enough to the creators, the phone company’s ad agency also declined the duo’s input. The final spot shows a couple bickering in a downpour along with such limp pops as ”Fake rain.” Says Low: ”I cried when I first saw it. It makes it look like we sold out.”

”We feel we’ve gotten the necessary contractual approvals,” says Bell Atlantic spokesman John Bonomo. Echoes a VH1 spokesman, ”We were within our rights,” though he adds ”we understand [Low and Thompson’s] concern.”

Their concern, simply put, is that no one else knows how to do it right. ”It’s not as easy as it looks,” says Low. ”It can be as hard as crafting a Bach fugue.” In their view, there’s only one true method for creating a genuine pop-up, one deserving of the authentic bloop:

Step 1

Choose your target Not all videos are equally poppable. The producers look for backlash-ready, played-to-death tunes (i.e., anything by Madonna), preferably with leisurely editing that allows time to point out the silly details. ”Ballads are better,” says Low. ”Something like Green Day—forget about it.”

Step 2

An El Niño-style brainstorming session This step, says Low, is ”like watching videos with your friends after you’ve all sucked down big bong hits.” As a VCR whirs, Pop-Up‘s 30 staffers—sprawled on oversize orange couches in the show’s cluttered Manhattan offices—shout out whatever crosses their trivia-laden Gen- X minds. A recent screening of a Simply Red video produced the following: