Executive Producer Jason Goldberg Talks MTV Series PUNK’D

     March 30, 2012


The MTV pop culture phenomenon Punk’d is back, with bigger laughs, better surprises and unbelievable pranks, revealing the vulnerable and fun-loving side of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities. This season, Ashton Kutcher is passing the torch to a different celebrity host each week, including such notables as Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Twilight Saga star Kellan Lutz, Hayden Panettiere, Jackass star Bam Margera and Punk’d alum Dax Shepard, among many others, all of whom attempt to punk their unsuspecting famous friends.

During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, executive producer Jason Goldberg talked about how the return of Punk’d came about, how a general meeting with Justin Bieber inspired the idea of having different celebrity hosts, why they decided to show the extent of what goes on behind-the-scenes in order to pull off such incredible pranks, how their team extensively interviews everyone who gets punk’d prior to the prank, the pranks he’s particularly proud of pulling off this season, and the factors that they look at when they’re deciding what projects they want to get involved with. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Collider: How did the return of Punk’d come about? Was it something you and Ashton Kutcher and been thinking of doing again, or was it MTV’s idea to bring it back and you needed some convincing?

JASON GOLDBERG: That’s a great question. I think that it was bubbling for awhile. Three years had gone by, and that’s when the conversation started. We felt that there was going to be a time, but that wasn’t the time, two years ago. There was a discussion with the network, and we were just waiting to figure out when it really felt right. We had to get to a place where we felt like there was a different way to tell stories and to do this show. Ironically, I had a meeting with Justin Bieber, right around two years before we started, just to get together and talk. It was just a general meeting. He was really the one who said, “Dude, what’s going on with Punk’d?” And when that happened, we had a long conversation about it.

I was just talking to him about what I would see as the vision of it, and what would he do with it and think about it. I actually had a really inspiring conversation with him. So, we got back into just thinking about it and looking at the landscape of what was happening in alternative programming. We don’t really view this as a reality show. We do have writers on this show, that come up with ideas, and then you put them in situations and it’s full-blown reality. It’s the most honest form of television that you can find, mainly because the guest star of the show has absolutely no idea that they’re on a show. The magic of the show is that you really get to see people’s true colors and who they really are.

What led you to show more of the behind-the-scenes aspect, this time?

GOLDBERG: When we started looking at shows, we saw that there were a lot of docu-series out there. Everyone seemed to be really interested in docu-series, and very invested in people. And when we looked at our format, it was not that, to begin with. We thought, “What would we want to do, and what do we think the audience would be super-interested in?” For us, it was, “We’ve gotta peak behind the curtain of this thing.” The first thought was, “How do we open up how hard this show really is, and show the inner-workings of Hollywood and how it really works?” Rather than Justin Bieber saying, “Yeah, you know, I got together with Taylor Swift today,” it’s about, “How did you do that?” When we get into the specifics and the minutiae of the detail of how things move, it starts to get really interesting. When are you ever going to be privy to an honest conversation over a telephone, where you hear Justin Bieber talking to Taylor Swift? You’re not. That’s something where the scheming, the plotting and the planning of the behind-the-scenes, and how hard this really is, started becoming an angle.

How did you come to the decision to have different hosts for each episode?

GOLDBERG: Because Ashton did such an amazing job hosting it for so long, we felt like, in this world today, we didn’t really want a series that was going to run for five years and then you’d become tired of it. The series was really about, “Who’s hot, and who do we want to punk?,” the first time around, and we ran out of people that we wanted to get. This time around, it was, “Okay, how do we go into the host’s journey a little bit?” When we came up with, more or less, an SNL model, where every week was a different celebrity host, it started to click. These shows became dramatically different.

If you look at a show like Justin Bieber’s show, or Dax Shepard, who came back, or (rapper) Tyler the Creator, they’re so dramatically different, in their styles of how they create. You have to go through this journey, with each one of them. Whereas with Ashton, when we ran that series for eight seasons, it was very much of a one-note idea of that series, which was, “Come on, people! Can’t you figure this out?!” He felt like he was invited to a party he didn’t belong to, in Hollywood, and that was really his angle.

It’s so different every week now. Tyler the Creator is a completely different beast then [Justin] Bieber or Bam [Margera] or Heather Morris (from Glee) or (rapper) Mac Miller or Kellan Lutz from Twilight or Dax Shepard, who’s a veteran of the show. To get in their journey is entirely different. I wanted to get people that I really know, so that you get to learn about their own relationship with them and the why. The closest thing to that, in Season 1 with Ashton, was when he was getting guys from That ‘70s Show because he was really close and personal with them. It’s very different now because we’re getting an insight into people and their connections and their friendship in this show, and how it works and what we have to be careful of.

On top of that, if they miss, we’re going to air with it. If someone says, “You know what, I’m being punk’d and I don’t buy it,” it goes to air. So now, the stakes are huge for the host because they have to get the best of that. If they don’t, we’re going to go to air with it, regardless. We believe that the authenticity of reality today is so important that you have to be extremely honest with it. Do you want to have fun? Yes. Do you want to be in the zeitgeist? Yes. Do you want to piece of pop culture, where you’re going to be able to open up an US Weekly or an In Touch and go way beyond that page? That’s what we are. We’re digging much deeper in here. Ideally, if it misses, it goes, and the audience wants to see that and wants to see those relationships. Every show is just so different.

Are you surprised that you’re still able to pull off pranks on people without most of them questioning what’s happening?

GOLDBERG: If we know that we’re going after Liam Hemsworth, and that’s who we’re going to go get this week, you have five to seven dedicated bodies that are psychographing him, with every single thing, from when he was born to where he is now, and every single occurrence in every single year, and every single relationship. It’s almost like we’re the CIA meets the FBI. We know about what citations he’s gotten to what he’s driven to problems he’s had to his viewpoint on the environment and whether he’s voting Democrat or Republican. That’s how we really create. That’s the truth. So, when you take it that way and spend a lot of time – hours on one person – we’re really getting to know who that person is. We look at it as, “This is a mission and, in order for us to achieve that mission, we have to know every single thing there is and we have to be able to predict which way he’s going to go, in certain instances.” We don’t take that for granted, at all.

The hardest part about this show is that it’s live. There is no second take on this show. If you’ve got it, you go with it. If you make a mistake, you better rebound real quick, or your bit just ended. Now, you’ll see some instances where there’s a mistake made and, even if you can’t get them back and they make it, we’re on the air and we’re showing it. That’s why we have a crew that spends weeks thinking about the person, coming up with the right idea, building something to hide cameras so that they can’t see it, all planning for possibly 15 minutes. When you watch a crew bleed to death to make it work, everyone is celebrating, including, by the way, the person that’s being punk’d.

At the very beginning, we said it was our celebration of an artist that we really respect and want to create this moment that they’ll remember for the rest of their life, whether it was Jason Bateman or Halle Berry or Hugh Jackman or [Justin] Timberlake, and there’s a whole new crop of them now. There is a thing where they’re scared of it. They don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. We certainly have earned our credibility out there, where people make it very clear who don’t want to get punk’d. We respect the artist, no matter what. We’re not trying to make them look bad. It’s a different scheme of the show, right now, and a different energy of the show. I’d say before, we used to hit under the gut a lot. This is very, very different. It doesn’t mean that things have to just happen to them. They can be coming up on something. It can be about someone else that we know that they’re going to gravitate into. That’s funny, as well. But, at the end of it, they all want to know that we made their moment awesome. That’s something that I’ve seen, across the board.

The last one we just did, we punk’d someone and they looked around and saw 15 cameras, they saw people jumping out, they saw 60 crew members coming at them, and they have a moment. It’s really surreal. They’re thinking, “Oh, my god, I just couldn’t possibly fathom that this was Punk’d!” And then, we get a call from them, the next day, and they’re like, “You guys, that was awesome!” That was the fraternity we wanted to build. We get to meet people in the rawest fashion and we’re very private about what we do, but this time around, in particular, mainly because of what we’ve seen with social technologies and social media, the show feels very different. They’re already out there and exposed, but now you’re getting to see people in a different light. I think we hit comedy in a way we haven’t before, on the show.

Did you have a favorite prank, or one that you’re particularly proud of this season, and is there someone that you’re just dying to pull a prank on?

GOLDBERG: Well, there are people right now that we continue to aim at, that we’re very careful about. We take non-disclosures very seriously, so it would be very hard for me to tell you someone that we’re trying to get, mainly because we’re actively always trying. Whether we’re in season or out of season, we’re always figuring out ways. But, this time it’s about the episodes rather then the bits. If you look at a show like Dianna Agron and Zac Efron and Snooki, and you look at that entire journey in that show, it just kills. Bam Margera’s approach into punking is so different than anyone else’s. What he does to Tyler the Creator, [Tyler] Posey (from Teen Wolf) and Ronnie from Jersey Shore is phenomenal. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen.

In each one, even the ones we miss, it’s super-compelling. We’re up against each other, trying to think, and we make mistakes and those mistakes show. I can tell you that, on the ones that we miss, we know the mistakes we made. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth (from The Hunger Games) kill. They’re really fun, really good and really, really in it. They are so many. Chloe Moretz is amazing. Her Punk’d is unbelievable. Zac Efron was probably one of my favorite of the year. There are some we just shot that I’m not privy to talk about yet, but are humongous and amazing. There’s a big surprise on the show that’s coming on the night of the MTV Movie Awards. It’s the biggest names that we’ve ever struck on the show, and it’s unbelievable.

There was a concentration this year on who we got and the things that we did to them. It’s certainly an exhausting process, but I’m really proud of all these shows. You’ll see that some hosts are better than others, but the ones that you may not look at as great were super-vulnerable. Justin [Bieber] said it best. Here’s a guy who plays in front of millions of people, on any given night. When he came into our office, he was much more on edge, doing this show, then playing in front of 35,000 to 55,000 people.

When you come in and you’re looking at 12 cameras, and you’ve built for this moment, and you’ve spent a week psychographing someone and it’s on, there’s not one person I know that’s been behind-the-scenes, calling the shots on this show, that doesn’t feel physically sick in their stomach over what the hell’s going to happen and whether he or she is going to make us, if it’s going to work, and what’s going to happen. You have to think on your toes. As a testament to most of these hosts, they came prepared. When they first came, they weren’t sure whether or not we were going to do something to them, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, “What would you do with this format?,” and some people pulled pranks in a way that we just wouldn’t have seen. I think it works for those reasons, and I’m stoked about a lot of them.

liam-hemsworth-image-1Having been so successful with the stuff that you’ve produced over the years, are there factors that you look at, that make something right for your company?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. We’re not a company that really does docu-series. We’re not a volume-based business. Today, in order to survive as a producer, when you’re running a company, it’s all about the bottom line. We have a tendency to not look at the bottom line. We only do things that we’re really passionate about and that we want to do. When we go into rooms and talk about ideas, we take big swings. I’m okay taking big swings, even if they miss. Television is a medium today where, if you put up 10 things, eight or nine of them are going to fail. That’s just the way it is.

For us, we can’t be afraid of failure. The worst thing we can do is live in the middle. We have to play on the edges. We don’t go to the room a lot. We have a relationship with most of the networks out there. Probably our most important relationship right now is definitely MTV, and mainly because we’re guys that grew up there. We feel a great sense of pride, like Dickhouse and Jackass, of really feeling like we were part of that building phase. It’s a magical place to be. I have to say that it’s just a different place then anywhere else. I know that I’m doing my job for the fans, and I know that they want to push the edge. You don’t have that relationship at the big networks, and we do shows there, too. It’s just the culture and knowing who you want to communicate with and how you want to communicate.

We just don’t do everything. We’re just not going to do something like Singing with the Stars, or The Kardashians. It’s just not who we are. We love comedy. We have a great respect for comedians and improvers. We have a great respect for artists. To us, it’s really about, culturally, the kind of stories we want to tell. It’s not just about what’s happening and what people want, it’s actually the opposite. It’s about what we want. If we want to tell those stories, the audience will find it because we’re going to do a better job at it. I don’t think every show out there is for everyone to do, and I don’t think we’re right to do everything. However, when it’s about what’s edgy, popular culture, comedy, and is inside of Hollywood circles, it always comes through our office because we like to flip that and play with it. It’s about doing less and doing it better.

When we’ve done this show, we have not been focused on anything but that show. It just takes that amount of attention. If I’m asking a viewer to watch our show, I don’t want to bullshit you. I’m going to be super-straight with you and tell you that I really believe we nailed it here and I feel we missed it there. We’re promoting the hell out of this thing and, if I’m asking viewers to come and watch it, it’s my duty to do everything that I can to make it as best as I can. I don’t know if all producers today operate that way. I think it just becomes about economics, and that’s when it becomes less special.

We know we hit it when the marks and the hosts started getting behind it and wanted to promote it. It’s not an obligation to them. They want their fans to see it, big time. It was awesome for them and they want to get behind it, which means we definitely did our job, this time around. I feel great about the work we did. I wouldn’t be on the phone with you right now, and you wouldn’t see our hosts be out there, promoting their episodes, if it wasn’t there. It actually is there. It feels completely culturally relevant right now, and like a totally different show. I feel good about it. I really do.

Punk’d airs on Thursday nights on MTV.