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"I’d also like to see Tom Calderone not pass out at the end of the show."
——Van Toffler
PULLING UP THE VAN
Toffler on the MTV VMAs’ 20th Anninversary
Wth the MTV Video Music Awards ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary Thursday, where it began, at Radio City Music Hall, the channel’s affable President Van Toffler is at the center of the vortex. He took a few moments from waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat dreaming he saw Triumph the Insult Comic Dog humping Eminem’s leg to answer questions from HITS about the event and his role in it.  

What are the weeks leading up to the VMAs like for you?
I have many sleepless nights. I had a dream last night about Lance Armstrong starting the show by racing on bicycle from one end of Manhattan to the other. And whoever guessed correctly how long it took would present the Video of the Year award with him.

It’s difficult to top yourself in creating those water-cooler moments.
It’s consuming my life—I’ve been leaving messages at 3 a.m. to book Gary Coleman and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Maybe they’ll kiss on-air. Will there be any acknowledgement of this being the 20th anniversary of the VMAs?
It’s all about seeking out those current moments in pop culture that are somewhat combustible, putting them in a blender and hoping they ignite in some way. Fortunately for us, those subversive freaks of nature are drawn to music in general, and this show in particular. We don’t like to look back at MTV, but there will definitely be a few nods to our history. In no way will it be reverential, though.

Perhaps you could get Kobe Bryant and his accuser to come on and make up on camera.
Kobe was on the Teen Choice Awards, and it felt like a desperate effort to get publicity. That one’s just a little too sensitive right now.

Chris Rock is hosting again, and he’s been great in the past. What makes a good VMA host?
I
f there’s a word to describe it, it’s danger. Nobody can control Chris, which he’s proven in the past—in light of the fact I had to hire some muscle that night to escape the venue after his remarks. The great thing about Chris is he’s a cultural sponge and he loves music. There’ll no doubt be some surprise comments he’ll make about culture generally, especially the Kobe thing, and specifically music, about all the artists, like 50 Cent and others, who will be performing and presenting.

The Johnny Cash nominations seem to be the emotional high point of the show. Any word on whether the Man in Black will be well enough to attend?
Clearly, we’d love to have him there. We know that he’s thrilled with the nominations and to be recognized by his peers and, particularly, MTV’s audience. He’s had such a long career, and I think he was somewhat shocked our viewers would show him this kind of love. It is a wonderful, poignant part of the show, that it goes from Missy Elliott, 50 Cent and Eminem to Johnny Cash.

Any predictions as to who might feud this year?
First of all, I think Eminem has a restraining order against the dog, so the two of them can’t be in the same place. It definitely was a combustible moment and a surprise to all of us. So I don’t think that’s going to happen again. But any show that ranges from the Olsen twins to DMX is bound to have some volatility.

Any particularly memorable VMA moments for you in your 16 years at MTV?
A few that stand out include the Pee-wee Herman opening, Tom Petty and AxlNeil Young and Pearl Jam doing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Guns n’ Roses last year, Nirvana when the bass hit Krist Novoselic in the head, Bruce Springsteen last year, and Bunny, my favorite character, on stage with Marilyn Manson. Probably the last one was passing a stone in the truck when Tim from Rage Against the Machine climbed the scaffolding and almost impaled Fred Durst.

What are you looking forward to come show night?
Two things I’d like to see—but not necessarily in this order—are J.Lo coming on stage and giving Chris the beatdown. And I’d also like to see Tom Calderone not pass out at the end of the show.

How do you view MTV’s role in helping the music business emerge from its rut, as it did in the ’80s?
An unhealthy music industry is horrendous for MTV. And I feel it now more than I’ve ever felt it in the past. What can we do? The first thing is to help the record labels connect with our audience, and their consumer, who is apparently rejecting the notion of paying $18 for a CD at the same time as they’re embracing a $25 DVD and a $50 video game. Whatever we can do to change the value proposition and make music seem more valuable… Maybe change the concept of a full album and embrace EPs, singles, packaging them with DVDs.  We want the labels to use MTV as a promotional vehicle to help enhance that value proposition. I also think we can help promote these legitimate digital download services. I would argue that MTV360 is the most powerful promotional vehicle for music there is, and if there’s a way for us to use our dot-com to help promote the legitimate digital download services, we’d like to have a place in that. We also want to embrace new bands and promote new music at MTV2, which will now be in 50 million homes on the College Television Network (CTN) and on our digital services.  Finally, on a creative tip, we’d like to reinforce the notion that great music sells and also makes compelling television. We’ll go to the ends of the universe to support new, creative breakthrough music that connects with our audience. And hopefully, the labels will sign those kinds of acts. It’s simply not a good situation for MTV when the labels aren’t doing well.

What’s the most fun part of the VMAs for you?
The rehearsals. We get to see the artist perform in a relatively easygoing setting, close up. Having that one-on-one relationship with the artists and taking the abuse from their managers. Meeting the label folks in a relaxed environment is another great part of the show.

You’ve spoken lovingly of the show as a trainwreck; how do you create that kind of spontaneity?
We read the Star and the National Enquirer… all the prescient cultural tea leaves. And personally, I eat a lot of Cap’n Crunch at 4 in the morning, which helps energize my thinking. It’s nothing but sugar, right?

Is it true you once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?
Well, the difference between me and Johnny Cash is, I used a flare gun to do it, and then I put it on Jackass.

 

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