SANTA MONICA, Calif. — There really is a method to the madness that is the MTV Video Music Awards.
“I like to say, ‘Let’s put the crazy in the room, and we throw the match in the middle of the audience and artists, and we see what happens,” said Van Toffler, who has been associated with the show for most of its three decades.
Toffler, a 55-year-old New Yorker, left his post as MTV Networks President this spring to start his own production company, but is acting as executive producer for the VMAs one last time.
In a recent interview, Toffler reflected on the most memorable moments and legacy of the show, which airs live Sunday from the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles.
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IN THE BEGINNING
Before there was Miley, there was Madonna.
“She’d like to say she put the M in MTV,” Toffler said with a sly smile.
He said she set the standard for wild behavior in the inaugural awards in 1984, hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler: “Her rolling around in the wedding dress was quite memorable.”
Madonna and producers agreed she would perform a new song, “Like a Virgin,” as she emerged from a wedding cake, wearing a wedding dress, bustier and a belt buckle sporting the words “BOY TOY.”
One of Madonna’s white stilettos slipped off as she descended from the cake, and thinking quickly, she dove to the floor and rolled around. While reaching for the shoe, the dress went up, putting her undies on full display, and the VMAs were on the map.
MADONNA MAKES OUT
Some 20 years later, there was Madonna again — this time making out with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
“It wasn’t necessarily Madonna, Britney and Christina,” Toffler recalled. “J. Lo was in the mix for a little while, but then dropped out, and I thought the whole thing was going to disappear.”
Toffler was on vacation when he got a call from the show’s director.
“And she said, ‘Van, you’re not going to believe this. They’re rehearsing now. They’re all together. And Madonna actually kissed Britney on the lips.’ And I said, ‘Please do me a favor. Don’t tell any other human on the planet that this is happening.'”
KANYE THE CRASHER
In the 2009 show, as Taylor Swift accepted the award for best female video, Kanye West walked onstage, grabbed Swift’s microphone and ranted about how Beyonce was more deserving.
“So, we have an artist who was disrupted from her speech. We had Beyonce, who looked like a deer in the headlights. And we had Kanye, who was a little bit opinionated and let’s say a little bit lit,” Toffler said.
Worse yet, a tearful Swift was slated to perform live just three minutes later, following a commercial break.
Producers dealt with West, who left the venue. They convinced Beyonce to stick around and later escorted Swift back out onstage to conclude her speech. And Toffler helped Swift pull herself together and get through her performance.
“I think being a nurturing father, not just to my own children, comes in handy,” he said.
Toffler credits Beyonce’s father and Swift’s mother for helping put out the fire, but said Beyonce was the night’s MVP: “She was the best influence at the time.”
Perhaps the biggest backlash to a VMAs moment came after Miley Cyrus, host of this year’s show, gyrated around Robin Thicke as he performed “Blurred Lines” on the 2013 telecast.
“Cyrus danced provocatively, but everybody knew her as Hannah Montana,” Toffler said. “She chose that moment to say, ‘I’m an adult. Look at me.'”
“I believe the next day on the Today show, one of the hosts called for me to be fired … And I’m like, ‘Really?'” he recalled. “For Miley dancing with Robin Thicke that way?”
LET’S GET SERIOUS
For all of the fun and frivolity, the VMAs have no problem getting serious — providing Toffler with what he said were some of his proudest moments as producer.
In 2000, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich skewered file-sharing site Napster in a skit. The show has included moving tributes to Michael Jackson, Princess Diana and Aaliyah. And who could forget Bruce Springsteen opening the 2002 show by performing his Sept. 11-inspired “The Rising” outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City — punctuated by a mist of rain.