VMA Head Van Toffler Reflects On 29 VMAs, Talks Miley, Nicki And His Pick For 2016 Host
Things looked a little different from the control booth of the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. At least, according to former Viacom Networks President and VMA executive producer Van Toffler, who was behind the controls for his final VMAs this year.
From 2008 until early 2015, Toffler served as President of MTV Networks Music & Logo Group (MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT and LOGO). Before that, as Group President of MTV Networks beginning in 2005. Toffler joined MTV Networks in 1987 and is credited with launching MTV.com in 1995 and MTV2 in 1999, overseeing the release of movies including "Election" and "Napoleon Dynamite" under the MTV Films banner and focusing on a number of pro-social campaigns, including the Peabody and Emmy-winning voter registration/mobilization "Choose or Lose" and the Emmy-winning anti-discrimination "Fight For Your Rights."
Now, as he exits the building, MTV News got Toffler on the phone to break down Sunday night's wild VMAs and his 29-year ride with the most unpredictable awards show on TV.
MTV: What was the most unexpected moment for you Sunday night?
Toffler: Like the rest of the universe, I think any time Kanye hits the stage it's always surprising and this year was no exception. I think that any other producer of any other show probably wouldn't allow the recipient of the biggest award of the evening to come in and have no idea what they were going to do. It vacillated between musical performance, medley and a speech -- and we got the speech.
MTV: So you didn't talk to him beforehand and make him rehearse so you knew for sure what would happen?
Toffler: We definitely talked to him before, but I guess communication was a bit lacking in the few days leading up to the show. Literally, in the midst of the show we heard he was going to do a couple of songs and then that changed in an act or two before he went on. We were prepared for it all.
MTV: Was there a moment when you were tempted to cut him off during the speech, or were you happy to let him roll?
Toffler: Oh boy. Let's say in my career I've been skewered for cutting things off even though it was not our intention, so there was no way I was going to put my finger on the commercial button. We didn't know when it was going to end and it was definitely longer than we anticipated. Nope, we were not going to go to commercial. Sometimes you just have let the moments happen and that was a moment.
MTV: That's kind of the DNA of the show: You let these crazy things happen and clean up afterward.
Toffler: I've spent a career cleaning up. To defend Miley Cyrus dancing with a foam finger the next day as the 'Today' show was calling for me to be fired to defend Kanye West walking up on the stage in 2009 and Nirvana singing "Rape Me." Unlike actors, musicians aren't great listeners. At some point you've just got to sit back and let artists do their thing.
I know that's not comfortable for most producers and most TV stations, but that's sort of the wonderful chaos of MTV and its audience. That's what it's like to be an adolescent. Some days and nights you're rebellious and you get in a little bit of trouble and you do the wrong things and the next day you wake up civic-minded and love everyone. That's what's defined us over the years. We never try to be too strict ... and we push each other, as producers and artists.
MTV: So here's the most important question -- After that speech, would you vote for Kanye in 2020?
Toffler: I am still vastly undecided. Because he changes from moment to moment, but he is always unpredictable.
MTV: Given that this was your last VMAs, was there a moment that defined Sunday's show for you?
Toffler: The first couple of acts were really wonderful to me and everything right about MTV. From the first performance with the surprise guest appearance from Taylor Swift resolving that alleged beef [between her and Nicki Minaj] to going outside in a more uncontrolled environment with Macklemore doing a new song. To another beef starting with Nicki and Miley and just having great musical moments mixed with cultural moments like the Social award. It felt like this great mix of heartfelt, sincere moments, silliness, people being loud and musical and these unique performances.
MTV: Was there something we didn't we see, a great moment you witnessed that made you smile to yourself?
Toffler: I don't really talk much about those moments -- all the running around backstage -- but let's say there was a lot of smoke in the air that night.
MTV: Why was Miley the right host this year?
Toffler: I know that easy place people go to was because of that 2013 performance with Robin Thicke. Sure, Miley Cyrus is provocative and that is part of the reason we wanted her to host. But she's also really candid and honest with her audience ... and she feels like she's a great marriage of provocative and musically credible right now. ... She loves all kinds of music and she's a really honest artist that puts it all out there, and I felt like that is emblematic of what the VMAs should be.
MTV: What was your pitch to her?
Toffler: As wonderful as I think I might be and as strong as my ego might be, I don't think my pitch had any impact on her. I said, 'Here are the 10 reasons you should do it,' and she proceeded to say to me, 'That's really interesting, Van. Here is what I'm gonna do.' She had her own musical statement to make and that was the luck of timing, but ultimately she felt comfortable on that stage, comfortable with MTV and that she could do what she wanted to do and perform what she wanted to perform. I think that my pitch was exceptional, but it ultimately had no impact.
MTV: Was there anything you told her was definitely off limits?
Toffler: No. That's probably the worst thing you can tell a musician. She knows the rules of TV, she's grown up on TV ... She is a real professional, hits her mark and knows what she's doing and what we can and can't show, even though there was a bit of an accident during the show. That was not intentional by any means.
MTV: Where does this VMAs rank all time for you? Is it the one you wanted to go out on?
Toffler: It is definitely one to go out on. It's definitely a top 5 for me. It had everything we wanted in the VMAs: It had a pretty out there, in-your-face outrageous host. It had really wonderful, credible, unique performances from the Weeknd to Pharrell to Nicki and Taylor to introducing a relatively new artist like Tori Kelly to a comeback for Justin Bieber ... and it had those outrageous, unexpected moments, from Taylor popping up on Nicki's song to Kanye letting the world know he'd run for president to a little bit of beef in there. All in all, it had many of the elements everyone is talking about the days and weeks after.
When some of those combustible elements explode, you don't forget it. When you're living it you can't wait for it to end and when it's over you just wish it would go on for another five hours. ... There is nothing like the fix of live TV where you don't know what's going to happen. ... It's just a great roller-coaster ride and I'm going to miss the show and that thing. To me it's the best part of entertainment -- not knowing where it's going to end.
MTV: There are planned bits in the show, but surely the Nicki/Miley beef was a surprise to everyone, no?
Toffler: It was. In no way was any of that planned. By the way, we didn't anticipate Justin Bieber was going to cry, but we're not going to go to commercial when he has such an emotional reaction to it. As much as people might think a lot of this is planned manipulation, it's not at all. It's produced chaos but we don't know when these moments are going to happen or who they will come from.
MTV: When people look back on this show in 5, 10 years, what do you hope they remember first?
Toffler: That it represents the best of MTV, the best of the VMAs.
MTV: This was a great last hurrah, what were some of the other high points over the years?
Toffler: This won't surprise people who know me but I like the kiss moment from Michael [Jackson] and Lisa Marie [Presley] and the Madonna, Britney and Christina kiss. But I also love some of those wonderful heartfelt moments where Bruce Springsteen opened with 'The Rising' after 9-11 in 2002. That was the place and the song and he was the artist to lift up the country ... Just so many moments, Blink-182 closing one show and pretty much all the Kanye moments are pretty unforgettable and clearly Eminem had his share of history-making moments on the show as well.
MTV: You're metaphorically cleaning out your desk and you can take home one memento from your years overseeing the VMAs, what is it?
Toffler: I'm not a very material person ... So I've got a KAWS Moonman, a rainbow [Jeremy Scott] Moonman, a bunch of the popcorns from the Movie Awards. But it's kind of the memories in the moment when everything has gone wrong, like a guy from Rage Against the Machine climbed a set piece and may impale [Limp Bizkit singer] Fred Durst. What the hell do we do? The fact that I've lived in those moments and made it to the other side is what I'll remember ... because it's so addicting, I just want to get back to those.
MTV: You get one more chance, what's your dream lineup of host and artists for the ultimate VMAs?
Toffler: After this year and a few prior ones, I wouldn't mind Kanye hosting. And having nothing else planned. Just, 'Hey, Kanye, you've got two hours, good luck.' And let him curate it. He may stand up there for two hours, he may have a cavalcade of good musicians. Who knows?