It’s a show that continues to change reality television forever.
It’s hard to believe that Catfish is now in its sixth season. The stalwart MTV reality series focuses on hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph helping people who are emotionally entangled with someone that they have never met in real life. Each episode is an investigation into whether the other participant in the virtual relationship is actually who they claim to be. If they aren’t, they are a ‘catfish,’ a person who has created an untruthful personal profile online using someone else’s pictures. The term was originally coined from a 2010 documentary where Nev Schulman discovered that the woman he had been dating online was not who she said that she was.
There are many reasons why I believe Catfish turned the concept of reality television on its head and it’s primarily because of Nev’s ingenuity. Regardless of the outcome, the viewer cannot help but invest themselves in the stories of the strangers that star in each episode. It’s unclear whether this is because we can all somehow and on some level relate to being lied to or because there is a guaranteed pay-off in every episode but it simply is can’t miss television.
Instead of copying the age-old reality show formula of simply reformatting an old concept, Nev Schulman created his own category and for that he is to be applauded.
That said, it has always been a dream of mine to interview one of the new-age reality television pioneers and when the opportunity arose to talk to Nev about the new season, it was something that I couldn’t pass up.
Check it out!
Murtz Jaffer: It’s Murtz from Inside Pulse in Toronto. How are you?
Nev Schulman: I’m great. Thanks for calling and taking some time to chat.
MJ: I’m very excited to talk to you. I was just telling Nicole that I’ve been trying to interview you for quite some time because I love the show. I want to jump right into it. The show has obviously come a long way since the movie. Are you surprised that you’re heading into your sixth season?
NS: You know it’s funny, the question I tend to get now when I see people who are fans of the show or who watch the show over the years… is very often – “I can’t believe people are still getting catfished.” It’s “how can it be?” And on one hand I tend just to ask myself that question a lot too, like with all the available means of technology now to prove if someone you’re talking to is who they say they are or not, you think it would be very, very difficult or nearly impossible to convince someone to have any kind of long term significant relationship without providing them proof of your identity. And yet it’s still seems to be as or even more prevalent than ever because we’re all that much more connected than we were five years ago when we started making the show. And that kind of obsession and involvement with digital technology has in many ways made us need human contact even more. And so the need for human contact and relationship is stronger and people are going to take it and get it wherever they can… even if it means ignoring obvious red flags.
MJ: When did you decide to sort of turn the concept for a movie into a show?
NS: It happened very quickly actually because the movie came out in January and within a few months of the movie having come out and people seeing screeners of it or even just hearing about it or just reading article about it… I started getting messages mostly through Facebook of people just saying, “Oh, my God, this is… I haven’t had told anybody this but something like this happened to me or I think something like this is happening. I didn’t know who to talk to or who to turn to.” And so right away it was clear that the film and my experience have sort of opened the door to a big issue that a lot of people were looking to discuss. So we weren’t sure exactly that it was a TV show at that moment but very quickly after the film came out, within a few months, we realized that we were on to something and after discussing it, it occurs that the best way to explore these stories would be to turn it into a TV show.
MJ: I think – I think that’s what I really want to sort of like hone in on because I definitely feel like you touched on something that a lot of people like you said have experienced. And why did it take so long for a concept like Catfish to sort of hit TV because you’re right, like everybody when they saw this show was like, “Oh, my gosh, I know someone that that’s totally happened to.” So why do you think it took so long for sort of you to open this door?
NS: I don’t know. I mean, my experience getting catfished sort of happened over 2007-2008. And I’m not the first person that has happened too obviously. I mean, I meet older people than me in their 40s who talk about being in AOL chat rooms, when I was new and obviously meeting people that they discovered were lying to them or they themselves were lying to when they were teenagers. And obviously it goes back further than that, even before the internet. So it’s certainly not a new phenomenon that people pretend to be someone they’re not. I think a sort of a perfect sequence of events led to me getting catfished and happening to have friends who are filmmakers sort of document that and us putting out a very honest, real depiction of my experience. Which I think if we had just tried to pitch a show about people getting tricked on the internet, it might have worked. But I wouldn’t – I don’t think the show would have been as successful or as successful at all because it wouldn’t have felt authentic, it wouldn’t have felt real, it wouldn’t made sense, it would have just felt I think like people exploiting sort of the less fortunate. But because it happened to me and because I was able to discuss it and turn it into a meaningful topic for others to discuss, I think that kind of – the topic needed someone to kind of bring it to life. And it obviously (timing-wise) happened to work out like that but other more public figures like Manti Te’o kind of had that experience and yeah, I don’t know. I just – I think it sort of needed to happen the way that it happened.
MJ: The obvious question Nev, is how do you find these people? Do they all contact you or are they vetted so that you know definitively that their stories are real and that they believe what they believe?
NS: Yeah. Well, all the stories come to the show organically, whether people send me an email to the Catfishnev@gmail.com that I setup six years ago when I sort of couldn’t handle anymore friend requests on my Facebook page and I realized I needed to find a way to continue to let people message me. Or because they see a – we have a casting page that we set up, like an application where people can go and fill out basic information and let us know what’s going on with them. So if all the stories are real, they come to us in any number of ways. And then we have a team of people who work tirelessly to go through those. And I think a lot of them are slightly less or should I say slightly more trivial than other teenagers who met someone a few days ago that they think is really hot and they would love to meet. Obviously, that’s cute but we’re not interested. And then I’m sure that there are many stories that aren’t real, (whether they’re quickly discovered or it takes a little longer), people who are just goofing around or trying to get on the show just for fun or to promote something. So we got the casting team. They go through everything. They talk to these people. They do their best to make sure that they’re legit. But it’s – we’ve had a few episodes where we have been in the middle of filming and we discovered that, as it was happening, that these people actually did know each other… that they’ve been lying to us. Sometimes it’s in a somewhat of an acceptable way because they simply needed to meet and they didn’t have any other means to. Sometimes it’s a little bit more deceptive. But that’s how it goes.
MJ: Do you have a favorite episode?
NS: Favorite episode… Well, this season, the sort of new upcoming season six, we did something I thought was really exciting which was a real sort of… I mean, I like to think of the show as a ‘documentary series’ but unfortunately that’s not a category that people really think about when they think of MTV, so it sort of falls into the reality category. But we did an episode this season that really is a documentary looking into a case. Sort of probably one of the craziest, most disturbing cases of Catfishing on par with my story involving an NBA basketball player and this young woman in Canada. And we really went in and investigated as journalists and as filmmakers. And I’m really excited about that because it’s very true to the inspiration for all this which is honest documentary filmmaking.
MJ: I really feel like the show has changed the reality genre. It’s funny that you sort of, we mentioned the reality genre primarily because it’s such a fresh concept. Do you feel like Catfish is really sort of changed this voyeuristic reality kind of like genre?
NS: I do. I mean, I think we definitely build off of things that were and had been working in the past. I do think we improved greatly on the reality genre in that I’ve worked with a lot of people over the course of the last five years making the show. We pick up production assistants in every town that we go to. There’s been a lot of changeover at MTV. There have been a lot of people just in the last five years in post-production who have obviously come and gone for any number of reasons. And everyone I’ve spoken to from the PA, the local PA, to the assistant editors to the producers of MTV… they have all said this is by far the most “real reality show they ever worked on.” And that means a lot to me because at the on-set, our biggest concern was that we didn’t want to make something that was manufactured. We didn’t want to have to make things up, we didn’t want to have to embellish, we didn’t want to have to deceive or in any way kind of – well, anyway.. So that’s something we’ve really done and I think done well. And it starts with the fact that Max and I still, (even after all this time and even after having done many versions of the same story), we still insist on not knowing anything at the on-set of every episode. We don’t know the story, we don’t know who it involves, we don’t know where we are going… And that makes it real for us. And I think while there are some – there is some artifice that has to go into producing a TV show (mainly just to protect the well-being of the people on the show), we do everything we can to keep it as real as it can be. And all the way down to showing our crew and making mistakes and getting sort of catfished ourselves. Like it’s just part of the experience. So, yeah, I think – I think we’re doing good work. I think the proof of that is that I’m constantly – and I’m sorry this is a long answer, but I’m constantly impressed by the audience who watches this show. It’s not just the sort of ‘expected’ MTV demographic of teenagers but it’s much wider than that. We really have a lot of people who are devoted to the show, who are from their teens to their 60s. And I’m always impressed they want to watch the show not just because it’s fun to see who the catfish turns out to be but because we then do something that a lot of shows didn’t and still don’t do. We don’t end on a big reveal, we don’t build up to this thing and then sort of fizzle out. On our show the meat of it is really, “well, what happens after? How do we resolve this issue? How do we find out who we’re dealing with?” And then sit down with them and help them, even though we could vilify them. How do we help them actually unpack their emotions, unravel the confusion, clear the air and find some resolution? It constantly impresses me that people of any age want to sit through that. They want to… they want to feel empathy. They want to understand. They want to engage with new ideas and new feelings whether it’s about sexuality or gender identity or insecurities… like that’s what I think makes our show successful.
MJ: And we’re almost done… is there a pressure on you to feature episodes that have “happy endings”?
NS: Well, we are always looking for… I mean hoping for stories that yes, have happy endings. Obviously we kind of always joke that sadly, if you’re writing into me and Max to help you in your relationship, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to end up well. Because obviously many people do meet online and many people have wonderful connections that lead to relationships and more. But if you’ve been speaking for a period of time and you haven’t been able to prove their identity, that’s not usually as good starting point. But it happens. Actually, last season there was an amazing episode with a husband and wife, where the husband had created a fake account, I don’t know if you saw it or not but he was.
MJ: Yeah, I did. I did. Yeah. And they ended up sort of reconnecting through it…
NS: Yeah. And that’s just such an incredible take on modern relationships that. Here we are now, finding two people who are as “intimate and connected” as they can be and yet, there’s a great distance between them that social media and the internet can fill but only for so long. And it can only sustain for a period of time until you do need to make that or remake that physical, emotional connection. So I thought that was amazing as an example of like, “wow, it’s – there’s no great mystery. It’s not some other person.” And it may not but the sort of traditional “happy ending” that we all hope for but at the same time, I thought it was very uplifting and inspiring and a good reminder for all of us that like sometimes the hardest people to be open and honest with are the ones that are closest to you.
MJ: It seems Nev, like you also get invested in people along the way. There was the episode where you threw one guy’s cellphone into the ocean. Is it hard to separate yourself from the journey?
NS: I mean, I do my best to involve myself. I mean, I only have a few days to meet these people, to understand who they are, to care about them, to have them care about me and trust me to open up to me… like you really have to go for it. Because otherwise I think it’s so obvious to a viewer when a TV show host is just sort of dialing it in or phoning it in or whatever the term might be. So I’m really trying to invest myself and get into these people’s lives. And, yeah, sometimes it’s weird because I feel like we go through this whirlwind experience. Often it’s very emotional and usually it’s somewhat sad or disappointing or embarrassing for one or both sides of the story and then we’re sort of gone and we’re off to the next episode… and have to sort of reset. And we, (Max and I), are constantly recalling people or episodes wondering what happened or wishing we could have done something else or said something more. And that can be a little disappointing or frustrating. Sometimes I come home after an episode and I’m really like – not angry but worked up and I have to kind of vent a little bit to my fiancé and to sort of talk things out. But it’s all part of what I think – I mean, I’m excited to be experiencing all of these people, all of these places, all of these relationships because it’s informing me and giving me more perspective and better – and a better sort of emotional vocabulary to not only live my life but then go and help the next people on the next episode. So it’s all part of the – part of the package.
MJ: My favorite episode is still the slow clap one. We haven’t had a villain like that since. Is that something that we might see this season?
NS: Well, I think we maybe had a similar, if not worse villain last season with – what was that guy’s name… Zack I think his name was where he was talking to like 300 or 400 girls over the course of a year and a half. And they were all sending him naked pictures and we took three women to meet him and confront him and – well, okay, so he was for sure a villain on par with Kid Cole. But yeah, I mean look, it’s funny because Max always jokes about it but I end up connecting with and being the most interested and sometimes the most fascinated by the villain. I think there’s something – and we’re seeing it on a very large scale right now with our president. People who relish in having a platform and using it to be villains. I mean, it’s one thing to catfish someone on the internet and take advantage of them and be mean… but it’s another to then come on TV and continue to play that role when you’re smart enough to know that you could pretend to just be a nice person and be apologetic but you instead chose to lean in to this villain character. And that’s something so fascinating to me about that because it’s so – I don’t know if it’s super honest or if it’s super phony because… Are they really that person and are they really saying, “This is me. I don’t care what you think. I am Mr. Villain.” Or are they pretending to be that because they think that’s what people expect or want. It’s just fascinating to me and I never really know what to make of it. But I love exploring it.
MJ: What can we expect this season and will people finally learn how to do a reverse image search on their own?
NS: (Laughs). The reverse image search is a useful tool but it gets a little too much credit than it deserves. It doesn’t work that often. Obviously when it does work on the show… we feature it. But it’s definitely not a full proof way to find out if the person you’re talking to is who they say they are. So I think with every season there are new ways to detect if you’re being lied to. But there’s also new ways to lie and people are more and more creative and savvy with technology. And we’re seeing people that are good at Photoshop now and really good at figuring out… uploading things to Snapchat. And if you want to believe something badly enough you’re going to – you’re going to believe it no matter how obvious the sort of signs might be.
MJ: And in terms of what we can expect?
NS: Well, I’ve really embraced that I think a big part of why I love making this show (and also I think people love watching the show) is the relationship with Max and myself. And we’re as close as ever. And so I think for a lot of people, just knowing that Max and I are going to be having fun and loving our job is one thing you can for sure expect. So a lot of exciting, new, I mean, just to be technical we’re really improving just the sort of the look of the show in terms of the graphics and the way that we are sort of telling stories visually more and more. Because it’s hard to capture the energy and essence of a two, three, four year relationship by just having someone to talk about it. So we’re really trying to bring the viewer into the story more and more with the way we visually tell the story. But like I said we’ve got some wild stories this season. We’ve got this incredible, special episode where we go to like the far north plains of Winnipeg to confront like I said one of – arguably one of the most diabolical catfish the world had ever seen and I think that’s pretty awesome. So what did – I’m sorry…
MJ: No, no. I mean, I’m just like relishing and like when you can see that episode.
NS: So, right. Well, right. So I would say for Canadian magazine or a website or web – yeah, like that’s obviously something exciting for our Canadian viewers. This is our first time to Canada. So that’s really fun. And I mean yeah, – I mean, it’s hard to keep them all straight. Remember what’s what. We’ve been filming season six now already for the past six months so I can’t recall everything but… it’s great. And it’s new every time. And we’re keeping people guessing. We’re doing this new – we got a lot of new stuff coming out.
MJ: And my final question Nev is, is there a lesson that you hope Catfish teaches people?
NS: For sure. I think the lesson I’ve learned and one that I think is a big part of the narrative of the show is that young people particularly (because that’s sort of the focus of our show) are more than ever in need of resources. They are looking to express themselves whether it’s sexually, creatively, emotionally and I think that finding that it’s harder and harder to find the resources they need. I think mental health is a big issue that we get into a little bit on the show in terms of realizing that people are unhappy, they are lonely, they are insecure, they’re depressed, they have anxiety, they don’t – they don’t feel comfortable in their own skin or in their own community. And so the internet has become a catch all for a lot of emotional and mental health issues that I think we need to be addressing. And as best as we can on the show we tried to help people confront their feelings and hopefully seek help. But I think the big lesson for me is that like there’s definitely a need for a better system. For young people to get access to the resources they so desperately need.
MJ: Amazing. Well, Nev, it was a pleasure to talk to you. I always said that I wanted to interview three people in my life and you were the third one. So now I’ve hit all three. So I’m pretty excited. So you’re right beside Donald Trump, Hulk Hogan and Nev Schulman.
NS: Wow. Oh, man, what aninteresting list.
MJ: Yeah. So good luck on the premiere. I can’t wait to watch it and thanks a lot.
NS: Thank you. I appreciate it.
MJ: Take care. Bye.
Catfish airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV
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