Television producer and Emmy winner Jonathon Murray is widely recognized for launching the reality TV genre. Back in 1992, he and his late business partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim, threw together a handful of strangers and filmed what would become The Real World, now the longest running reality TV show ever. Its success would spawn a generation of future shows, including Road Rule, The Simple Life and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Of late, Murray’s busied himself creating shows about people with disabilities—namely Born this Way, about young adults with Down syndrome, and Deaf Out Loud, which chronicles the lives of families who are either all deaf or have members who are deaf. By inviting viewers into their personal lives, capturing family dynamics, daily struggles, hopes and often irrepressible personalities, Murray’s helping to change the perception of people with disabilities for the better. ABILITY Magazine’s Lia Martirosyan joined Murray at his LA office to chat about what shows he’s casting next, his journey to reality TV and bringing more people with disabilities into the entertainment biz.
Lia Martirosyan: I hear you are doing a Facebook project casting?
Jonathon Murray: I’m looking at three productions, one in the US, one in Thailand and one in Mexico—all distinct separate shows in their own native languages.
Martirosyan: Are you watching them all at the same time?
Murray: Yup. I’m watching casting from not only the US, but also Mexico and Thailand. For those two, there are subtitles, so it’s a unique process, because normally when you watch casting, you’re so focused on people’s faces, and this time I have to usually watch each one twice. The first one I’m having to read a lot at the same time, so I don’t get the full measure of someone, so I usually have to go back and watch a second time. But it’s a fascinating process. I’ll be in Mexico City in a few weeks for a week when we meet them all in person.
We already have a project on Facebook called Ball in the Family. They have a project called Facebook Watch, where they have TV shows. And what’s great about Facebook is, you can build community around shows in a way that it’s hard to in traditional television. For instance, I could invite you to watch the episode with me and then we can all be communicating with each other as we’re watching the episode, and we can either all watch together live, when it first premieres, or whenever we want to watch it together. As usual with Real World, we’ll have people who take us into interesting worlds. So hopefully they will be able to also have experts and people deal with various things that get brought up on the show, so that they can talk about it.
Martirosyan: How does that work on Facebook, and are there ads?
Murray: Facebook puts a few ads in it. It’s different, too, because it’s going to drop an episode we’ve made up of three different six- to ten-minute pods, and those pods will drop Monday, Wednesday and Friday, rather than just once a week. Then there’ll be a composite episode you can catch up on on the weekend. It’s a whole new thing. It’s fascinating.
Martirosyan: That should be exciting. I saw the finalists on the way down.
Murray: Oh, yeah. They were coming in.
Martirosyan: I was about to put my picture on the wall. (laughs)
Murray: Right, that was for the domestic Real World. We just had a casting meeting. It’s interesting.
Martirosyan: Did you see what happen to—he called himself ___ on WW—
Murray: I know him. I cast him on The Real World years ago.
Martirosyan: That’s why I brought it up. Did you see what a nice launch you did for his career?
Murray: Oh, yeah. We produce his show It’s a reality comedy that airs on USA. I’ve stayed very close with Mike. He’s a good guy.
Martirosyan: Oh, good! I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else from The Real World series.
Murray: Well, Karamo Brown was on Real World Philadelphia and is now one of five guys on Queer Eye.
People love him on that show.
Martirosyan: I haven’t followed Queer Eye, so I’m not sure—
Murray: He’s the wellness guy on the show. He has really great conversations with people and finds ways to bring people together.
Martirosyan: The original show was sort of a makeover show, where a bunch of queer guys made over a straight guy, but the show has broadened out in the sense now that it’s partly about making over someone’s exterior in terms of the clothes they wear and the way they cut their hair, but it’s really much more about making over their interior and finding a way to help them improve their life.
Murray: The interior of the person. That’s why he’s more the wellness guy.
Martirosyan: I was looking at some of your posters on the wall.
Murray: Oh, yeah. Valentine Road was a documentary film we did about two kids in school, one murdered the other because he was gay. Both boys were from troubled backgrounds, and quite honestly, the adults pretty much allowed the situation to develop in this school that led to the murder. It was an interesting piece. That’s probably the one you’re not familiar with.
Martirosyan: Not yet.
Murray: It aired on HBO a couple years ago.
Martirosyan: Can we tap into the history of Born This Way?
Murray: Sure, what do you want to know?
Martirosyan: What sparked it for you?
Murray: You have to go back to the founding of our company, which was The Real World—our first hit. We were around for about four years making no money, driving around in old cars that would break down on the freeway and living in the garage apartment. The Real World was about diversity and putting together seven individuals from different backgrounds, different walks of life, socio-economically, sexual orientation, whatever. Because normally you don’t find yourself with people who are different than you. We tend to want to surround ourselves with people who will not question us. When I first went off to college, my roommate was a black guy who had already been in the army. He was a veteran. And for an 18-year-old kid, for me, that was mind-blowing. I grew a lot from having him as a roommate. I probably said some stupid stuff along the way, but he was very nice and never held it against me. (laughs)
So anyway, the idea behind The Real World was to put people with different backgrounds together and that there would be conflict, because they would make mistakes with each other, and out of that conflict would come growth, and out of that growth would be our story arc for the show.
Along with Real World, we always realized we needed to reach out to marginalized communities. We were reaching out to various marginalized communities of people who hadn’t been seen on TV. I was pleased that eight years later, when shows like Survival and Big Brother launched, they too tried to make diversity center to what they were doing. In some ways, I think reality TV led over scripted in trying to be more inclusive in terms of the casting of the shows.
In Europe, there was a show done by some people that I know. He was what they call over there a “presenter,” a person who presents stories on TV. Here, I guess you’d call him a reporter or a host. His sister had Down syndrome, and he did a documentary series about his sister. I thought it was really interesting. We approached A&E about doing some kind of a series. Initially we thought we’d just put seven young adults together who all have Down syndrome, living in a house together, sort of like The Real World. We did a pilot. It didn’t get picked up. I liked it. I think for A&E, which is a network that plays to the 25 to 54-year-old demographic, the show may have felt too young, so they didn’t pick it up. But they always loved it, and four years later they called me up and said, “We made a mistake. We should have picked up that show. How would you do it today?”
I had a lot of time to think about it, and one of the things I realized was that we should approach it more as a documentary and that the relationship between someone who has a disability, in this case people with Down syndrome, and their parents is a fascinating thing to explore. And in the case of young people with Down syndrome, it was the first generation whose parents had said, “No, my kid will be mainstreamed. My kid deserves early intervention. What are you doing for my kid? I want my kid to have every advantage they can have because I want them to be ultimately as independent as possible.”
Now that those young people were in their mid-to-late twenties, they were ready to take those final steps towards independence, and the parents were scared to let go. Which any parent is, and which is very relatable to the A&E audience. So I think ultimately, the show was a better show that ended up on the air because it focused not only on the young people and what they were doing, but also on their parents and their families and how they had supported them and encouraged them. You saw an incredible love, and you heard from the parents how much their children had contributed to their lives. And what’s so great is, when we hear feedback—emails and letters from women or couples who are told that they’ll have a child with Down syndrome, and the dark picture the medical community usually paints—they realize, “No, there’s another possibility.”
It’s interesting, because we could be having an impact on the number of women who choose to not have a baby because of the Down syndrome diagnosis. It’s been fascinating.
Martirosyan: How did you cast?
Murray: We knew we would do the show in the Orange County-LA area. From a cost standpoint, we couldn’t afford to send crews to some other part of the country. And there happened to be a very strong community—particularly in Orange County. There’s an Orange County Down Syndrome Association, and there are a number of art associations that focus on people with intellectual disabilities. We approached these organizations, and we started introducing ourselves and won their trust, and they gradually started to introduce us to families with their young people.
Martirosyan: Did you work with Gail Williamson of KMR Talent agency?
Murray: Yeah, yeah. We went to Gail right off. She had been involved in that very first pilot we did four years earlier. At that time, I think she headed the LA Down Syndrome. We had talked to her then.
Martirosyan: And then she moved to the KMR?
Murray: Right, she had moved over there since. And she ended up representing, I think, four or five members of the cast in their deals. That’s how we did it. We brought the young people into our studio and interviewed them. We created some scenarios in the studio where they had to work with other young people on some kind of a project so we could see how they relate to other people. Are they a quiet person? Are they a big personality? Do they get intimidated when another big personality comes in the room? All those kinds of things.
And then we also interviewed their parents. We were able to put together a great cast. But we felt we were missing one element—the outsider—the person who is the fish out of water who comes into this new world. So we looked elsewhere, outside of LA and Orange County, and we found Megan. We found her through the National Down Syndrome Organization.
Martirosyan: The one in Colorado?
Murray: I think it’s based in Colorado, but they were having a national convention, and I think it might have been in Phoenix. We went there and met her and fell in love with her. Ultimately, she and her mom moved out here for the filming. Because she always had desires—she always saw herself as a future star. Star of what, she wasn’t sure, but Hollywood was a place that she always wanted to go.