If one had to pick a single year to represent what the ’90s were about, you could do far worse than 1994. It was the year that saw the releases of Pulp Fiction and Reality Bites, the year that grunge reached its apotheosis and effective conclusion via Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the year E.R. and Friends began their marathon TV runs, the year President Bill Clinton signed his Crime Bill, the year O.J. Simpson’s Bronco captured the nature’s attention, inspiring a hunger for what would come to be known as reality TV (at least, according to Vanity Fair it did).
Years before, MTV had already dipped its toe in reality programming, airing a show that had prided itself on showing “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” In 1994, that series, The Real World, started getting really real itself. The landmark third season, which took place in San Francisco, is best known for its sensitive and thorough depiction of the HIV-positive Pedro Zamora’s life, as well as the havoc that impish local bike messenger Puck wreaked. The former remains of the most nuanced representations of a gay man in the annals of American pop culture—on camera, Pedro Zamora fought AIDS, fell in love with Sean Sasser, married him on camera, took preppy cues from Gap, and exuded an unabashed gayness at a time when that was uncommon and risky in mainstream pop culture. “My sexuality is me,” he said radically at one point. “If you’re looking at me, you’re looking at my sexuality.”
The Real World: San Francisco’s other indelible trademark—the Puck stuff—is tedious from today’s reality-watching perspective. For one thing, reality TV is full of the kind of camera-stunting Puck practically revolutionized; he was the outlier in his given group, but today’s casts are boiling over with shit-stirrers. Further, the squabbles he inspired and exacerbated with his laissez-faire approach to hygiene are small potatoes in today’s market and watching him from the remove of a quarter century makes clear that he was attempting to position himself as an alpha while employing the tactics of a sniveling child.
The Real World: San Francisco, which turns 25 on June 30, remains a relic of its time, the kind of slow TV where you could hear someone saying of an ex, “I didn’t take my own CDs and I still gotta pay Columbia House for CDs that I don’t even have.” But it’s also slick, well-paced documentary footage of a bunch of ambitious early twenty-somethings who were so intent on making something out of their lives and so earnest about it, it was as though they’re attempting to articulate their success into existence. In an era of supposed slackers, The Real World: San Francisco house was full of doers. One of the most uplifting things about watching this show even today is there’s never a trace of the sense of youth being wasted.
While predicting the sort of drama for drama’s sake that reality TV would come to offer in spades, the season also sketched certain ideals for diversity on TV with a multicultural cast that included two Latinx people (Pedro and Rachel), a black man (Mohammed), and an Asian American woman (Pam). Just a few channels over during The Real World: San Francisco’s run, a show about six white friends debuted and would go on to run for 10 seasons, becoming one of the most popular sitcoms of all time with very little apparent scrutiny in the mainstream (and certainly by the powers that be) over the monochrome nature of its cast.
Two Real World: San Francisco cast members not only executed their stated goals, they eventually fell in love. Judd Winick, who drew a comic strip on the show for the San Francisco Examiner, went on to work in comic books for D.C., and now writes and draws the bestselling HiLo graphic novel series. He lives with Pam Ling and their two kids in San Francisco. Ling is a general internist, a professor at UCSF, and fighter of big tobacco. Both talked to Jezebel about their time on the show in separate interviews, which are excerpted and arranged thematically below. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of this quintessential summer-watching staple of ’94, they look back at the production, the strife, the representation, and the impact this landmark season had on their lives.
Judd: [Director] George Verschoor and [producer] Bob Fisher, Jr., went to such irritating lengths to make sure that nothing was ever manufactured. They told us so little, they did so little. With us, it never got any further than production, just meaning the crew, saying, “Could you guys not leave for five minutes while we’re getting ready?” And we would just stand in the entryway and wait.
Pam: We had to check in everyday with a producer and say what we were going to do. They didn’t tell us what to do, but I think that they would decide based on what everyone said where they were going to send the crew. If you wanted to be on camera more, you could decide to do more exciting or visually interesting things. If you wanted to hide or had to do things that weren’t so interesting, like me… You know, I was in medical school, so I’d be like, “I’m going to go to the library today and I’m going to study for about five hours.” Perhaps not the most compelling story compared to what others might be doing.
Judd: And then at the end of every week, we’d have a two-hour interview. You didn’t know where you were going, and they’d sometimes tell you what to wear based on what the background would be. You’d go and get interviewed and you’d go over pretty much what happened that week. It was like therapy without the help.
Pam: I think in some ways I was cast because the producers thought, “This is the least likely person to want to do this show.” I took them at their word that you can do what it is that you’re going to be doing in your life and you’re just going to live in this gorgeous house in North Beach for free and we’ll just film you all the time. I don’t think anyone realizes—I mean, I certainly didn’t—that it’s a stressful environment. You are under a chronic stress for the six months that you’re filming. At the time, I thought, “Well, I do plenty of things that are stressful. This will just be kind of different.”
Judd: Reality TV changed. When we were doing it, it was a goofy thing that we thought would be fun. It was closer to an actual documentary than where things went. There wasn’t really anywhere to go after that. It wasn’t like you could make a career out of it. Some had some aspirations, but a lot just didn’t pan out.
Pam: The filming didn’t actually add a lot of time; it was more that you’re suddenly now engaging with a whole bunch of different people.
Pam: I’m Chinese American. I was born in the U.S. and my mom was born in the U.S. I don’t even speak Chinese, which means I have relatives that I cannot communicate with. I was part of the generation that was around the total assimilation into American culture for survival. So it didn’t really irk me that [the show] didn’t have a lot of Chinese content.
Judd: The internal joke of the household was that we were the United Colors of Benetton, which is a very dated joke. It was very obvious to us that we were a real mixed bag. It was in so many ways really, really healthy. A lot was out there and discussed. Talking to people who’ve done the show since, and knowing people who’ve done it, so much of what we had we were able to healthily communicate. Mohammed is a very open person, and actually he’s very comfortable discussing race. And Pam as well. And, as it would turn out, Pedro. It was an interesting time, which did not make for good TV, per se. They were like, “They’re not gonna fight; they want to talk about stuff.”
Pam: I realize now that [the show] did mean a lot to Asians, particularly young Asian women, because if there’s someone who’s the right age who recognizes me, very frequently, it’s someone who is Asian. We pay attention. They’re like, “You were the only one on TV!” And San Francisco is actually like 30 percent Chinese, and then even more if you count the other Asians. It’s true that for San Francisco, you’d expect an Asian person on the show if you were going to reflect the demographics of the city. I didn’t feel as much like I was necessarily representing Chinese people—I think my identity was much more around being Asian American and being a medical student, which I guess is an Asian stereotype also.
However, many of the race discussions were led by the perspectives of white cast members, and Pam and Mohammed had comparatively little camera time...
Judd: At the time and probably for quite some time later, no one would have thought about, “Yeah, there are a couple of people of color who are left off the map.” Honestly, Mo made himself a little scarce here and there, so they didn’t have as much footage of him as they would have liked to. With Pam, she was a medical student at the time, and they filmed a ton of her working in the hospital [most of which was left on the cutting-room floor]. If they were to do it today, they’d probably say, “There’s people of color in the house who are having experiences and we’re ignoring them. What’s up with that?”
Judd: Cory Murphy—we don’t talk nearly as much as we’d like to because we’re grown with spouses and kids, but we do what we can. Mohammed lives here in the city and we try to talk as much as we can. We’re very much in touch with John Murray, the producer of the show.
Pam: I always say it’s kind of like with your college roommates. You keep in touch with some. There are others you’re really happy they moved out freshman year. You don’t necessarily keep in touch with everybody you once lived with.
Judd: I don’t keep in touch with [Rachel] at all. And I think what she’s doing is pretty much right out there.
Pam: It’s not surprising to me that Rachel would be a Republican commentator person. She likes the camera. I wish she would use her affinity for the camera to actually help people. I’m more concerned with the effect of her presence on the country than her personally.
Judd: If this is what she’s about and this what makes her happy and this is what she believes in, then that’s that.
Pam: I really don’t think about Puck. It’s not surprising to me that he might have a history or might have gone on to have domestic violence in his life. [Ed Note: Puck, real name David Rainey, pled guilty to a domestic violence charge in 2013. He was also arrested for domestic violence in 2011, and served prison time for stalking a woman in 2012.] It’s not something I seek out or think about much.
Judd: He was, not at first, but eventually and to a much greater extent, so unpleasant just to live with. That’s what it was. It was like: We just don’t want to friggin’ live with him. And that was combined with the fact that he just wanted to be on television. It was the weirdness of: For one, you’re being mean. Two, we’re entering this weird space where there is concern that you might hurt somebody—some of the women we were living with were feeling uncomfortable and threatened.
Pam: I personally did not feel physically uncomfortable in the house. I think if anyone did feel uncomfortable or feel threatened, that’s a good reason to get him out of the house and we did vote him out. When I saw the show, I did feel that Puck came across as funnier. They edited out some of the most offensive things that he did. I think they wanted him to be likable and relatable, kind of a guy you love to hate. Had they really shown some of his true colors, he wouldn’t have been as likable as they wanted him to be. Some of his comments around homophobia particularly were really offensive.
On the 1995 reunion show, Judd accused Puck of saying, “Good riddance,” in response to Pedro Zamora’s 1994 death from PML, an AIDS-related health complication
Judd: Someone had told me he’d said this. I’m not sure if it was Rachel or not. It had come up a couple of places. I think he was asked to speak at a college or two, and when he was asked about this, it’s what he said. I mean, it was one of those things you confront him with and he didn’t deny it. That was a pure, unplanned fit of rage. The funniest thing to come out of that was Mary-Ellis Bunim, who I was friends with at that point, came up to me after I had blown my stack, like, “You all right?” “Yeah.” “That was pretty emotional.” “Yeah, yeah it was.” There was a pause and she goes, “That’s gonna make such great fucking television!” I said, “You’re just an evil person.” She said, “I am, I can’t help it. It’s gonna be so great!”
We moved out of the house in June of ’94. Pedro was hospitalized in August. Everything moved really, really quickly. Afterwards, anyone who wanted to debate or discuss Puck being wrongfully thrown out, it was like, “Yeah, you know what? Pedro died and all this crap about whether we hurt [Puck’s] feelings or not or were unfair to him, we just don’t care.” We just don’t. Something big and horrible happened here. Our friend died, and we’re never gonna get over it. It’s never going to go away.
Now looking back, [Puck] made for interesting television, but Pedro changed the world. It’s been 25 years and we meet people all the time whose lives were changed because they saw him on television. He was the first time [many] people had seen someone who was just living with AIDS. Prior to that, it was on the news, these young men covered in KS lesions and dying. And here he was with a life. Reality TV, The Real World brought it to everybody.
Pam: Having someone like Pedro on mainstream television who is young and who is well spoken and who is gorgeous and who really fully embraces his sexuality and who is articulate about AIDS education and who is also just really likable in the way the show is, everyone kind of worms their way into your heart or psyche, that was really important both so that people would care and in terms of humanizing the folks who were living with AIDS in a way that was really different than news stories. That certainly is why our season ends up being regarded as the best season. For me, it’s really all about Pedro and how important that was. We kind of knew at the time, “This is going to be really important,” but I think when the show came out, and its sustainability over time, has really shown how important it was and is.
Pedro died in 1994; in 1996, protease inhibitors, drugs that transformed HIV into a manageable, chronic condition for many with access to them, hit the market
Judd: Pedro went so quickly, and if he had just hung on for a few more years, if things had just been a little bit different for a few more years, he might still be with us. Or, he might not. We don’t know. We really, really don’t know. But don’t get me wrong: It’s something we still think about. We feel very confident that we’d all still be friends. We’d be living through this together.
Pam: Pedro had all the earmarks of what would have been a stellar medical student. He reminded me very much of my colleagues or someone like me, who did straight A’s in high school, wanted to help people, and he wanted to find a cure for cancer because his mom had died of cancer, and he was super high-performing. I identified with the way he was as a student and his aspirations that it hit me in an odd way that he was also living with AIDS. It was very hard to separate that. I think that’s what was really so compelling about him being on the show. Ultimately, that experience is something that I still carry with me as I take care of patients these days. I think folks have some variation of that through their lives and careers but this came kind of early for me in medical school.
Judd: I kind of learned what a chosen family was before people were using that expression. You surround yourself with the people who are your friends, who are going to look out for you. It didn’t happen right away, either. It wasn’t like, the show aired and Pedro got sick and Pam and I fell in love and then I grew up. It took a while after that to come to terms with all of that because it was a little bit like living inside of a hurricane.
Pam: Judd and I definitely connected in the house, [but] I really didn’t think of him as a love interest until we spent a lot more time together after we moved out. When I took off time from medical school, it wasn’t during the filming, it was after, when Pedro got really sick. Judd and I spent a lot more time together around that illness, so that’s for me when the love interest piece of it came out. I think it’s also probably a good thing that we didn’t fall in love on camera while filming The Real World because that’s such a weird situation.
I think what [that experience] showed me is that Judd is absolutely the person you want in your corner when you’re in a crisis. He and I, of course, are not in a crisis now. We’ve been very lucky. But I know that when bad things happen, we have always been the person that we go to for each other to talk about it, for comfort, to try to make a plan.
Judd: Things with Pam are beyond great. We have two kids and a house here in San Francisco. She’s a doctor, sees patients, she fights big tobacco, she’s a professor at UCSF. We’re good. We are a very normal, middle-aged couple at this point.
Pam: The experience gave me a real ongoing appreciation for the power of story in media to change the world. There’s a huge contrast between the kind of work I do with an individual patient, trying to get them to take a medication or eat less sugar or change their lifestyle or quit smoking, and what you can do with a powerful story in mass media. The research that I do, the work I do now, is much more about thinking about policy, thinking about the population and thinking about how things like the media can actually be helpful or can actually do good at a scale that’s so different than what we do one on one. I think the show really kept me in touch with thinking about the whole population, what can we do that has a bigger impact on society.
Judd: For a very, very brief period of time, we were incredibly famous. Super brief, super famous. For about three months, the kids on The Real World were probably as famous as the cast of Friends, which started airing that September, as well. Three months later, they’re continuing to be famous but the world has moved on to another reality show, so we’re done. Pam and I were lucky because we had each other to come to terms with being bullshit famous and that publicly we lost someone we cared about and then we had to go back to our regular lives, and what’s that about?
I would not give it up for anything. I’ve got two little human beings running around in the world because of it. It’s our whole life. We wanted to do this dumb-ass TV show, which turned out to be not only extraordinary in what it became but where we met. So no we’re never tired of it. It’s never a drag. It’s never been a bad thing. I don’t care if that’s the first line in my obituary. Everybody should have my problems.