Nev Schulman Takes on a Virtual Season of Catfish: The TV Show
By Allison Kugel
While the world may still be socially distancing, people are online now more than ever looking for connections and answers. The eighth season of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show will go to the ends of the internet to find them. For the first time ever, Executive Producer and host Nev Schulman and co-host Kamie Crawford work together, remotely, to do what they do best: track down the truth.
This season, Nev and Kamie have their work cut out for them as they must play by new rules, encounter new obstacles and dive headfirst into the world’s “new normal” to uncover lies and potentially find true love.
Allison Kugel: When the pandemic hit, whose idea was it to take Catfish: The TV Show virtual?
Nev Schulman: I don’t know if it was one person’s idea. We know that obviously most of the entertainment industry was going to be shut down. A lot of shows, because they require a studio audience or a lot of people on set, couldn’t resume production. It occurred to us that our show, in many ways, already exists in a digital world. While we do love the aspect of the show where we travel and meet people, and the whole idea of finally bringing virtual interactions into the real world, that doesn’t change the core function of our show, which is just to get the trace on someone. We all looked at each other and thought, “Is there a version of the show where we can do it from home via Zoom?” We did the first episode and right away we all saw that it does work, and we were super excited.
Allison Kugel: Although most people are meeting online these days, I can’t imagine that I would be motivated to continue to build a relationship with somebody without ever actually seeing them in person, or at least on video. What causes a person to develop deep feelings for somebody without ever actually seeing that person?
Nev Schulman: I liken it to the banks of a river. I don’t know if you did this exercise in science class as a kid, but riverbanks generally start mostly straight with a smaller stream, if you will. Then, over time slight imperfections in the direction of the water create deeper and deeper grooves and the river ends up sneaking its way through a valley, or whatever. I think that is what happens in these relationships. They start out small and innocent and seemingly straight forward, but as the relationship flows and days go by, those twists and turns start to cut their way in, and groove into a relationship. Before you notice, all of a sudden you are months and months into this thing and you’re so far down the river that it’s too late to turn back. I think that’s how it happens, very slowly and you almost don’t even notice it happening.
Allison Kugel: Wow, interesting analogy. Where did the term “Catfish” come from?
Nev Schulman: We heard a story when we were making the documentary film, Catfish, back in 2008. Our film was a story about a woman who had, in fact, catfished me, the way a fisherman used to use catfish to chase cod around in the tank of these giant fishing boats. In life, there are people who kind of do the same thing, who make everyday kind of interesting and exciting, and kind of just keep us all guessing and on our toes. So, we thought it was a beautiful analogy for Angela, the woman who catfished me, and what an interesting and unexpected name for the film, and subsequently the show. So, it started off as a reference to that story, but it has now become part of the English language. It’s just so wild.
Allison Kugel: If that never happened to you, and your film, Catfish, which documented your own journey, had never been made, where do you think you would be today? Did you have any different career plans?
Nev Schulman: I was involved at that time in film and photography, but more specifically, in dance. I danced in live performances, at weddings, bar mitzvahs, things like that. While I knew I didn’t want that to be my lifelong career, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I had actually flown out to California before Catfish the film was released to interview with an old boss of mine who I had worked for at BMW motorcycles in New York. I thought I would move to California and just get a job in Riverside at BMW and see where that takes me. Who knew this would have happened? But I often think about that. Where would I be? What would I be doing? It’s crazy, because I really don’t know.
Allison Kugel: Life is crazy! Do you ever sit back and reflect about how your personal experience with heartbreak and being catfished led to your television career and this pop culture phenomenon of sorts?
Nev Schulman: I do. I think about it every time I film an episode, because it gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that the experiences that the people are having on the show might just be the thing that changes the direction of their lives for the better. I always encourage people at the end of each show that when faced with what feels like a heartbreaking and unsatisfying result, to think about the fact that this experience might change their lives. Someone might see it and reach out to them, or any number of things might come of it, and just to keep yourself open; don’t shut down. Let this be sort of an opening of a door and invite new things into your life and see what happens.
Allison Kugel: I like that. What kind of feelings come up when you have to break the news to someone, who thinks they’re in love, that the person they’re in love with is not on the level?
Nev Schulman: I have developed a combination of maturity and experience that I would liken to when a doctor has to tell someone that a family member is very ill or might pass away. No one wants to hear that, and it’s not good news. But it’s necessary and I think giving someone the truth, no matter how undesirable, is always beneficial. I wish I didn’t have to do that, but at the same time I think there is an expectation and understanding of people on our show, that for them to need to go to this extent and put themselves out there in this way to get this person to finally reveal themselves, they probably aren’t going to get what they are hoping for. I’m really just delivering what they have been avoiding, and probably intentionally avoiding, for a long time. I think they really just want the truth and they know it might not be what they want, but they’re relieved to get it.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel about the thrill of the detective work and chasing after the truth? Do you get excited by that aspect of it?
Nev Schulman: It is really fun. It’s frustrating because sometimes you really don’t get a lot, and you have to kind of rethink your initial strategies and go back and see if you missed something. I don’t know what it is about these remote episodes, but we spent more time looking through comments this season. I think because more people had been home and were actively on social media, people were commenting more. There was more social media content to sift through and pull from on people’s pages. That part has been really interesting and fun and led to a lot more breaks in stories and clues than with previously seasons of the show.
Allison Kugel: Have you ever, personally, misled or concealed information from somebody you were interested in romantically for fear of rejection?
Nev Schulman: The first answer that comes to mind is yes, but probably in regard to the tramp stamp that I used to have on my lower back.
Allison Kugel: (Laugh)
Nev Schulman: In high school I got this dumb tattoo that I thought was really cool, but quickly realized that it wasn’t, after I had already committed to it. I used to kind of hide it for as long as I could when it came to dating girls because I wasn’t sure how they might react. But I don’t have that problem anymore. I had it removed and feel much better about myself (laughs).
Allison Kugel: Okay, that’s pretty harmless… and funny. What is your current relationship with social media these days?
Nev Schulman: I would say it’s neutral. I haven’t been posting very much. I really have to actively convince myself that I should be posting, because it doesn’t feel like there is much that I can do right now other than support social and political movements I believe in. I think for that function it is invaluable, but I feel very insignificant as an individual up against the current issues that are far more important than myself. Now that I have my kids and my job, I’m happy in my life. I think the more content you are the less you need social media to fill whatever void it might be filling for you.
Allison Kugel: I would agree.
Nev Schulman: I still find that I like to scroll on Instagram, and I do follow accounts that inspire me, whether it’s design accounts for home decoration or architecture. I also love old cars, so I follow stuff on some accounts that post cool cars for sale and I muse about whether I should buy one. It’s a nice distraction, but with all of the conflict and misinformation out there, my general feeling is that if we significantly eliminated social media, we might all be better off. But then again, there are such great social changes happening as a direct result of the community that exists through the internet, so it’s really a double-edged sword for me.
Allison Kugel: What kind of impact do you think Catfish: The TV Show and your MTV platform is having on adolescents and young adults who watch the show and follow you?
Nev Schulman: I can only hope and speak to the sort of things people have said to me, directly. I hope the show is having a positive effect on people, both young and old, because the thing that was most highlighted for me after the documentary, Catfish, in terms of what people said to me was how surprised and relieved and impressed they were in terms of how we handle things. People specifically liked the way we handled the situation with my relationship with Angela, the woman who catfished me. We handled it with so much compassion and understanding. We gave her an opportunity to tell her story, and we took the time to understand, although it’s not an excuse, the reasons and motivation that led to the lies she created. I think the show, if it does nothing else, gives people a much-needed respite from the constant judging and cancelling and teasing and bullying that takes place in everyday life. It shows people that even when someone does something that warrants being scolded or yelled at or cancelled, you can still be compassionate. You can take the time to sit down and engage with them in a mature way, and give them the opportunity to explain themselves. You can, both, learn from them and teach them, and hopefully they can learn from their mistakes and everyone leaves feeling better. It’s hard to find things these days where you feel better after you experience them. I hope that is the enduring legacy of the show; how we can all be a little more compassionate with each other and with ourselves.
Allison Kugel: How did you know you were in love with your wife, Laura, and how did it differ from your relationship with Angela, the woman who catfished you more than a decade ago?
Nev Schulman: The girl I thought I was in love with, the character she made up was called “Megan.” In addition to my relationship with Megan/Angela who catfished me, I did have other long-term meaningful relationships starting in college, and all of them had been fantastic. I had been in love. I knew I was in love with my wife, Laura, in a moment that was so special and cinematic that you would only see it in movies or read it in stories. I looked at her and it was only the second weekend that we were together. We were on the beach and we had been laying down for a while hanging out. She just sort of popped up, she ran out into the ocean, she was splashing around and started running back and forth. I just remember looking at her and thinking, “Wow. This is a moment I don’t want to ever forget and I’m in love with this woman.” I never had that before. I never felt that moment where your heart just sort of says to your brain, “This is important. Don’t forget this.” All of my past relationships have had incredible levels of intimacy and love, but somehow I guess I hadn’t quite met or wasn’t quite ready to meet the person who I would really click with in that way. Not love at first sight, but love at second or third sight.
Allison Kugel: It’s interesting and worth noting that the special moment you are talking about, there is no way that moment could have happened digitally or virtually, right?
Nev Schulman: That is true.
Allison Kugel: That was an in-the-flesh moment.
Nev Schulman: Yes, that was. Absolutely.
Allison Kugel: What is your biggest regret and how did you process and deal with it?
Nev Schulman: I had a friend who I met in kindergarten and we became best friends up through middle school and high school. Sophomore year of college we were working on a film project together and got into a stupid argument and ended up getting into a physical altercation. After that fight things just weren’t the same, and it also created some tension because my brother and my friend’s brother, we were all friends. Our families were friends. It was just an unfortunate experience and I didn’t really talk to him for a while. It was super important because it taught me an incredibly valuable lesson that I needed in order to understand myself better. It taught me about getting a better sense of control over my emotions and my temper. It forever changed my friendship with him and we’re not close the way we used to be, even fifteen years later. It’s a bummer, but it was just like getting catfished, in that a bad experience changed my life and my path in a way that I’m so grateful for, but I definitely miss my friend.
Allison Kugel: And, on a brighter note, what is your single greatest sense of pride?
Nev Schulman: One version of this answer is everyday there are a million small moments that make up a relationship. In my situation, I would say my marriage and my family. I think my choice to commit to my wife, to start our family. Everyone is going through difficult times lately, but to really be committed to my family gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It’s not easy all the time. Sometimes it’s really hard, but it’s something that gets more and more valuable and fulfilling every day.
The new season of Catfish: The TV Show premieres with all-virtual episodes, August 5th at 8/7c on MTV.
Photos courtesy of MTV
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist and author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.