As MTV winds down its third cycle of reality TV phenomenon Jersey Shore, it's hard to believe that it has only been 15 months since the show first introduced America to the wonders of gym, tanning and laundry.
The show has already turned into a lucrative franchise for MTV — and now regularly beats American Idol in the cable network's key demographic of 12-to-34-year-olds. As the show's cast and crew pack their bags for a Season 4 trip to Italy, here's a brief history of how we got to this point.
VH1 producer Anthony Belcampo first came up with the idea of bringing the "guido" lifestyle to TV — but as a competition series. The channel turned to producer Sally Ann Salsano (Shot of Love with Tila Tequila), who wasn't excited at the original idea, which featured tanning contests and other exploits. She gathered her team and came up with a new idea, inspired by her summers in a Jersey summer share house. Soon, MTV swooped in and grabbed the show for its network.
MTV NETWORKS PRESIDENT VAN TOFFLER: It was loud, it was young, it was bold, it had a lot of heart, and its also spoke to something that MTV has specialized in over decades since it began, which is shining a light on a subculture. The kind of thing MTV did with Yo MTV Raps, The Real World, it was what we've done time and time again. It just felt closer to MTV's sensibilities than to VH1's at the time.
FORMER MTV PROGRAMMING EXEC TONY DISANTO: We were coming off these very highly stylized reality shows (The Hills) that looked like a scripted show, and felt it was time to turn left now, and go for a more authentic approach, like a documentary.
SALSANO: A lot of cities in Jersey did not welcome us and would not have us for the show. And Seaside Heights, knowing nothing, took a chance.
Producers then hit casting gold, signing up future household names like Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, Jennifer "JWoww" Farley and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi.
VINNY GUADAGNINO: A friend of mine sent me an application asking for the orangest, muscley, spiky-haired people that go down to the Jersey shore. As a joke, I sent in the application. I was anti- what they were looking for.
SNOOKI: I saw an ad on Facebook, and it said, "Calling all Guidos and Guidettes." I decided to try out because the show was definitely about my lifestyle and how I am.
"PAULY D" DELVECCHIO: I got a MySpace note from a casting director, saying they liked my look. They filmed my life, me at work, me at the gym. Six months later, they told me to pack for 30 days.
TOFFLER: We were looking for candor, honesty, boldness and collectively a chaotic mess — a very combustible chaotic mess. I think that you could honestly say none of these people were traditionally beautiful.
SALSANO: I believe that every single person should have a chance to be on TV. It's up to America whether they want to watch it. The characters are real and they're lovable. I love this cast. I have had a heartfelt conversation that ended in tears with every member of this cast.
As filming began, Jersey Shore was the anti-Real World: eight strangers from very similar worlds.
JWOWW: I thought the guys would be enormous and really mean, and I thought the girls would be catty and overdone.
PAULY: I was hoping they wouldn't turn it into a Tool Academy and make me look like a jerk.
VINNY: At one side of me I see Pauly and his spiky hair and his whole guido look, and you're like, "Oh really? This kind of kid?" Great, they found the most frigging stereotypical kid. The same thing with Mike, the way he was talking. Then Snooki. When I saw her, oh my God, she seems like a train wreck, you know? What the hell is going on with this girl? But you realize we're all starting in this new crazy adventure.
TOFFLER: Once we started to get into the process of filming these guys on the Jersey shore, we realized it was really loud. My own personal motto here at MTV is if I'm not uncomfortable, then I'm not doing my job right. I definitely had a high level of discomfort when I watched the footage of this show.
SALSANO: When my cameramen were ready to go home, they would sit in the control room for another three hours and watch. Everyone would show up to their shift early to see what happened. We could not stop watching. It was fresh and real and it just felt really good.
DISANTO: Characters (on shows like The Hills) were more subtle and passive-aggressive and you had to read their eyes to understand what they were doing. What was great about these characters is they said what they were thinking and did what they wanted.
TOFFLER: We wanted real authenticity. We added the cast members' families to the show and also really played up the heart and the fact that even though they pushed and shoved each other in the beginning, they really came to support each other in the end.
SALSANO: A lot of these kids still live at home; they're still in their bedroom in their twin bed in their parents' house. And I say that lovingly, as someone who lived in her twin bed in her parents' house until I was 26. We don't treat them any differently.
After the shoot was over, everyone returned to their normal lives — and wondered if Jersey Shore would ever air.
DISANTO: We all felt in our gut felt there was something here. I watched the first rough cut of Episode 1 and told Van Toffler that I couldn't take my eyes off this screen.
SALSANO: I was nervous because there was not a big push for it.
JWOWW: Months after we shot, nobody knew the show's name, nobody knew anything about it and everyone returned to their regular life. There was a part of me that didn't think it would even be aired. We were waiting and seeing, we heard the first commercial was supposed to play during the Video Music Awards and then it didn't happen. And I thought it was so embarrassing, I told my friends and family to watch and it never aired.
PAULY: I was in my bathroom, doing my hair to go out, and had the TV on. I heard my voice, and it was me, in the bathroom, doing my hair to go out. That was the actual trailer.
VINNY: Me and Ronnie were getting jobs, Ronnie was a locksmith. I was putting in applications to the friggin' pet store. It was a really long stagnant phase, will it ever air? You'd look for it on the Internet and you wouldn't find anything. It was buried like a secret. Until one day we were told it was going to be a series. But I still didn't know what that meant. A series of what?
The show received a major boost when Italian-American service organization UNICO protested the show's premiere. Sponsors like Domino's Pizza dropped out.
SALSANO: I feel like I owe those guys the world. I couldn't thank them enough. I'm an Italian-American girl who takes pride in her culture, and I had never heard of that group. So they kept saying they don't want us representing them, but I didn't know they were representing me.
DISANTO: I didn't see that coming at all. I never thought of this show about being about a particular ethnic group; I saw it as about a particular slice of life, a particular subculture, group of kids. It was never our intention to offend.
JWOWW: I thought because of that our show was going to be canceled. Advertisements were being dropped and it was really nerve-wracking. I remember texting everyone in the cast and saying, "Is our show going to be airing?" I hit up everyone at MTV and the production company and they said, "Don't worry; all press is good press." And I remember saying, "They're lying, it's not going to air and they don't want to tell us."
PAULY: I don't represent all the Italians in the whole world. I don't represent anyone but myself.
SNOOKI: It's not about Italians; it's about a lifestyle. You could be Irish and a guido. You could be German and a guido.
VINNY: All I could do is defend myself and my castmates. Some of my cast members aren't even Italian. I don't want some of those Italians to represent me, I'm not trying to represent them.
TOFFLER: The job that I and others do at MTV is not for the frail. It's not the first time I had received death threats, but that doesn't make me want to back down. I got some harmful emails that questioned my sanity and choices and threatened me. I've received those in the hundreds at my time here.
SALSANO: Yeah, I'm a guido. I grew up on Long Island. I got the giant nameplate, the bad cars and my name written on the driver's side door. I had several Jersey shore houses.
Jersey Shore got more unwanted attention when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blasted its depiction of his state.
SALSANO: Are you kidding me? Call Seaside Heights right now and they will violently disagree. This summer when I went back to Seaside Heights I had tears in my eyes. The year before when I was there and we were in the nightclubs, I could do backflips, set up a circus, there was so much room in these clubs. They were not busy. There were nights where we were paying people to go into the clubs because it was empty in there. One year later, I show up in the same city and there's a line outside the club 1,100 people deep.
JWOWW: We're just representing ourselves and what you're saying is so out there, it doesn't even make sense. For us to bring so much money to the economy of Jersey because of our show, he should be eating his own words.
SNOOKI: Don't care. Everyone can have their opinion, but whatever.
TOFFLER: Maybe he should have spoken to some of his constituents on the Jersey shore who were begging us to come back and stay because of what it did for their business.
SALSANO: For someone who despised the show, he knew an awful lot about it. It seemed like he had seen more than one episode. It's like when Obama mentioned it in his speech, and then later on The View said he said he didn't know who Snooki was. Really?
Despite all that buzz, Jersey Shore debuted with unimpressive ratings.
SALSANO: I legitimately cried. And I remember calling my agent and saying, "What is going on? This thing is so good; what is going on?" Then we started getting the heat, and I remember thinking, if the ratings don't go up and the heat gets worse, what's going to happen?
But then the show started to grow. And grow.
DISANTO: After the second week, Weekend Update was already parodying it. I think in my time at MTV this was the fastest zero-to-60 I've ever seen on a show. This show, by Episode 2, was already in pop culture in a big way.
When footage of Snooki getting punched in the face went viral, the show exploded. But MTV decided to pull the clip.
TOFFLER: Social networking was a megaphone for Jersey Shore and worked to our advantage. But it works to your disadvantage when people have the ability to pirate and steal scenes and take them out of context. We wanted to make sure people saw it in its entirety, including the consequences of the guy getting arrested.
DISANTO: It was a learning experience for me. We decided the world had seen it. I'm not going to keep flogging it; let's lop it out of the show. You know what happened anyway.
SNOOKI: I really don't care what people think or say about me. It doesn't faze me. It was a hard situation for me. The only people that took it seriously were my family and friends. Everyone else I could care less.
PAULY: I felt so bad, so helpless. I felt like she was my sister, we're living together. It definitely brought us closer.
SALSANO: At that time in the house, everyone was anti-Snooki. Snooki was the odd bird out, everyone on the cast was giving her a hard time. But because of what happened that night, the house changed. Those kids stood together and saw each other for what they were, and that group became unbreakable. Am I glad that it happened? Absolutely not. But even Snooki said at the end of that summer, "Who would have thought that getting punched in the face would be the best thing that happened to me?"
The show hit another bump when Ronnie was arrested for assault.
TOFFLER: Life interrupts our show at times, and you have to deal with it.
SALSANO: You tell everyone, we're shooting a reality show and we're in the United States. We're not above the law just because we're shooting a TV show. What happened that night is exactly what would have happened whether we were there or not. I think the police handled it the same way, whether we were there or not.
After Season 1, the cast negotiated a pay raise — amid reports that they might not return.
DISANTO: It definitely got blown up as something contentious. It's the kind of thing that happens on any show that becomes successful. They got what they deserved and got rewarded.
JWOWW: We already knew we were going to be going back. It's not like everyone was picketing or rioting.
PAULY: I know we all have managers and agents now, but no one threatened not to go on the show.
SNOOKI: Obviously, if we're filming a show and we don't have regular jobs, we need some way of making money.
TOFFLER: Let's say that they are well taken care of now. I wouldn't worry about any of the participants on Jersey Shore. We wanted to keep them together. It didn't get that ugly. They're ultimately sweet and lovable kids.
SALSANO: Sometimes in the press things get a little spun up. It was not in the way it was portrayed.
With the success of Season 1, MTV didn't want to wait to head back to work — hence the decision to send everyone down to Miami.
TOFFLER: They love the beach, as you know, they love tanning centers. And the gym. And laundry. Miami offered all of that.
DISANTO: I was actually concerned that the minute they became famous that the cast would change. After Season 1 blew up so much and the guys came out of the bubble, we made the decision to put them back in that bubble as soon as possible.
PAULY: We know each other now and know how to live with each other. The only thing that's different is people do know who we are, and the constant paparazzi.
SNOOKI: What you see is what you get. They don't make up anything; they can't. That's our life. I don't really know anything else. That's just us as a family. We're crazy.
PAULY: It just so happens that I'm funny, and I came off as funny on the show.
VINNY: It was a little easier, we knew each other's antics. Angelina was back, which made things a little dramatic. There was a bad vibe from her and we gave her a bad vibe right back. And the girls started fighting with each other. I had one goal in mind: going out and having fun and getting with the cute girls, that's it.
SALSANO: The show is a vacation. It's a bunch of kids that met in a beach house and they're continuing to spend time together. If it wasn't real, you would just keep bringing Angelina back. It wouldn't make sense, because why would you keep going on that vacation if you're Angelina? The second time it made sense, after that it just flat-out doesn't.
By Season 3, the show was a well-oiled machine — with 8 million-plus viewers to show for it.
VINNY: This is my favorite season. You didn't need any warm up. We were just pros at that point. We all let loose and had so much fun, and if people got into fights, then they did. Going out and living our lives is what makes the TV gold. Going out to a club, bringing home a random girl and seeing what happens, that's just what happens.
Now, as they prepare to shoot part of Season 4 in Italy — and spin-offs percolate — the stars, producers and network admit the show won't last too long.
TOFFLER: We hope that it goes on forever, but know that it probably won't. We'll be in business with a bunch of them in different iterations for many years.
PAULY: The stuff I see on a daily basis is unreal. Every time I go out there and DJ, every single kid out there looks like me. They act like me, they quote what I say on the show. I've never seen that before.
SNOOKI: As long as they want to do the show, I'm down.
VINNY: Every season leads to more opportunity for me. I want a future too. I was going to go to school to get my law degree, but I really don't want to do that work in the ant farm world. I'm seeing where it leads me, I want to be a performer.
SALSANO: I hope these kids stay true to who they are; they haven't changed yet. I hope they are as successful as the kids on The Hills and brand themselves. They deserve whatever comes to them.
PAULY: I like to rock the party and have a good time. It's been quite a year.