Restless and disillusioned in their quarter-life crises, Ben Nemtin, Dave Lingwood, and brothers, Duncan and Jonnie Penn decided to do something about it. The question, “what the hell are we are doing with our lives?” turned into the more productive version, “what are the things we want to do before we die?” A bucket list was born, and the boys found their calling with item #53, “start a television show.”
Their show, named for the Mathew Arnold poem, The Buried Life, plays on its title dually: the idea that by identifying and achieving the things you want to do before you die, you excavate your true life buried within.
The Buried Life documents the boys’ travels across North America as they attempt everything from “help deliver a baby” to “attend a party at the Playboy Mansion.” For each item they check off their list, they help a complete stranger achieve his or her own goal. The random acts of kindness have included helping an environmental activist organize a protest, reuniting a homeless man with his daughter and helping a girl
get over her fear of roller coasters.
Recently renewing their production deal with MTV, the stars of The Buried Life are filming new content in Los Angeles. MISC caught up with half of the group, Jonnie Penn and Ben Nemtin, to discuss what their show reveals about the Millennial generation.
Why do you think a show like The Buried Life needs to exist? People talk a lot about the idea of ‘life getting in the way,’ what is it about life – the pace, the multiplicity, or greater ideologies – that keep people from the goals and aspirations that they actually care about?
Jonni: I think there’s a massive turn to simplicity right now. Our generation is increasingly minimalistic, I hope. I think the reason our show had success is, to some degree, because we boiled everything down to simply doing the things we want to do before we die. Just doing whatever it is you love to do.
Why is that resonating so much right now?
Jonni: I think people want to keep in touch with themselves now, because there’s so much pulling them in the opposite direction. We get marketed to so much these days that you can live for a long time, then wake up one day and realize that you’re not even living your own life. You’re living up to manufactured standards. To be able to check in and feel the power of knowing what you want is a really cool thing. And for a lot of young people, they want to be responsible for themselves and enjoy that responsibility, doing whatever the hell it is that they want to do. I don’t want to generalize for everybody, but I think, with simplicity, we’re talking about refinement. We all want to make sure we’re getting the most bang for our buck. If you can refine things down to their best, to the core of it, that makes people feel good. People are starting to realize that they don’t need as much stuff as they once thought. The basics can get you pretty far in life in terms of satisfaction.
You guys were at the beginning of what seems to be a large shift on MTV, from excessive escapism to programs with positive social messages or at least dealing with compelling human struggles. Why do you think that change occurred when it did?
Jonni: I think it’s more about subcultures. MTV wants to highlight sub-cultures, because, they’re often untapped and therefore more genuine. It’s happening all over in television. Visiting people in places that aren’t used to having cameras in their faces, so you get to have a real look into someone’s life who will open up to you and be uninhibited. That’s what MTV wants to do, looking at teenage parents, or kids from Jersey Shore, or kids from Canada who want to cross things off their bucket list. Little groups or pockets of people that all feel the same way. The prosocial movement is up to the audience. MTV is going to show us what we want to see and the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. I think prosocial is a dangerous word to put next to entertainment, because you hear it and you don’t want to work 12 hours a day and then come home and watch a documentary, you want to be entertained. It’s a good thing that the lines are blurring so that you can make a really fucking hilarious show, and still have a good message and morals in every episode.
*Ben:* Audiences just want something new. So much has already been done. Just make something new.
You guys are obviously an ambitious bunch, is that characteristic of this generation? To be career-oriented or entrepreneurial?
Ben: I think our generation will be defined by our ambition. It’s whether we can follow through on it. And I hope that people will actually do the work to follow through on it.
What was the most fulfilling / or meaningful thing each of you crossed off your list?
Ben: For me, I’m most proud of the show. It was number 53 on the list. It took so much work. It was three years of our lives, focusing every ounce of energy and all the time we had, into making this thing something we felt would be excellent on television. When we put it on the list, only about 2% of me thought it would actually happen. It was pretty cool to actually see it come to fruition, and then say, “now what can we do?”
Jonni: Playing basketball with the president was electrifying for me. It took eighteen months from coming up with the idea to pulling it off. It was awesome. We played at the White House courts. President Obama surprised us. He was supposed to be in Indonesia. It was the day before the big healthcare vote. He had every reason not to be there but he came out and did it, and he said he did it because he liked that we helped people. We just shot around and chatted and cracked jokes.
The Mathew Arnold poem that the show was inspired by describes, “A thirst to spend our fire and restless force / In tracking out our true, original course.” Is there an element self-discovery that occurs with each successful or failed attempt to check an item off the list?
Jonni: I think of a lot of it comes down to taking yourself where you don’t want to go. When you find comfort in your life, and you’re young, it’s easy to hold on to that. But we found that sometimes pushing away from the shore, and going to the places you’re scared to go to, is the most rewarding thing you can do. And that’s part of growing up.
Ben: We were lucky enough to do this with three other friends, and that helps when times get tough as well as when things are good and we have to step up and do this stuff. It’s the other guys on the team that force you to go big. I don’t think we’d always have that strength if we were just doing it solo. That’s been the most rewarding part – when I did the shit that I really didn’t want to do and then realized that it wasn’t so bad.
Jonni: That’s now a relationship that we share with our fans. We don’t want to do anything for our fans that isn’t brand new, bigger and better and in a new direction. We want to continue to risk everything to make this thing grow. I hope it’ll always be that way.
Having checked off most of your bucket list, what do you still want to do before you die?
Ben: We just signed a new deal with MTV to shoot new content. It’s not going to be as it was in season one or two. We want to make something different. We have a really unique situation with MTV where they’re giving us creative freedom to shoot pretty much whatever we want. We’ve always been of the mindframe that good content takes time. And we feel comfortable enough with our brand and our audience that we want to make something that’s good enough to take a bit of time. We’re shooting a bunch of new stuff that we’ve always wanted to shoot and we now have the freedom to do it. We’ll be cutting together some new content for MTV and other networks as well.
Jonni: We just crossed a big item off the list, involving Major League Baseball, and we’re always working on number 100 (“Go to Space”) We’re also opening up the brand-new frontier of this audience we have of more than a million Facebook fans each with their own story and thing they want to do before they die. We’re finding and documenting these people and they have every dream that you can imagine. We’re looking forward to sharing them with other people.
Is there anything you’ve identified lately that you want to do, that you hadn’t thought of on the previous iterations of the list?
Jonni: I would like to own no more than 100 items.
Ben: I want to go to India and be in a Bollywood music video or movie production.
Jonnie Penn and Ben Nemtin are co-founders and producers of the MTV series The Buried Life (www.facebook.com/tbl).
Bonus Download: The Millennial Dictionary