When Keeping Up With the Kardashians debuted a decade ago, the concept of a reality TV dynasty was just as alien as that of a reality TV president. Over the course of ten memorable years, Kim Kardashian and her family left sex tape infamy in the past, launching a global empire and an absurdly profitable brand. While the recipe for the Kardashians’ historic success is still up for debate, it seems to be a mixture of business acumen, freakishly good genes, famous boyfriends, social media savvy, and super momager Kris Jenner. But for all of the Kardashians’ surface level strengths, their empire also owes a good deal to those working behind the scenes. One secret ingredient in the KUWTK magic sauce is Bunim/Murray, the entertainment production company that teamed up with Ryan Seacrest and E! to bring the Kardashians to television sets around the world.
Contemplating the end of the so-called Kardashian decade, we spoke to Gil Goldschein, Chairman and CEO of Bunim/Murray, and Jeff Jenkins, the Co-President of Entertainment and Development. Goldschein negotiated the original partnership with Ryan Seacrest Productions to produce Keeping Up With the Kardashians, while Jenkins continues to oversee the franchise as Executive Producer. More than ten years after Bunim/Murray got on board with Kris Jenner’s vision, we discussed Caitlyn Jenner, Kardashian spinoffs, painful moments on set and the art of oversharing.
Could you walk me through Bunim/Murray’s initial involvement in bringing Keeping Up With the Kardashians to life?
Gil Goldschein: Well, we got a call one day from [producer] Eliot Goldberg who was then in development for the newly minted Ryan Seacrest Productions. They’d been over to E! and shared with them a short sizzle tape on the Kardashian family. Because we had just come off of a very successful run of The Simple Life, which ran for five seasons (including three seasons on E!), we had a wonderful relationship with E!, so when they saw the sizzle tape they said look, we really think you guys should partner up. Jeff and I took the meeting with Eliot Goldberg, and at that time it was still a DVD, so we popped in the DVD and basically both sort of looked at each other and said yeah, this is a project that we see a lot of potential in, we should do this. And we ended up negotiating a deal with E! that day and I think we were in pre-production that next Monday, because there was so much excitement around the project and everybody saw the possibilities.
Jeff Jenkins: That’s the story! That’s the true tale of how landed it here.
It’s interesting that you mention The Simple Life, which I definitely see as a precursor to Keeping Up in terms of reality TV superstardom. Was KUWTK purposefully designed to sort of fill the void that The Simple Life had left behind?
Jenkins: I think that you make a good point, The Simple Life was sort of the first one, and I think that way back then, 10, 12, 15 years ago, as creative producers we were kind of taking vintage sitcom ideas and trying to translate them into reality series. So I think Jon [Murray, co-creator of The Simple Life] had pitched The Simple Life to Fox as a reality version of Green Acres, which was predominately about a rich lady played by Eva Gabor who moves from Park Avenue onto a farm. And so when Keeping Up With the Kardashians came to us, we all kind of responded to the approach that “this is kind of like a reality Brady Bunch.” It’s a second marriage for this mom and dad, and mom has these kids from marriage number one, and then mom and dad have kids from this marriage, and then once in a while we might even see the kids from dad’s first marriage, Brandon and Brody Jenner, so it’s very Brady Bunch, and it started out as a half hour. And a half-hour lends itself to being lighthearted and comedic, and so that was kind of the tone that we started out with.
Kim had worked with us on The Simple Life—at that time she was a pal of Paris Hilton’s—so we’d shot with her quite often and she was always a delight to work with. And we knew kind of peripherally that Kim would be interested in having her own show…what we didn’t know at the time of shooting Simple Life was that she had this really crazy, interesting, delightful, attractive family.
When did you realize that Keeping Up With the Kardashians was going to be something huge?
Goldschein: It’s interesting because every year I go to the international markets, and in the early days I was going around talking to different buyers in different territories ’cause we viewed [Keeping Up] as that reality Brady Brunch, and we thought, well, just like we have this U.S. version of this family, maybe…I was talking up the success of the Kardashian family and potentially trying to pitch them, hey, maybe you could let us do this version for you. The first few years, people either didn’t know about the show or really weren’t interested. And I think it was probably season three or four where I would show up and see these huge billboards of the Kardashian family. So it took a minute, at least from an international perspective, for them to really catch on—people really didn’t know. So what was amazing was, starting again in season four or five, people all around the world… I mean, the Kardashians are now on the covers of magazines all around the world. But yeah, it didn’t actually happen overnight. I think even within the U.S., yes it was a big hit for E!, but I think it really grew over time.
In a recent Hollywood Reporter piece, Jeff, you talk about shooting difficult moments in the family’s life, saying, “There is a line…It wasn't necessary to go stick a camera in Lamar's face while he's on death's door in the hospital.” From a producing standpoint, what have been some of the more difficult moments on the show and how do you avoid crossing that line?
Jenkins: When it’s an incredibly sensitive time in the life of one of the family members is when it is most challenging to get it just right as a producer. So those moments when, you know, Kourtney is breaking up with the father of her children, that’s a very tense time and has to be handled just right. Or when Bruce is telling the family that he’s going to being transitioning into Caitlyn, that’s a really sensitive subject that has to be handled carefully. Or when Kim is attacked and her life is threatened, that story has to be told respectfully. When Lamar Odom is in the hospital fighting for his life…When it gets really tense, we have to really double down and make sure we’re approaching it just right, which may mean that a camera’s there, but sometimes it means that a camera’s not there.
There are lots of different ways to share the experience that the family is having. Sometimes that’s a camera in the moment when something’s going down, sometimes they might explain it in their talking head interviews, if it’s an event or a situation that happened when cameras weren’t there. But I think the thing that the cast does really well whether a camera is there initially or not, is they’re able to share their experience in one way or another, with the viewers never really missing out on an aspect of their life. One way or another, you learn their perspective, learn what really went down, and that’s what they do better than anybody—they share. They’re committed to sharing.
Kim Kardashian has talked about how she’ll often let the crew film something incredibly personal, thinking that she’ll just ask for it to be cut out of the final product, but that in the end she usually ends up approving the footage—that seems like the sort of commitment to sharing you’re describing.
Jenkins: Absolutely! I think Kim is so good in her role as a producer, and I think what you’re describing is, sometimes—not very often—but sometimes when we’re shooting something that’s very intense or incredibly personal, you know, Kim might share with the producers, “OK, you guys are filming but there’s no way that we can put this on TV,” and then, you know, she has trust in us, and faith in us, and we will take that material and shape it to the best of our ability in editing to make sure we’re accurately and fully sharing the family’s point of view. And yes, 99 times out of 100, they go, “Oh, you know what, this is really great. This is really important.” As you can imagine, the time in between the day of shooting something incredibly vulnerable and the day that you see the completed episodes, there’s many, many weeks in between. So on the day you shoot something, you might be incredibly emotionally distraught and raw, but when you watch the edited content many weeks later, you’re maybe in a different headspace and have a bit more perspective.
I think the family does a very good job of reminding themselves, again, that their career is sharing. They’re not singers, they’re not actors, they’re not dancers, their career is sharing their life with you. Most people think it would be easy, and that it’s not hard work, but it’s actually incredibly challenging. And to do it for ten years is some kind of record. I mean, most subjects of a documentary can’t tolerate it. I think The Gene Simmons Family Jewels, they were on the air for seven years, The Osbournes, they were on for three years…it’s incredibly demanding and as you can imagine, invasive. But they have committed to making a career out of sharing and they do it better than anybody else. I don’t think anyone else ever approached it as, OK, the sharing is my career. The sharing is my job. Gene Simmons is a rock star, Ozzy Osbourne is a rock star, Mariah Carey, she’s a singer; celebrities who do reality series, they have another lane going, so the sharing is like adjacent to lane number one. With the Kardashians, sharing is the career.
And I wanted to talk a little bit about I Am Cait and how you went about telling that story, because I know there were a lot of doubts at the time about a reality TV company’s ability to produce a sensitive and respectful show about Jenner’s trans experience.
Jenkins: Well I think if you look at Bunim/Murray’s history, it’s sort of baked into Bunim/Murray’s DNA. That type of storytelling, that can be really positive when done right or really negative when done wrong—that can really impact our society and our culture, that’s what we do best, whether it’s the first HIV positive person on television in a documentary series, or confronting other difficult subjects on The Real World like LGBTQ rights, or abortion, these are things that we are really confident that our producers, our directors, our editors, our talent here…we know how to treat those subjects.
There was a lot of skepticism, a lot of doubt that, “Oh boy, a reality show tackling this incredibly complex and delicate subject?” Yes, it could be handled improperly and be a disaster, but we were never anything but confident that we would not only do a great and responsible job telling Caitlyn’s story, but that we would do right by the larger trans community. Jeff Golde, who was our lead executive at E! on that project, was very committed to quote-unquote getting it right, and we also enlisted the help of a lot of great people from GLAAD who worked with us and helped us understand all the nuances of, say, the problem with using an incorrect pronoun—what’s acceptable, what’s not, what’s on the edge of being unacceptable.
And I think overall, man, I have so much respect for Caitlyn Jenner to do that publicly, to experience that transition publicly, and then weeks later you’ve got Barack Obama talking about it, you’ve got it on the cover of Time magazine. Caitlyn Jenner is the number one reason why that’s a topic at the dinner table now. So to be a part of something that can help Caitlyn impact the culture, it’s just an honor.
I’ve been struck by how each spinoff seems to have an entirely different feel—like Life of Kylie, which just looks so different from KUWTK and is clearly trying to appeal to a different demographic. How much creative control do the family members have in their spinoffs?
Jenkins: I’m glad that you recognized the difference, and that really starts with Kylie. If you talk to Kylie, she’ll tell you, Keeping Up With the Kardashians started when she was 9, she didn’t even know what was going on, she didn’t really care, and then I think as she—and you’d have to ask her, but I think as she kind of grew up and started to realize what was happening, I think she also started to realize, you know, I didn’t really sign up for this, my mom signed me up. And if you watch her in episodes of KUWTK, certainly when she’s an older teenager, she’s a bit reticent, she’s a bit short and curt, and she’s kind of holding her cards very close to her chest. With Life of Kylie, she really wanted to reveal herself for the first time on television. I think she had revealed that self on her social media, but she never really shared all the nuances of who she is as a human being on the family show. So she was really excited to just let it rip, and being really Kylie means not doing all the stuff that she does on the family show. So we really started from scratch working with her—what cameras are we gonna use, what music are we gonna use, what’s it gonna feel like…? And my hat is off to her, she’s so successful in her cosmetics career and her social media career, doing a show on cable television probably is not going to make or break her one way or another, and she really threw herself into it and did a great job.
Are you guys interested in more Kardashian spinoffs?
Jenkins: You know what’s really funny is that I will joke about something and then it will come true. So I am hoping that we get to shoot [Kourtney’s son] Mason’s wedding. Mason, I believe, is not even in double digits yet, but that’s my goal.
Does anyone even talk about the ending of KUWTK? Or would that be jinxing it?
Jenkins: You know, right now, and I’ll let Gil have the last word, but right now we’re celebrating this ten-year anniversary, and my mantra is ten more years. So yes, I would like to see Mason get married, I would like to see Kris Jenner get married again, I would like to see Khloé get married, I would like to see Kourtney…uhh…smile. So those are my hopes for the next ten years.
Goldschein: That works for me. Another ten years.