Twenty-five years since MTV made Judd Winick famous, the down-to-earth author and cartoonist reflects on his life in San Francisco, his wife, Pam, and Pedro Zamora.
On his 24th birthday Judd Winick flew into Oakland International Airport, stepping foot in the Bay Area for the first time. Cameras were rolling, waiting to film the Long Island native’s reaction.
“Seeing San Francisco is like seeing Oz,” he said into one of them. “It felt like the land of opportunity, like I could really do something.”It was 1994 and Winick, as Gen Xers may recall, was starting his first day a castmate on the third and most important season(the only important season?) on MTV’s longest running reality show, the The Real World. Winick did indeed find opportunity — and his wife — in San Francisco.
In fact, that first day in front of the cameras also happened to be the day he met Pamela Ling, the Harvard grad/medical student and one of his six roommates at the cast’s home on Lombard Street. After the show stopped filming, the two started dating. They married in 2001 and have since had two children. Twenty-five years later, they’re still living in San Francisco.
On a recent rainy morning, I met Winick to chat about the reality TV stint that changed his life and what he’s been up to in the years since. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt with a Japanese cartoon character and a pair of very ’90s-looking scuffed black combat boots, he says he still occasionally gets recognized out in public. I could see why. Now 49, he looks older than when you last saw him on TV, but he’s got the same general style and the chatty, boyish charm, with a middle-aged man’s hairline.
Winick, who described himself on The Real World: San Francisco as a “struggling cartoonist,” has gone on to find great success in the field, writing characters like Batman and Green Lantern, screenplays and numerous best-selling graphic novels. Earlier this year he released Hilo: Then Everything Went Wrong, the fifth book in a popular series that has earned him a rabid new fan base of kids born years after MTV made him a star in a pre-internet era when people still used landlines.
He works from a studio in his home and says his own children, now 10 and 13, inspired the books. “When my son was seven, he wanted to start reading Batman and they’re a little intense, a little PG-13,” says Winick. He instead steered him the direction of a more kid-friendly graphic novel, which his son became a huge fan of, inspiring Winick to create Hilo.
Winick describes the action-adventure series as Pixar-like in its all-ages appeal, but with a target age range of 7 to-12-year-olds. The main character isa boy who falls out of the sky onto Earth. “It’s kind of like a family project,” with his wife and kids often the first readers, offering their input on characters, giving him immediate feedback as he writes.
Ling, his wife, is now a medical doctor and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco whose research has focused on the effects of e-cigarettes and tobacco on young people. The two have kept in touch with some of their old MTV castmates, including Mohammed Bilal, the house’s level-headed poet/musician, who still lives in San Francisco, and Cory Murphy, then a self-conscious college student, who was later a bridesmaid at their wedding.
In reality TV terms, the early 1990s were basically the Paleolithic era. It was well before the genre’s evolution into the all-encompassing TV format that dominates today. It was pre-Survivor-style competitions shows, where cast and roommates would be pitted against each other and the production and story lines heavily formatted. It was also before reality stars could easily parlay reality fame into careers as influencers, endorsing weight-loss teas on Instagram or, best-case scenario, transforming it into billion-dollar empires, à la the Kardashians.
n 1994, The Real World was still a somewhat earnest, documentary-style program that put together a diverse group of 20-something roommates and filmed them going about their daily lives while living in a nice house in a cool city. Winick says he spent his months on the show free to come and go as he pleased, dating and trying to jump-start his fledgling career as a cartoonist. Once he got used to the cameras, the only thing that seemed to puncture the reality of the situation was a camera person occasionally asking everyone to pause while they reloaded film. “It seems like a novelty now that you could be doing a reality television show where they required nothing of you,” says Winick.
“IT SEEMS LIKE A NOVELTY NOW THAT YOU COULD BE DOING A— Judd Winick
REALITY TV SHOW WHERE THEY REQUIRED NOTHING OF YOU.”
The season’s most memorable conflicts occurred more or less organically. There was the combative bike messenger, Puck, who fought with room-mates over every-thing from sticking his finger in some-one’s peanut butter to his homophobic comments. (He was eventually booted from the house.) Then there was theRepublican Arizona State University grad living among San Francisco liberals.
But it was Pedro Zamora, the handsome, openly HIV-positive AIDS educator from Miami, who turned the season into groundbreaking television. An episode featuring Zamora and his partner’s commitment ceremony was one of the first gay unions ever to air on TV. The night before the show’s final episode aired, Zamora died from complications of AIDS, with Winick and Ling at his bedside.
Losing Pedro, we didn’t expect that,” says Winick, who shared a room with Zamora on the show and was one of his closest friends in the house, along with Ling. “From the outset we just thought the show would just be this fun and stupid thing like, ‘We’re going to be on TV’ … then before we had time to even process that,” Zamora’s illness “became a much bigger and important thing.”
The activist’s death prompted something of a national mourning. President Bill Clinton issued a statement honoring him. “Everywhere we went, we’d meet strangers who were also mourning,”says Winick. “So we had this weird strangeness.” Winick went on to write an award-winning graphic novel about the experience, Pedro and Me. Winick and Ling never returned to TV. “We had jobs and we were happy,” he says. “It just didn’t interest us like that.” The couple continued to watch later seasons of the show together, until it devolved into a drunken-argument and hot tub-hookup fest that he felt “kind of skeezy” watching as he got older.
Winick says there was supposed to be a hot-tub on his season, but the landlord backed out at the last minute, prompting the producers to put the cast in a hot tubless back-up house. In hindsight, Winick says, “I think it worked to our advantage.”
Niccolò Holland, the Gazette’s junior literature correspondent and Hilo series aficionado, lands an exclusive with the best-selling author and illustrator.
Do you have any pets? Yes. I have one cat. We used to have two cats, now we are down to one. That is because the one cat is 20 years old, and his brother was 16 when he finally passed away.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid? I’d have to say my favorite book would have been a Bloom County collection. Bloom County was a comic strip when I was a kid, and it came back recently. The book was called Loose Tails. I read that until it almost fell apart. It’s one of the biggest reasons I became a cartoonist, was because of Bloom County and Loose Tails.
How do you come up with your story ideas? I’ll tell you the truth: I’m inspired by other stories. Maybe grownups might tell you, “You should come up with a totally original story.” I don’t agree with that. I think you should steal a little bit from other stories. I look at stories that inspire me and try to figure out, “How do they make me feel?” and try to figure out, “How can I do that in this story?”