There were so many boy bands in the ’90s that were so similar that it almost felt like they were being mass-produced in a factory somewhere in central Florida. There were ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, O-Town and New Kids on the Block, just to name a few. All delivered the same goods: catchy songs, fun dance moves and over-the-top fashion.
They were so big and so ridiculous that, at the time, they felt ripe for the ribbing.
Enter: Fresh Step.
In February 1999, a new boy band named Fresh Step introduced its single “Ya Gotta Be Fresh” on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
Their performance looked like this:
Fresh Step seemed like any other musical act on the popular late-night talk show. Letterman introduced the band as if it were legitimate. But the thing was, they weren’t.
Fresh Step was a parody boy band created by the staff of the “Late Show” as a joke that was executed so earnestly that it went over most people’s heads.
Craig Thomas and his writing partner Carter Bays, who created “How I Met Your Mother,” worked as staff writers on the “Late Show” at the time and helped create the band. Thomas told HuffPost, “The audience never had a clue they were fake.”
Rodney Rothman, who co-wrote and co-directed “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” was head writer on “Letterman” at the time and recently tweeted about the fake boy band he helped bring to its brief fruition. According to Rothman — and Don Giller, a Letterman super-fan and unofficial archivist of all things the “Late Show,” who also spoke to HuffPost — a few astute fans were in on the joke.
“Some people got it, and it became a cult thing kind of,” Rothman told HuffPost. “This was post-internet but before social media exploded, and the people who enjoyed it did so alone; there was no real way to share or find other people who got it. So, we never really knew what people thought.”
According to Thomas, the creation of Fresh Step happened pretty organically. At the time, the “Late Show” staff writers were also creating bogus songs from fake Broadway musicals — like “Jimmy’s Coming Home” from “Homecoming,” and “On the Moon” from “One Small Step” — that Letterman would introduce as acts at the end of the show in the same sincere manner. People took the musicals at face value as well. Playbill even published an article about how the musical numbers were fake.
“I remember when we put ‘Homecoming’ up, an irate Leno booker called a big Broadway PR agent and wanted to know why it wasn’t offered [to ‘The Tonight Show’] first,” Rothman said.
Because the writers were getting traction for the phony musicals, a bogus boy band seemed like the natural next step.
But the name Fresh Step — which is also the name of a kitty litter brand — was somewhat unintentional at first. At least according to Thomas.
“My memory is that I pitched the name Fresh Step as just a dumb boy band name,” Thomas told HuffPost. “And immediately realized it was also the name of a kitty litter. So, I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe not that.’ But then, almost as immediately, we were all like: ‘No, wait ― definitely that.’”
The writers then came up with a few silly song lyrics, and the project was passed on to musical director, band leader and Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer, who — just as with the faux musicals — actually wrote the music. Shaffer told HuffPost that he then hired Fonzi Thornton, a studio vocalist, who sang on the track along with some other singers Thornton knew.
“Paul is so talented,” Thomas said. “He basically wrote hit music for these dumb-ass songs, and that’s such a huge part of why they fooled so many people. They sounded right.”
The “Late Show” hired a bunch of mostly Broadway-based actors to play members of the boy band and lip-sync to Shaffer’s recorded song on air.
One just happened to be future “Glee” star, Matthew Morrison (seen in the red outfit above) while he was attending New York University.
Another, Jeremy Kushnier was working in the real musical “Footloose” when he got a call from his agent about an audition for Fresh Step.
Kushnier, intrigued by the joke aspect of it, auditioned and got the gig (he can be seen in the silver getup above). He said that the show also hired someone he described as a “big-time choreographer” who worked with the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. It appeared that no one had clued this unnamed choreographer in on the joke.
“We rehearsed with her a couple of times,” Kushnier told HuffPost. “She choreographed. And then she realized that we were … definitely poking fun at the genre. And she started to get offended. So she quit the day of the performance.”
That wasn’t the only blow that day, either. Backstage on the night of Fresh Step’s first appearance on the “Late Show,” Kushnier recalled, they ran into Mark Wahlberg, who, after years of being known as an underwear model and the leader of the musical group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, was basking in the success of the acclaimed 1997 film “Boogie Nights.” Fresh Step asked Wahlberg to take a photo with them.
“And we were in full regalia. Like, it was stupid. We looked hilarious,” Kushnier said. “And Wahlberg was like — and this is verbatim because it’s been like etched into my memory — he looked at us and he said, ‘I don’t do that shit anymore. I’m a real actor now.’ I was like, ‘Fuck you, dude.’”
Not long after Fresh Step’s initial performance, the “Late Night” staff writers decided to come up with another song for their house-made boy band. This time it would be a ballad, “Don’t Talk to the Hand, Girl, Talk to the Heart,” featured on the soundtrack of a fake movie called “Talk to the Hand,” starring James Van Der Beek and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
“It was about ‘a high school quarterback who falls for a shy classmate who happens to be hearing impaired,’” Rothman said. “People were upset that movie didn’t really exist.”
The band performed its second song on MTV’s “Total Request Live” after the then-popular music-video-based show ― which boy bands frequently visited — found out about the joke and reached out to the “Late Show.”
“They heard what we were doing and agreed to have Carson Daly interview the ‘band’ on ‘TRL,’ where they also sang a tidbit of their ballad live on air,” Thomas said. “We gave the guys talking points and some lines to use, but they were basically doing improv with a very game Carson in on the joke. … It was sorta amazing.”
Fresh Step also performed its second song on the “Late Show.” During its appearance, the staff writers figured out a way to see whether anyone was actually in on the joke. Thomas said the staff created a website for Fresh Step where viewers could go and message the band.
“We had one of the band members hold up a scroll of paper with the website on it during one of their performances,” he said. “This was a bigger deal in 1998 than it is now — a website felt somehow legit.”
Fresh Step got a lot of feedback, according to Thomas.
“Like, thousands and thousands of emails, and it was all kinds of amazing,” Thomas remembered. “Some viewers fell in love with the band at first sight and took them as totally real. They would write in to say who their favorite Fresh Stepper was. Other people thought the band was real and hated them, but there was even nuance in that hatred. For instance, one hater sub-group was basically, like, ’You guys suck — you wish you were ’N Sync but you’re just a shitty rip-off … ’N Sync rules!!!!!’ So, some of the haters were actually lovers of other boy bands. Other people were like, ‘This is fake, right? This can’t be real.’”
Unfortunately, Fresh Step’s second performance on the “Late Show” was also its last on the late-night talk show.
“The show eventually asked us to stop because it was fiscally irresponsible,” Rothman explained. “Not in a mean way. In a gentle, ‘You’ve made your point, we hope?’ way.”
Although not many people know that they pulled off such an elaborate prank, Rothman and Thomas both look back on the experience fondly.
“It hit upon what was, and still is, one of my favorite things to do in comedy — working really, really hard on something really, really dumb,” Thomas said. “And in this case, something that most people didn’t even know was a joke. It felt like something Andy Kaufman might’ve liked.”
“I was always weirdly proud of getting it on the show,” he said. “It was cool to have such amazing resources — Paul Shaffer, the greatest bandleader in history, co-writers who would go on to amazing things — and use it for something so frivolous. I always wished more people knew about it.”