'Like Shooting a Wildlife Doc': The Oral History of 'The Osbournes'

As the pioneering reality show celebrates its 20th anniversary, VICE spoke to its creators and the family matriarch herself, Sharon Osbourne.

In the first episode of The Osbournes, the first celebrity reality TV show, Ozzy Osbourne yells for his son to help him work out how to use the remote control in their brand new house so he can watch the History Channel. In this moment, no longer is he the bat-head-biting Prince of Darkness; he is both your dad and mine. He is every dad across the globe.

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Premiering 20 years ago, on March 5th, 2002, the show’s pilot opens with the line “Meet the perfect American family”. We join the Osbournes as they move into their months-in-the-making Beverly Hills home with boxes marked “pots and pans”, “linens” and, of course, “devil heads”.

Over four seasons, the Osbourne family – helmed by dad, Black Sabbath ex-frontman and the original “momager”, Sharon –  invited crews into every part of their bizarre lives. The camera caught everything; whether they were feuding with their neighbours, wrangling their menagerie of cats and dogs – Arthur, Chicken, Lola, Puss, Minnie, Lulu, Maggie, plus the bird that only appeared in a single episode – and more sombre storylines, like Sharon’s 2002 battle with colon cancer or family members’ substance abuse issues.

The Osbournes was a success, drawing in 6.6 million viewers at the premiere of its second season. It also provided the blueprint for decades of reality TV shows to come, from Gene Simmons: Family Jewels to Keeping Up the with the Kardashians. Arguably, there would be no Kim and Kourtney Kardashian fighting over their differences in work ethic without the Osbourne kids fighting because one of them danced with Christina Aguilera.

We spoke to the people – executive producers, directors, editors and the family matriarch herself, Sharon Osbourne – who found the exact sweet spot between documentary and reality TV; one that would prevail on our screens for years to come.

How the BBC Planted the Beginnings of ‘The Osbournes’

Greg Johnston, executive producer: I was an executive producer and producer at MTV and Sharon was having a meeting with [MTV executives], and they invited me to lunch at The Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica. Sharon was telling stories about what went on in their house and everyone was cracking up. We thought if only half of the stories that she tells are true it’s fantastic, but we thought they would never let us shoot at their house. At the time there was no social media and everybody – celebrity-wise – kept their privacy. But she said, “I keep telling people these stories, and people don't ever believe half the stories I tell them. I need proof.”  

Sharon Osbourne: Ozzy and the children had done Cribs; I wasn't even in it. MTV came back and said ‘We want to do something, what can we do?’ It was meant to be three weeks of filming, like a Cribs special but we said, “We're gonna keep going”. Three years later they were still there.

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Jeff Stilson, executive producer: There was a BBC documentary on the family and I loved them based on that. I just thought it could be really funny based on what I'd seen.

The Osbournes at the MTV Music Awards in 2003. Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Johnston: The documentary was called Fame and Fortune (1997). It was the idea for a sitcom. There’s this juxtaposition of Ozzy, the infamous Prince of Darkness, whose headlines have been biting the heads off of bats, as the quintessential father with two kids that are coming of age. It was years earlier because the kids were younger and Ozzy was eating with the family and they’re singing Monty Python's “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” and at one point they're cursing and Kelly admonishes Ozzy, like, “We should not use that language at the dinner table.” It was hysterical.

Over the summer [of 2001] the family were moving into a new house in Beverly Hills, but it kept getting pushed just because it was a massive undertaking. So it seemed like a perfect time to shoot something as they were moving into the house as it seemed like a natural starting point. 

I did a couple tours of the house with Sharon and saw the housekeeper's quarters, and I asked if we could use it as our control room. She said sure, and I was like, really? But we set up and we started filming in October of 2001. What was going to be two or three weeks turned into years of filming.

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Charles Kramer, editor: I was working on a show called The Mole and I got a call from a friend who said, “You're gonna love this” because I was actually kind of a rocker at the time. So I just kept badgering Greg Johnston – he was the only contact I had for the show. I heard this thing was being put together as a new hybrid of reality and a sitcom.

Henriette Mantel, segment producer on season one: Jeff called me up and told me to meet him at the farmers market at 10AM and know who Ozzy Osbourne is. I met him and said “yeah, he's the lead singer of Kiss” and he laughed and said, “You didn’t even look it up.” But Jeff knew that I had comedy chops. All I had to do was make [Ozzy] funny. 

Sue Kolinsky, producer: I was working on the sitcom, Ellen, at the time and one of the executive producers on The Osbournes told me they needed another segment producer. So I quit Ellen, took a major pay cut and started working on The Osbournes. I had no idea what it was going to be like – I knew who Ozzy was, but I knew nothing about his wife and children. 

Johnston: I don't think the show could be made today. There weren’t a lot of expectations; MTV didn't know what it was. It started off as an experiment to see what would happen. There were a lot of in-house resources that don't exist anymore, so we could shoot and spend money without people really caring at the very beginning of it.

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Stilson: The network were like, “We don't like the sitcom feel, we want to play heavy metal underneath,” and well, as you can imagine, that was just horrible. It was awful. They wanted to make it more like [MTV show] The Real World, because that's what they knew. Our objective was to make it the opposite of The Real World, so we were at loggerheads. The executives in charge wanted there to be a story. There's a rule in reality television: You tell the audience what they're going to see, you show it and then you tell them what they just saw. We threw that out. Then [the execs] decided to go with it. After that we weren't hassled, it was fun.

Kelly, Jack and Ozzy. Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Meet the Perfect American Family’

Stilson: That family has a unique way of thinking and it was fun to be there and capture it on camera. They are who they are and they're not ashamed.

Donald Bull, director: Despite the fact that they have this rock and roll pedigree, they're a very typical sitcom family. Even though they end up griping and fighting a lot, they really do love each other. I think that's the key.

Johnston: They had that dynamic that everybody can relate to. Jack and Kelly were a year apart and they're constantly fighting. They’re just normal, they’re not that facade of some satanic family. 

Jonathan “JT” Taylor, Producer: Very early on, there was a fight that happened between Jack and Kelly. Because we didn't know them that well, I was nervous that it was getting too out of hand so we put the cameras down. The next day, Jack was like, “Why did you put the cameras down?” [But they] were also famous for telling us to piss off, but in the interest of making the show, you would sort of see how far you can push that before pulling out. 

Mantel: Sometimes Jack covered up his camera with a towel because he didn't want us seeing him hanging out with his friends or whatever. But you know, he was a teenager.

Osbourne: It's not like we're the model family, or that my children were models and actors. Now, in reality shows, someone who is Kelly’s age [in 2001] would be walking around in sexy clothes and going to all the openings of Fashion Week and all of that shit. I think because we weren’t that, we were more relatable – not the family that everybody aspired to be. But they looked at us and I think they could see the love that we have for each other.

Stilson: Sharon was brilliant in how she dealt with the kids. We cut one episode where Jack is pursuing his friend's girlfriend and it's on camera. Jack says to Sharon that can’t go on TV and she said, “Well, you’re taking the money, Jack”. She didn’t want to take it out. Jack was upset, but he ended up accepting it.

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Taylor: In the early days, it was tough to get Ozzy. He was very shy when we started filming. In the first week or so of filming, we didn’t see much of him. He had his studio/screening room that he would retire to and that was the one area of the house that was off-limits to us. Eventually, he started to build up some trust. 

Filming ‘The Osbournes’ – and Their Celeb Friends

Taylor: I was a showrunner on the show, so basically it was like living with the family full-time. The lines between my life and their life were quite blurred. In the early days, we were pretty much filming about 18 hours a day. A lot of it was a bit like shooting a wildlife documentary. There was a lot of downtime because we quickly learned there wasn't a lot of prodding you could do – you just had to react.

Johnston: Sharon would say, “We’re going to Chicago” and we would be like, oh shit, we got to get a crew to Chicago. We'd have a crew go to Chicago and then the day before she's like, “Yeah, we're not going to go there.” So, you know, it was a constant just sort of trying to keep up with that, more than anything else.

Stilson: They forget about the cameras, they're just part of their life. They're not self-conscious at all and that happened almost immediately. You got these great moments on camera, especially with Ozzy.

Taylor: [There were celebrities around] especially with Jack. He was very good friends, at that point, with Mandy Moore – they would watch TV. He was good friends with Elijah Wood and his sister. They'd known each other a long time. Roy Orbison’s son was over a lot. For a while, Jack dated Kurt Cobain’s half-sister [Brianne O’Conner]. There were always comings and goings. I was fascinated when Steven Tyler came by one day. Another time, Sharon was having tea in the front room and had company over and there was the most amazing piano being played. Sharon was like, “JT, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine”, and it was Elton John

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Bull: I was working the late night shift and Sharon, who was sick from chemo at the time, got up in the middle of the night and started cleaning the refrigerator so she has something to do. It’s one in the morning, Kelly comes home from a club 15 minutes later, Jack comes home from another. They’re fighting and Sharon is trying to get between them, when suddenly, a guy walks into the room. He doesn't have a shirt on, just jeans and flip-flops. All three of them turned and hugged him, it turned out to be [a 70s rocker’s son] because they all grew up together in Beverly Hills. But that entire dynamic was typical. 

Kramer: It was kind of wild, because we wouldn't get much heads up on the production side. The day before Sharon would be like, “Elton's coming over later” and we would have to deal with their people and get it [signed off]. I think because reality was so new, even big stars at that time were just kind of like, “Oh, well, I guess we're being filmed”.

Taylor: [Getting celebrities to sign off on it] was easier because it was known that [the house] was a live set. So if you're if you were coming into the Osbournes’ universe, then it was a given that you were agreeing, in principle, to be on the show.

How ‘The Osbournes’ Was Shot

Mantel: We had a lot of time to film. We had cameras set up in the house and we had one or two cameras following everybody. We had the maid's quarters of the house set up as our production room where we had all our monitors. I think we had three weeks [of filming] for each episode, which is unheard of now in these shows. 

Bull: We were in their home all the time. They were actually a very gracious, very welcoming family. They knew that we wanted to tell funny stories and not gotcha stories. Sharon was one of the executive producers, so she would not let you in the room unless she felt it was safe for her family.

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Johnston: We really didn't have a discussion as to what we were shooting. We shot it very much like a documentary. We had thousands of hours of footage that we'd have to go through to make a single half hour. At one point, we did the math and it was seven to 10 days of shooting per one half hour. There would be days where nothing would happen, but we would be there to capture it. We would even have somebody stay overnight in the guest room, so they could get up with a camera in case something happened and film it.

Bull: Directing a show like The Osbournes is like air traffic control. You know, there's a lot of stuff that was going on and I had to anticipate what was happening next. We had spy cameras in the house. Not a lot, but you know, in key areas, so that if you saw or heard something beginning to happen in a certain room, we could make sure that the camera got into place. 

Johnston: We wanted [the show] to be on the comedic side. We weren't looking to go down dark paths, you can get that in a tabloid. When things like Sharon having cancer happened, it was definitely like, how do we deal with this because cancer is not that funny, right? We didn’t want to go in for ratings. We just tried to figure out a way to tell that story in a respectful way, within the context of the show. Sharon, bravely, was like, “This is what's really going on and other people go through this, so I want to be able to share that as well”.

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Taylor: We were all having dinner in, I think, Chicago, the night that Sharon learned that she got diagnosed with cancer. You’re having a crazy, fun night out and then it just took a severe left turn after that. 

Osbourne: There was so much stuff that they didn’t show with that. I think they thought it was too much, but it didn't worry me because so many people get cancer. It would have been something for younger kids to see that it's not a death sentence; that people do come out of it.

Kramer: We shot everything to be natural, but then we took everything and made it into whatever we wanted in the edit. What was really fun about it was that we could make comedy out of this raw footage and sometimes we went really out there in terms of what we were doing. But there were times that we had to cut footage of Ozzy because he just looked really high, and it wasn’t going to work. We avoided some footage of Kelly, because she was a minor and was having issues with drugs and alcohol at different points. We just tried to really be fair.

Taylor: They're all quite addictive to be around and if you lose track of that focus, you can quite easily step over the line and just become part of the circus – as opposed to being there to document the circus. 

Kramer: Continuity was a problem sometimes because we were piecing together [clips]. When things were going on with Jack, sometimes I would use a piece [of footage] of him in one black shirt and then if you look later in the scene, it’s a slightly different black shirt. People didn’t notice, but it was challenging. 

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We went for drinks together every time there was a new episode. We had mini-screenings at a local Thai spot. A lot of people would come down and whoever edited that episode would end up getting the drinks. We were very tight.

Mantel: In the edit room, any time we had to make something funny, we would just “go to the dog dish”. Because Ozzy tripping over the dog dish was always funny, you know… “God dammit, God fucking dammit, Sharon.” 

The Osbournes: Ozzy, Kelly, Aimee (who later dropped out), Sharon and Jack. Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Kramer: Some of the footage had to get thrown away just because in the first season, [eldest daughter] Aimee was teetering on whether she would sign. We had edits that included her and edits that did not include her. Ultimately, she didn't want to be on the show. So you know, that was challenging because we almost had to recut everything very quickly to make air.

Stilson: I never thought of the show as that “reality” term. It came later. We never thought of it that way, we were just cutting for comedy. We didn't want drama. I always thought of it as a comedy-docu series. 

Mantel:  A lot of us had come from documentary film-making, so it was different. It was kind of pure. I feel really privileged that I worked on that show, because that's what reality shows should be. There's nothing like that now. Nobody had ever filmed in a [family] house. It was just them being them. 

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Taylor: My job was always to manage the relationship between the network and the family and make sure that we still got the show we needed – but at the same time, trying to respect as much as possible what the family were living through.  I was very cognisant of the fact that [with] other shows that I had produced for MTV, we created the environment that the cast went into and then we had full access to them. So the difference here was that the playing field was theirs. We were very much guests in that world. From a human experience point of view, I found it fascinating.

Kramer: I don’t want to take responsibility for the Kardashians but with every kind of show now, there's a language in the storytelling within reality that happens – certainly within the shooting, but definitely within the editing room – to where you use cutaways for comedy. You take pieces from different times and different places and put them together to make the story. That was the M.O. with The Osbournes: How do we take these bits and pieces of really hilarious material and put them together in a congruent storyline every week?

Kolinsky: When Jack was being reunited with his dog, Lola, [Henriette Mantel and I] went in and talked to the director. We said this is what we think it’s going to look like when we’re editing – there were lights by their pool and he way their backyard looked at night was very romantic looking. We said we wanted it shot like a love story. The dog loved to jump in the pool, so it would be slow mo and you would get the point of view of the dog, with Jack coming towards her and you’d see Lola coming towards Jack and meeting in the middle of the pool. That night was just magical.

Taylor: We stayed as long as we could, basically… until the end of January, I believe. We became the houseguests you couldn't get rid of, because the stuff we were getting was so good.

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Johnston: Now, if you try to pitch a reality show, they want to know what’s going to happen – which defeats the purpose. The thing that's beautiful about a reality show is you don't know what's going to happen. The things that do happen, will be magical and awesome and take you to places that you can't even think of. A good documentary is so much better than a contrived reality show.

There weren't systems and processes in place when we did this. It really was sort of flying by the seat of our pants. I think we'd maybe only have a meeting before we shot just to say, “We're going to start on this date, end on this date and ask what [the family have] going on during that period to give us an idea of what we should be pointing the cameras towards.” 

Kramer: It was definitely more real and I think the audience knew it. They can sniff out BS. It's definitely not easier, because every bit of audio – everything that you do – has to be found in post production. We didn't go back for pickups and have Ozzy say something, even for audio. Now I see these shows and they're just enormous hits that are very heavily scripted.

Behind the Christmas Ham Incident

The Osbournes’ ongoing feud with their next door neighbours, who would play acoustic sets in their garden at 3AM, led to the infamous incident in Season One, Episode Four, where Sharon throws a ham into their garden.

Taylor: They were always going off about the neighbours, about how they played loud music and it would keep them up. A lot of situations had the potential to escalate in that family, and this was just one of those things that did. 

Johnston: The producer, Todd Stevens, was there overnight and he called me like, “I don’t know what to do. I think they’ve called the cops”. I said, “Well, just keep shooting”.

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Osbourne: I thought it was funny! Listen, I wouldn't do it now. That was 20 years ago, you grow up. But it was like, fuck it,  they were annoying me and I had an old ham leftover from Christmas. It was behaving stupidly, but I don't think it was that bad.

Kramer: Ozzy [in that episode], you know, he gets so silly and I don't know if he was high, or what he was doing. But he lit a log on fire from the fire pit and was going to throw it over the neighbours. They just always take things up a notch and we cut that out because it was not a good idea.

Johnston: For the most part, we didn't really put a lot of sound effects in but we added a sound effect, like a crash when the log goes over. It sounded like glass broke. I think Sharon watched [the episode] before it went out but then I got a call from Ozzy. I never got a call from Ozzy. He said, “Greg, you can’t show that, I think it broke their window. They have kids, I’m going to be arrested”. I had to tell him we just put [the sound] in there.

Ozzy Osbourne: father, gifted comedian and Prince of Darkness. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Ozzy Osbourne, King of Comedy

Stilson: I've worked with really great comedians, but Ozzy, I put up there as one of the funniest people I've ever worked with.

Osbourne: He's just one of those people that are naturally funny and you know, it was outrageous that the whole time he was stoned anyway.

Bull: We were in a New York hotel once and Ozzy wanted a massage, so he called for one. This very sweet hippie woman arrives and she’s thrilled that she’s massaging Ozzy but he doesn’t look comfortable. She’s whispering to him, trying to soothe him, and we’re shooting it all because there’s some funny moments as he grunts and groans.

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When she leaves he says, “Donald, that woman's breath smelled like a shit sandwich. I couldn’t stand it.” That’s very Ozzy – everyone thinks he’s this powerful rock star, but he didn’t want to be rude and kick her out so he just endures it and lets her finish the massage. That scene never made the show. I mean, he's trying to be outrageous but ultimately, he's just a kid from Birmingham.

Kramer: My favourite moment was probably just Ozzy in the backyard, trying to get the cat to come back in. He’s walking around trying to get this cat and I’m pretty sure it was the first time he yelled out, “SHARON”. When we stayed up editing together the pilot, I think that was the moment that we all saw the sitcom working. We saw what the show was: It’s Ozzy being confused in this world and being surrounded by people that are asking him to do things. 

Mantel: I think, on some level, he knew he was entertaining. But on another level, it was just his life. He always wanted to go draw. Sometimes Sharon would have to go and get him to stop. She keeps it rolling over there. Ozzy would just choose to just draw all day or watch the History Channel. He loved World War Two history.

Johnston: The most mundane things are the things that I love the most. Ozzy had fractured his leg, he's at home with all the animals and the cat got out. It’s literally just Ozzy trying to capture the cat in the backyard, every time he gets two inches closer to the cat, it runs away. He’s yelling for Sharon in between. Or when Ozzy is taking the garbage out, or when he went on his Merry Mayhem tour and the production designer and Sharon are showing him all the elements of the stage, and they have a bubble machine. He’s like “Bubbles?! I’m the Prince of Darkness”. If you tried to script that, it wouldn’t work. 

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Ozzy is one of these people who isn’t as self-aware as you think he would be. He's a rock star but he's not contrived – what you see is what you get. That’s great for a subject of a documentary or a show because he’s fairly pure in that regard. 

Sharon, Kelly and Ozzy at the BRIT Awards in 2008. Photo: Doug Peters / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The Osbournes’: An Unlikely TV Hit

Johnston: We knew that they were funny and endearing but I don't think any of us knew that it was going to be a success. If somebody says they did, they're lying. 

Kramer: I don't think people realise that The Osbournes really was the first real celebrity reality show. It gets that credit from some, but it does get forgotten and people tend to remember other shows.

Stilson: I remember from the New York Times review: “Most shows take nobodies and turn them into somebodies. This show took somebodies and turned them into nobodies”. I thought that was a great way of looking at it.

Johnston: Ozzy would go out after the show became a success and he was sort of dumbfounded by the success of the show. He would be flying into towns and people who have no idea that he’s doing a rock show. They thought he was just a sort of eccentric dude who has a family. He would laugh; it blew his mind. 

Bull: We were driving through Winnetka [in Illinois], which is like so far away from Hollywood, you might as well be in the English countryside. Ozzy goes into the Taco Bell there and everyone is staring at him, like, “That’s Ozzy Osbourne!” He goes to the bathroom and pretty soon everybody in the restaurant and people from the street surround him and Tony [Dennis, Ozzy Osbourne’s personal assistant] wants to get him in the car. But he stayed for 45 minutes and signed every single person’s autograph and posed for photos.

Stilson: Oh, God, [the public] just loved [Ozzy]. There’s an episode when Ozzy was invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, with the President, I think it was Bush at the time. That came from this show.

Osbourne: You don't go into something like that going, “God, this is really going to change what people want to see on TV.” We didn't expect anything, but we were having a good time doing it. It was more a surprise that people accepted it than anything else. It makes me feel so good that people saw Ozzy in his own home, as the person that he really is.

I’ve watched some [recent reality TV shows] and most of them are horrible. I hate [The Real] Housewives. I think you get these middle-aged women behaving like 15 year olds. It’s train wreck TV.

Mantel: The first season was so much fun, it was back before there was pressure. I don’t think any of us thought this show would be anything. When it became something, they were all flabbergasted and then everybody wanted more money.

Taylor: The first season was the honeymoon period and everybody was on a high from it. 

Stilson: When Sharon got cancer, Ozzy started using again and then the family became dysfunctional. It was kind of tragic at a certain point when Ozzy was clearly taking drugs, and the family kind of broke down as a result. We should have stopped after season one – it was ten great episodes. We almost did, but that's when they threw money at everybody, so we kept going. 

Bull: In the end, we stopped because everybody had had their fill of it. It wasn't so comic. After a while, you just get tired of having cameras around. We say in the United States, it jumped the shark. The show had outlasted itself. 

Osbourne: It was a great ride for three years, and I just knew that it wouldn’t stay as big as it was forever. I wanted to get out while we were on top.

@nanasbaah / @ollieisthecameraon

Tagged:

TV, reality tv, ozzy osbourne, sharon osbourne, reality television

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