How a local news anchor became one of the internet’s most beloved memes

Matt Geiler performs on America's Got Talent. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

Matt Geiler is many things—comedian, illustrator, musician, former news anchor and newspaperman. But he’s mostly known for one thing: his “Pumpkin Dance.”

If you’re a creature of the internet, you know exactly what that is. A man, clad in a black unitard and pumpkin mask, boogies down for one glorious minute-and-a-half to the Ghostbusters theme song in front of a graveyard backdrop.

What some viewers might not realize is the “Pumpkin Dance” has its roots in local news. On October 31, 2006, Geiler, then-anchor at KXVO, was scrambling to fill dead airtime during its nightly 10 pm newscast, not an uncommon problem for the Omaha-based station. The result was the now-legendary “Pumpkin Dance.” The segment aired as part of the live broadcast, and it was uploaded to YouTube shortly after. It didn’t go viral until a few years later.

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Today, the original YouTube video has registered more than seven million views and nearly 11,000 comments (“This is my favorite video on the internet!” “Make him our president, NOW!” “Oh my god, I shouldn’t be laughing at this.”) It’s also spawned countless remixes and imitation videos, including Geiler’s own Christmas version, this Drake-inspired one, and a personal favorite. There’s one thing the internet can agree on, and it’s this: His dance works with literally every song. And, in 2017, “The Pumpkin Dance” saw a bit of resurgence: first, when Geiler agreed to appear on America’s Got Talent, in an upgraded purple sequin leotard, and second, when Dunkin Donuts enlisted his help to celebrate the return of pumpkin coffee.

CJR spoke with Geiler, now a comedian in Los Angeles, about his innate dance skills, how he pitched the segment, and the reaction of KXVO to the “Pumpkin Dance.” The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Full disclosure: I’ve never talked to a living meme before. Did you know then that your video would enter the internet hall of fame?

Truthfully, there could be no clue that that would happen because not only am I not gifted with clairvoyance, but at the time the video was published, YouTube was in its infancy, and meme culture had not arisen yet. It was a thing that evolved way after the act. A writer at BuzzFeed discovered it and wrote a post, and that’s how it gained its initial traction. Up until that time, it was just sitting there like millions of other videos 

 I told my producer, “Throw this graphic up on the green screen of this graveyard, and I’m going to get in this outfit and dance to Ghostbusters.”

The Pumpkin Dance originally aired on local TV station KXVO in Omaha, Nebraska back in 2006. You were an anchor at the station, and I really want to know how you sold the idea to your team.

This is the part, for the journalist in me, that’s kind of embarrassing, but for the comedian/anarchist in me, is awesome. At the news station, the program we were doing was supposed to skew a lot younger. It was kind of a mix of pop culture, entertainment news, and local stuff. The segment happened because we would routinely get to nine o’clock when we had to have everything stacked and ready to go because we’d go live at 10 every night, and because of the dearth of resources, there would be holes in the show. The video was a slapdash reaction to a four-minute hole in the broadcast. We were like, “Yo, we’ve got to have something leading into weather.” There was no time to go out and shoot anything, or write anything. We recorded it literally 10 minutes before we had to go to air.

I told my producer, “Throw this graphic up on the green screen of this graveyard, and I’m going to get in this outfit and dance to Ghostbusters.” Then we can use whatever we want of that to fill the time, so that’s how it happened, which is completely unorthodox for any newsroom environment that I’ve ever been in.

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Were there any other ideas? Not that I didn’t love this one.

That was my instinctual response to, “There’s going to be a black hole in the B-block unless we do something right this instant.” There was no Plan B. In other broadcasts that week, we had other Halloween stuff going on. In that sense, it fit with what we were doing. But it wasn’t like we sat down four days ahead of time and were like, “Tuesday we’re going to shoot the pumpkin dance thing.” We did have an editorial meeting [that week] and an idea that I had pitched called “Happy Jack the Grave Dancer,” and he was kind of my version of Jack Pumpkinhead [a character from L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series] who was a spindly character with a gigantic pumpkin head who was brought to life by a magical elixir. I thought it would be cool to do a segment where I danced through cemeteries, but it was tabled, and we never got back around to it. It was chaos, and I knew we had a black unitard back in the dressing room. I grabbed it and then ran up to the lobby and cut up one of those decorative pumpkins and strapped it to my face with a hanger. I was tearing through the TV station trying to get this thing together.

 

Let’s talk about your dance moves. Were you born with those skills, or did they require a lot of practice before the taping?

I am going to approach that question through three vantage points. First, I think everyone who has seen the video can agree that clearly you have to be born with that. You can’t be taught it. It’s not something that comes from rigorous study. It’s something that comes from the soul. Second, choreography is a meaningless word when you try to apply it to something like that. It was spontaneous. You can’t really call me a good dancer, but what you can call me is an expert creator of spontaneous comedic dance moves. Third, that dance has now achieved a status that I’m fine with—which is basically a harbinger of pansexual gyration-based weirdness that for some reason lets people know things are gonna be okay.

Why the Ghostbusters theme song? Why not a more Halloween-centric tune?

In such a time crunch, one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down and making selections. One does have the opportunity to realize, “Oh I think I saw a Hallmark-brand Sounds of Halloween disc in the soundbooth.” It was mostly sound effects, and a really poor rendition of the “Monster Mash” was also on it. So, the knock-off Ghostbusters was kind of my only option.

I knew we had a black unitard back in the dressing room. I grabbed it and then ran up to the lobby and cut up one of those decorative pumpkins and strapped it to my face with a hanger.

At CJR, we focus on all things journalism and media, and I have to ask: What impact, if any, did the video have on your station, KXVO?

What I think is hilarious is the impact on the station since it’s gained traction in the popular culture and meme culture. People will still call KXVO back in Omaha and ask about it, and I only know this because a woman from The Daily Dot told me when she interviewed me a couple of years ago. Apparently they will tell people they don’t speak of that there. I don’t know why they’d disavow it other than if they’re still having pretensions about being a serious journalistic outfit. They just won’t speak of it.

 

Do you think you’ll ever get back into journalism?

I hope to one day anchor ABC World News Tonight. I’m only 87 percent kidding.

 

Okay, final question. Saturday Night Live character David S. Pumpkins: friend or foe?

I don’t think the Dancing Pumpkin Man has foes. There are some people who have tweeted me like, “Are you jealous David S. Pumpkins is getting his own cartoon special, and you’re not?” For some people, it’s really divisive. Speaking on behalf of the actual Dancing Pumpkin Man, I have no ill will toward David S. Pumpkins.

I think David S. Pumpkins is magical, but I think his dance moves could use a little help. I’m obviously doing my dance moves myself. He has two ghost skeletons with fuzzy hair who handle the majority of the dancing for him. If there’s any criticism, it’d be for him to step into the limelight and do his own moves.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.