A change in the cultural landscape, via home video
Want to see a cowboy bulldog riding a toy hobby horse? Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? It’s un-American not to watch.
When America’s Funniest Home Videos (now re-branded as AFV) first premiered on television as a Thanskgiving special 20 years ago, it was at that time the zeitgeist of “entertainment for the people, by the people” was full blown in this country. There was no Internet yet, and there wouldn’t be such an open forum for self-introspection and self-deprecation on that level until the 2005 birth of YouTube and Vimeo. But more on what comes around, goes around a little later.
It was a Japanese show called Fun TV with Ken-Chan and Kato-Chan that took cultural comedy elements from Benny Hill and Candid Camera and combined them with the popular rise of camcorders in the mid-1980s. Vin di Bona picked up the American rights for a proposed variety show, and the first case of ‘cultural Engrish mistranslation’ in visual form was borne.
It was recently announced that AFV‘s original host, Bob Saget, is returning for an anniversary show to appear sometime this month. It seems to be a bit much to ask to get a cage match between Saget and current host Tom Bergeron, but the show should at least have a shot of John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes peering in from an exterior stage window.
Much has changed in AFV‘s tone and allowable content since Saget’s days, while much of the concept has remained the same. It was always a cheap-and-easy product, one that points an all-seeing eye at ourselves while we made cringing faces after being hit in the crotch with a piñata bat. There was a certain reliability in the images: Dogs and kids do the damnedest things. Bad things happen to people on sleds and waterskis. Old people at weddings lose their balance easily.
How much does fake audience laughter, music or host remarks play into the funny level of a video? Go to the video submissions page of AFV right now and watch funny videos that are bereft of these effects. Still funny? Maybe. A lot like watching YouTube instead of AFV? Yes.
Editing for TV is what sets our level of comfortable laughter to an accepted level. It turns down the volume when people start swearing because the turkey deep-fryer flares up and burns down the garage. It stops the tape before the panic begins when Grandma falls into the harbor.
Is it just me getting older and more prudent, or has the Disney company turned a blind eye to the inclusion of dangerous material? It certainly seems to be slipping in there, like a Jackass effect.
For example, after 17 shows with new material eligible for the weekly prize, a championship round is held for $100,000. In the episode that aired this past Sunday, the winner was a cute video where a kid and the pet Great Dane chased a laser pen light. You can’t beat kids and dogs.
Or, can you? One of the other finalists was a bawling boy flanked by his sympathetic dog. The boy was pitching a fit because he was sitting on the toilet and wanted to go #2, but couldn’t. Another finalist was a little girl who kept touching a wooden moose’s anatomically correct part and calling it a “uvula” — bathroom humor at its best.
Another finalist was a boy who tried to make a plastic soda bottle bomb with baking soda, only it wouldn’t go off after kicking it around the yard. Finally, he picked it up, and the object exploded — cartoonish and vaudevillian at its best.
The other two finalists were funny and sweet — a car prank and a Dodgers fan catching a ball. The show is stuffed with musical montages of people hurting themselves. Over the years, the montage has become a finely honed vehicle for funny bits to be made into a visual art piece of sorts. Hidden in one of these are loads of new video bits once only seen on the Internet — and considered mildly dangerous or naughty.
It’s astounding, at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, to watch a clip of a farmer almost getting crushed by his decrepit silo. There is likely ten other videos taken where someone didn’t get out of the way, but they don’t make it off the Internet. This isn’t an open concern I have about what children are watching; my nieces have seen whole episodes of Family Guy. They’ve shown me stuff on YouTube I wish they hadn’t. No matter how much we restrain kids from seeing harmful images (Internet safeguards are a joke, while broadcasters mindlessly re-run TV-MA, mature audience shows at all times of day), they are going to see them. We are past that stage and on to figuring out how to reason their troubled minds after seeing it.
AFV remains a low-level hegemony of the American cultural landscape. The set that Bergeron stands on is richer and snazzier. The show’s mode of delivery (videos can be uploaded online, even from a cell phone, for broadcast) is high-tech. But the audience still desires simple and low-brow. They want a baby blowing half-eaten spaghetti out of her nose. They want a cat saying, “Mama.” They want the jock to bounce hard off a balance ball and faceplant. They want Grandma to fall into that harbor.
I still watch the show, without fail. I get a warm feeling all over. I feel guilty as sin. It’s an American feeling.