The Levin family never bothered much with television esoterica. Max Headroom and Twin Peaks were for the poseurs next door. We gravitated toward the mainstream comforts of The Cosby Show, L.A. Law, and, of course, ALF. And when, in 1990, this country began its brief but passionate love affair with America's Funniest Home Videos, we dutifully tuned in each Sunday night. I remember feeling so invested in the weekly prize for the best video that the sight of audience members punching in their vote would fill me with jealousy. In these helpless moments I understood why the disenfranchised care so much about suffrage.
In the YouTube era, Internet video has become unremarkable. But when America's Funniest Home Videos debuted in 1990, there was something new and stirring about watching real people do real stuff. Thanks to the proliferation of home video cameras, the showbecame, as its producers crowed, the first program produced by its audience. At its height, viewers sent America's Funniest Home Videos 2,000 VHS tapes a day, and at least 1,800 of those, it seemed, showed some kind of trampoline mishap. A 1990 Newsday article noted that staffers quickly deduced eight reliable categories: kids, weddings, falling down, adults, sports/hobbies, babies, birthday parties, and animals. The show's formula was simple: String together some thematically linked videos and loop in Bob Saget's manic yet folksy play-by-play, which usually took the form of infant and/or canine vocalizations ("I'm Peter the Pup. … This is my impression of a hair curler. I hang on your bangs until you scream with delight.") Ta da!Voyeurism that's fun for the whole family.
The show's stock in trade was to find the lowest common denominator and then hit it in the crotch. Consider this list of select highlights from the show's "Best of Kids & Animals" DVD: a kid doing a cannonball onto his dad's groin, a baby running into a church pew, a dog peeing on a wedding dress, and a kid clocking his dad in the nuts with a helmet. While these clips are all certainly lowbrow, they've also got something else in common: They're oozing with family values.
For all its black eyes and unplanned water landings, America's Funniest Home Videos always reinforced the nuclear family as this country's central institution. A child hitting his dad in the groin is a child who's spending quality time with his dad. And you can't have video of Junior's first testicle frag if Mom's not there minding the camcorder. (Have you heard a better argument for the two-parent household?) The coup de grâce: If your blooper hits the right notes of adorable violence, the whole family gets a trip to Hollywood, a chance to wave to viewers across the land, and, potentially, a gigantic check. The video voted the best in the 1996 season finale, "Marine Drill Tot," features a small child performing a charming military call-and-response with his dad. When the Rodriguez family takes the stage to accept their honors (and their $100,000), they're engulfed by falling red, white, and blue balloons. In this moment, they have achieved a wholesome fame rivaled only by the champions of the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Despite its family-friendliness, the showdid spotlight plenty of questionable parenting decisions—one "Kids & Animals" clip shows a kid chucking eggs in the grocery store. A few months after the show debuted, a tape screener with the pseudonym "Smitty" confessed to the Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg that people had sent in clips of a frightened 2-year-old "driving" a moving truck and an (obviously staged) accident in which a stroller falls into a ravine. These atrocities cemented Rosenberg's belief that America's Funniest Home Videos promoted child abuse. Saget tried his best to use cutesy voices to turn potential snuff films into lighthearted gag reels, and he also regularly gave the admonition to "keep those cameras safely rolling." But the show's executive producer, Vin Di Bona, didn't exactly refute the abuse claims when he said, "If there's a video where a kid falls or bangs his head and is hurt to the point that he's crying, we make sure the clip also includes a shot where the parent is shown hugging that child."
While it may not have encouraged child abuse, America's Funniest Home Videos did encourage child exploitation. This was true of countless TV shows before it, though, from Romper Roomto Art Linkletter's House Party, which included a segment called "Kids Say the Darndest Things." Besides, while pratfalls might have been the show's bread-and-butter, small children were usually deployed for their nonviolence-induced cuteness. And, if America's Funniest Home Videos was an extended national referendum on the eternal question of pets vs. kids, the kids won. In 2002's "Battle of the Best," celebrity eminences Coolio and Picabo Street selected "Quad Squad," a video of quadruplets giggling uncontrollably, as the show's all-time greatest clip, beating out "Chihuahua Tinkles on Big Dog" and "Chimp Sniffs Butt."
America's Funniest Home Videos is still on the air after 16 years, but the show's cultural importance is at its nadir. Never again will small-scale celebrity be conferred upon a funny-faced tyke or a doorknob-twisting Weimaraner. Shows like Jackass have professionalized the wacky mishap, taking it to a plane of transcendent folly and disgustingness that no child or kitten could ever hope to achieve. And, unlike in the early 1990s, amateur videos are now a limitless commodity. One of the creators of YouTube, Chad Hurley, acknowledged his debt to the site's forebear: "We are providing a stage where everyone can participate and everyone can be seen. … We see ourselves as a combination of America's Funniest Home Videos and Entertainment Tonight."
YouTube is faster, more personalized, and less censored than TV, and there are fewer commercials. But it's also lonelier, less welcoming, and more pathetically voyeuristic. Since the rise of Internet video, blooper watching has transformed from a family activity undertaken in the living room to a solitary practice embarked upon while bored at work. Sure, YouTube videos are e-mailed from friend to friend, but we watch them alone. AFHV was a vacation slide show at grandma's house. YouTube is a viewing booth in a porno shop.
Authenticity was always elusive on America's Funniest Home Videos—the show was frequently accused of using staged submissions. Still, the best clips had an unplanned legitimacy and offered a real glimpse of other people's home lives. Through the lens ofthe weekly show, America seemed like a good-natured, wacky place rife with funny pets, curious toddlers, and error-prone water skiers. YouTube has a bleaker worldview. The most popular viral videos show Web-savvy teens—not toddler-and-pet-having families—making fools of themselves. Not long ago, we were hitting each other's groins at family picnics. Now, we are Groin Punching Alone.
One of my favorite YouTube videos is a clip of a kid catapulting off a trampoline, whereupon he gets suspended by one leg from a basketball goal. It's not funny, exactly, and I feel a little guilty every time I watch it. (The count's up to about 20 now.) Instead of Bob Saget speaking in the voice of an infant, we hear screams of pain and "Stop it!" as his unmangled friends run away laughing. This is what real life sounds like. It's transfixing, but it's not comforting.