'AFV' pioneered audience-generated content

What this country needs is a good kick between the legs.

That’s the philosophy the producers of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” live by every day, and it has served them well.

Of course, watching a toddler doing a face plant in a plate of food, the family dog running in a circle chasing its tail or Grandma losing her dentures is pretty good, too.

“I’m always hesitant to dissect the show too much or try to explain its appeal,” host Tom Bergeron says.

But ask Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse U., to explain the popularity of one of television’s longest-running guilty pleasures and he’ll take a swing at it.

“Getting hit in the crotch with various kinds of sporting equipment, I’m sure Neanderthals were laughing at that, and I’m sure we’ll be laughing at that when we’re living on Neptune,” he says. “It’s just that sort of thing that’s raw, reptile-brain kind of funny, and if you can put it together in a nice package, which they did, it’s really no surprise that a concept that simple could not only work but become a hit.”

“AFV,” as it is often called, was an immediate hit. The hourlong special that launched the skein in November 1989 attracted nearly 33 million viewers.

That overnight success was an easy sell; the show that led up to it was anything but.

In 1986, after Vin Di Bona had already worked a 451-episode stint on “Entertainment Tonight” and on the first season of ABC’s “MacGyver,” the veteran producer started his own production company. The first show under his new banner was “Animal Crack-Ups,” which was inspired by a series from the Tokyo Broadcasting System.

The show featured guest celebrities viewing short video clips of animals and then predicting what the animals would do next. It was sort of “Wild Kingdom” meets “Hollywood Squares,” as Di Bona describes it. But nobody was game.

“Some people just couldn’t get it. They said, ‘You know, there’s something here, but we just don’t trust the fact that it’s Japanese and how we’re going to make that work.’ Of course, I felt that funny is funny.”

“Animal Crack-Ups” finally made it on the ABC sked in August 1987 with Alan Thicke as host. After about a month, the network moved it to Saturday mornings, where it stayed for three more years.

Tokyo Broadcasting then came calling with a new variety show, Di Bona recalls, one that would be a game-changer.

“They did a comedy sketch, a talkshow segment and then three homevideos. I took a look at the tape and quickly thought, ‘Forget the comedy sketch, forget the talk segment, forget the music number. (We should) do more videos and run a contest.’”

Di Bona then made the rounds for what would become “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” He didn’t have to go very far.

“To sell my first show, I pitched it 136 times,” he says. “When I pitched ‘Videos,’ I sold it in four minutes. Those are my benchmarks: 136 pitches and a four-minute pitch.”

The “Videos” sales job a success, Di Bona turned to accumulating material for the debut. He appeared on “Good Morning America” and went to about 10 stations around the country to talk up the show. Full-page ads were placed in TV Guide and People magazine looking for submissions.

Shortly, the production office started receiving 30 to 40 tapes a day. One guy sent in an hourlong videotape of his pencil collection. Plenty of other submissions were actually worth considering. By the time the first special was put together, there were 1,800 clips to pick from.

And once the show aired, the avalanche started.

“At the height, we were getting 30 mailbags a day,” Di Bona says. “The Hollywood post office had to put on three extra mailmen just to carry our mail. And we had a full-time staff on 24 hours a day screening tapes.”

Many of those clips were a lot like the ones the show still receives today — funny snippets from everyday life.

“Something that has changed a little bit over the years is people are more willing to play pranks on family members or friends, so we get a lot more of that material,” says co-exec producer Michele Nasraway. “We also get a lot more of kids who are performing some kind of stunt. Provided they’re not dangerous, they can be fun.”

Every submission is viewed and rated. Anything given a “5″ or better is entered in the database, which is searchable by a phrase or even a single word. Enter “fall,” and more than 17,000 entries come up. “Groin” or “crotch” nets nearly 1,100 mentions.

Many of those clips — seemingly always good for a laugh — have a new life in the “Head, Gut or Groin” segment, which was introduced last season. For that, a flying object, such as a Frisbee, is shown and then the video is frozen. Bergeron asks a studio audience member which of the three body parts is going to get hit. Once the guess is made, the remainder of the clip is shown.

For the show’s 18th season, which starts Oct. 7, producers are introducing the “AFV Screaming Contest.” Two clips with people getting scared will be played on a split screen. One could be of a woman opening a casket expecting to see a dead body, but a live person pops up. Another could be of a dad jumping out of the closet wearing a monster mask as his kid walks by. Audience members will be asked which clip features the longest scream.

“Vin is actually a great proponent of playing games and having the audience being able to participate in the games,” Nasraway says. “He really wants to get the audience at home involved in the show.”

Di Bona’s stamp appears on “AFV” in other ways, adds Nasraway, who started on the show during the first season logging tapes. From the start, he wanted themed clip packages, which also needed to follow a certain formula — start with a hard hit or something laugh-out-loud funny, tapes that are a little less strong go in the middle and then wrap up with another strong clip.

“So you begin with a laugh and you end with a laugh,” she says.

Di Bona also wanted a fast tempo — a key ingredient to the show’s early success, says Phil Kloer, a longtime TV critic and media writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It’s like the old ‘Laugh-In’ in that if you don’t like something that’s on this second, don’t worry, it’s only going to last five seconds,” Kloer says. “It was part of the rapid-fire, ever-changing approach to TV that MTV had given us in the ’80s. ‘Funniest Home Videos’ kind of took that and delivered it to a family audience in the ’90s.”

Another thing “AFV” had in its favor was that it was a show everyone in the family could watch together without parents being concerned that they may have to cover little Johnny’s eyes or ears. Indeed, this past season against regular Sunday night programming, the show was No. 1 in its timeslot in several key demos, including adults 18-34, teens 12-17 and kids 2-11.

“The family could sit down and watch this show, and everybody would be able to appreciate it, even if it wasn’t terribly highbrow or sophisticated,” Kloer says.

When it comes to funny videos, “AFV” certainly hasn’t been alone in the marketplace. During the early ’90s, ABC aired a spinoff, “America’s Funniest People,” with ordinary folks doing gags and stunts that were deliberately set up, as opposed to the original skein, which generally stays away from the staged clips.

Also, news programs are getting in on the act. MSNBC’s “Countdown” has a nightly “Oddball” segment that features several funny videos and comments from host Keith Olbermann. And, there’s the growing number of amateur-video websites, perhaps most notably YouTube.

“‘Funniest Home Videos’ was an early pioneer of this idea that every person is a content creator, and that’s what we’ve seen come to fruition with YouTube,” Kloer says. “I’m hesitant to draw a line that says one is a cause and one is an effect, but they very much operate in the same universe. Of course, what they call ‘user-generated content’ is considered to be the wave of the future for the Internet. That phrase didn’t exist in 1990, but that’s what they were doing.”

And that user-generated
content is a big part of “AFV’s” appeal, Bergeron says.

“It’s lasting comedy — comedy being done by your neighbors. There’s something that goes back to the days of Chaplin and Keaton and vaudeville and basic slapstick when you watch somebody take a header off a trampoline or get it in the crotch with a pinata stick. In some respects it seems the same things keep happening, but there are endless variations that keep it reasonably fresh.”

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