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Video database stores flops, kicks

Producers hunt down fresh material for show

In the vast homevideo universe of spinning dogs, birthday cake snafus and people tripping, it’s only those clips with that special something that make it past the producers at “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and onto the air.

“After this many seasons, we’ve seen just about every spinning-dog tape, so it’s got to make us really laugh or really touch us for us to use it,” producer Rich Connor says. “The challenge of the show is to mix things up so they seem fresh.”

Viewers supply the show with so much material that the staff must be incredibly diligent to keep pace with the footage by watching it and logging it in databases.

“It looks like Santa Claus is coming here each week when the mail arrives,” says Connor about the oodles of submissions arriving on tape and DVR. “From there we screen everything and put it into a database with a description and a rating of how good the clip is.”

The screening methods also allow the people logging the footage to check for staged videos. “Sometimes people try to send in things that weren’t really spontaneous, but it’s pretty easy to tell,” says creator and executive producer Vin Di Bona. “They’ll have this footage where they’ll stare at a banana peel and then pretend to slip. We can tell when it’s not real.”

Fake banana-peel slips aside, this process allows producers to pull together groups of clips for particular themes. “If we need to build a package about people falling off trampolines, we just search our databases and see what we have,” says Connor, who pulls up 478 trampoline clips in one search during the Variety interview with him.

These “packages” — groups of clips tied together by a theme and clever one-liners — can either result from an inspired idea or from a video that arrives and inspires the writers, according to co-executive producer Michele Nasraway, who began her career with the show nearly 17 seasons ago screening raw footage. “It’s a collaborative process that involves a lot of refining of what we’ve got.”

“A lot of this is really staying out of the way of what’s funny in the clips,” says head writer and co-executive producer Todd Thicke. “There really isn’t a formula to this process because you just get a gut instinct that something is going to work.”

Writers and producers strive to assemble a mix of packages that can entertain different senses of humor. “We want to hit a beat for everyone,” says Thicke, whose career on the show goes back to the pilot. “You’re going to have your cute babies and your funny dogs because everyone wants to see that, but you also need a few crotch hits to keep the whole thing from getting too soft.”

Once these reels are put together, they’re screened for the producers and critiqued. Notes are given on what’s working and what needs to be redone or cut. From that point the material is screened for Di Bona, who also gives notes.

Then finalists are discussed and the best clips go to the taping with an audience.

“We watch the audience react to the tapes and then we listen to their reactions again later and make our cuts from there,” Nasraway says. “The audience is the ultimate judge on what’s working.”

And what works for the audience has been fairly constant over the nearly 18 seasons of the show.

“There are camera phones and tiny digital cameras now, but people are taping the same things,” Di Bona says. “We tape our children and our celebrations, and we like to see other people’s lives to know they’re just like us.”

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