Okay, okay. The pinnacle of highbrow wit it's not, but I confess an unashamed fondness for America's Funniest Home Videos (1990-present), the ground-breaking reality series. Before moving to Japan my wife and I used to tape it and run it on Sunday nights, watching it then to lift our spirits from those Sunday night, back-to-work-tomorrow blues. I can't argue with those that find it stupid, insipid, and obnoxious, but for us the supreme silliness of it all, and those rare moments of accidentally brilliant comic timing, often made us laugh long and hard.
The program, for those who've never had the pleasure, is an hour-long clip show currently hosted by stand-up comedian Tom Bergeron, who concurrently hosted The Hollywood Squares for several years. Bergeron jokes with the studio audience and sets up the home video clips, all of which are contributed by viewers. There's a $10,000 prize for the "best" video each week, chosen by the studio audience among three pre-selected finalists, with the winner eligible for the season-ending $100,000 grand prize. (Without fail, the funniest clips never win the top prize; the judges are real suckers for cute babies.)
Almost every show seems to include the inevitable accidents and pratfalls: the blindfolded, stick-brandishing child swinging at a pinata only to hit an unlucky parent smack in the groin; the cute baby with the bowl of oatmeal on his head and chocolate smeared across his face; the practical joke played on a sleeping, unsuspecting roommate; the backward flip into the Christmas tree, ad nauseum.
Unlike other clip shows using amateur video, such as Real TV and Maximum Exposure, which often aired footage of people in genuine peril, resulting in serious injury and even death, the clips on America's Funniest Home Videos are innocuously family friendly. Its subjects get their share of scrapes and bruises but mostly injure only their pride.
Sometimes, and usually by accident, the videographer captures moments of comic absurdity worthy of W.C. Fields. At Disneyworld's Hall of Presidents (or was it Disneyland's Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln?) a malfunctioning Abraham Lincoln animatron, dramatically reciting The Gettysburg Address, slowly leans backward, as if doing the limbo with a busted spine. A picture perfect wedding reaches a dramatic highpoint, the arrival of the bride-to-be. The double doors open wide - just as two bemused janitors push a load of chairs on a dolly.
The groin kicks, inept mountain bikers, and out of control pets are overdone, but some of the pratfalls are so goofy even Buster Keaton couldn't have bettered them. Often these are the result of grandparents unwisely deciding to join their grandchildren on the monkey bars, or vacationers getting on and off boats without considering Newton's Third Law of Motion.
Adapted from a popular but long-ago cancelled Japanese program, early seasons often used clips from that series. This DVD set, actually the first half of the 2001-2002 season (the year Tom Bergeron took over), and apparently chosen because it's less dated, often uses clips that seem to originate from Australia and Britain.
Bergeron, the show's fourth host following Bob Saget and the team of John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes, has the unenviable task of killing time with lame jokes between the deliberately-spaced of clips, but weathers the storm well enough. Many of his jokes fall flat, but Bergeron's delivery is fine. The audience occasionally is funnier than the host: Episode 4 of this set features a little old white-haired lady with glasses sitting in the background whose bizarre facial expressions are funnier than anything in Bergeron's monologue.
Video & Audio
America's Funniest Home Videos, Volume 1 with Tom Bergeron is presented in its original full frame format and looks perfectly acceptable by 2001 standards of video and audio. The episodes are not time compressed, but many will still be surprised by their length: each runs just 40-41 minutes minus all the commercials (another reason my wife and I taped the show). There is no subtitle or alternate audio options. There are also no chapter menus, but each episode is encoded with about six chapter stops, logically positioned. The first three discs have four episodes apiece, and a bonus fourth disc includes a two-part, 300th episode special of series highlights. There are no Extra Features.
Though for some America's Funniest Home Videos is proof-positive of Newton Minow's proclamation about the medium's "vast wasteland," I'll defend the show as harmless fun, with a good dozen laugh-out-loud guffaws per episode. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.