Whoever writes the episode descriptions for America‚Äôs Funniest Home Videos doesn‚Äôt stress over spoilers. ‚ÄúBlunders involving snow skiing, sledding, and snow angel mishaps,‚ÄĚ reads the summary of a recent episode, ‚Äúand a bear walking into a house to steal a bottle of ammonia.‚ÄĚ
Then again, duh. In the world of America‚Äôs Funniest Home Videos (AFV for short), the bear always walks into the house to steal a bottle of ammonia. The bride always trips on her dress. The ball always hits the camera, unless it‚Äôs hitting dad in the groin. The cat never makes the jump, the trampoline always breaks, and the baby definitely doesn‚Äôt like the taste of broccoli. These things are inevitable in AFV‚ÄĒthey are canon. I know, because I‚Äôve watched every episode.
AFV debuted on ABC in 1990, and showcases viewer-submitted clips of everything from funny pets to family pranks. Its first eight (iconic) seasons were¬†hosted by Bob Saget, and its most recent three by¬†Alfonso Ribeiro, best known as Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Relying as it does on amateur videos, and with a weekly prize that‚Äôs held steady at $10,000 since 1990, AFV is relatively cheap to make. It also¬†airs at the rather anodyne hour of 7pm EST on Sundays, when programming competition is limited. Still, the show holds its own: In the 2016-17 season, an average of¬†5.5 million people watched each week.
I first fell in love with AFV as a child, during those halcyon Saget years. The set at the time was styled like a suburban living room, and Saget often riffed on videos from an armchair. His voiceovers were full of dad jokes‚ÄĒcomplemented by subtle cynicism and a talent for accents‚ÄĒbut the cheesiness didn‚Äôt matter. The show‚Äôs concept was novel, and arrived just as handheld camcorders were becoming more common in US homes. (Also, America had just made it through the 80s; our cheese threshold was high.)
‚ÄúI did the [AFV] pilot,‚ÄĚ Saget said at South by Southwest in 2015, ‚Äúand then it beat a rerun of¬†60 Minutes¬†and they picked up 13 [episodes]. We got, like, a 35 share, something crazy like that, because there was no cable.‚ÄĚ
While AFV has modernized over the past 30 years, the effort seems halfhearted. Videos can be submitted online now, but episodes are still peppered with clips from the 90s and early aughts. Ribeiro embraces none of the edginess common in even network shows these days, and the AFV set looks like¬†Frank Lloyd Wright designed a hotel bar during an acid trip inside a Jumbotron. The audience is also just a bit too formal, and laughs just a bit too maniacally; I can‚Äôt say with certainty that they‚Äôre not being held hostage. (Fun fact: Many audience members are actually recruited from church groups, and a cash prize is given each week to the best-dressed man and woman.)
Except AFV‚Äôs schizophrenic evolution is one of the best things about it. The show feels caught between a simpler time‚ÄĒwhen recording a comedic moment was still unanticipated and new‚ÄĒand the present, when people record themselves watching a show about the perils of always recording themselves. In so many of AFV‚Äôs videos, people were taping each other with no expectation of sharing the results on Facebook or Instagram, YouTube or¬†Ridiculousness. They were just happy to capture 10 seconds of magic, for themselves.
Now funny video clips are ubiquitous, and we‚Äôre in the platinum age of television.¬†Amid the cacophony of low- and high-quality programming, it would be easy to overlook America‚Äôs Funniest Home Videos. After all, why suffer Alfonso Ribeiro‚Äôs family-friendly standup when you can just search YouTube for videos of kittens falling asleep?
Do not make this mistake (not the kitten link; definitely click that).¬†AFV may be dated, because AFV knows not our concept of time. AFV may be predictable, because it is a treatise on the immutability of the human condition. Yes, we have YouTube, but is AFV a hellscape of bizarre content? Has AFV ever been accused of¬†child exploitation? Has AFV ever lined the pockets of¬†Logan Paul?¬†AFV would never.¬†To watch AFV is to revel in pure joy‚ÄĒthe joy of watching dogs that know they‚Äôre in trouble, of seeing sleds careen into unsuspecting toddlers, and of witnessing any human or animal get confused by a mirror. After 29 years, AFV is like any aging millennial with a stable income and an early bedtime. It doesn‚Äôt need to be innovative, cool, or unexpected anymore. AFV is just itself.
On Sunday (Sept. 30), America‚Äôs Funniest Home Videos will kick off its 29th season. I implore you to give it a try. Here‚Äôs the description: ‚ÄúFunny pranks; a musical tribute to cats; a deer steals the carrot nose from a snowman.‚ÄĚ