What would you be prepared to do in order to appear on television and maybe win thousands of dollars? You might be willing to bone up on useless facts for Jeopardy!. You might even consider humiliating yourself on The Dating Game. But would you videotape any of the following events on your home camcorder: (a) Your child trapped inside a suitcase? (b) Your pet cat wandering about with its tail on fire? (c) Your spouse hitting your child in the face with a shovel? If you can say “yes” to any or all of the above, there is probably a place for you on the nation’s highest-rated TV show–America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Time was when home movies were thought the most boring thing in the world. Your relatives would subject you to endless footage of distant cousins grinning self-consciously at the camera, uncles doing impressions of TV personalities you’d never heard of, and voices saying, “Is that thing recording?” Now home movies are the hottest thing on TV, and those voices are probably saying: “Get the kid to fall into the pool. We’ll send it to America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

This, of course, is totally, awesomely, plugged-in America. This is a nation where “news hounds” eagerly videotape telegenic accidents and disasters for Cable News Network. Where local TV stations advertise for amateur news footage. Where America’s Most Wanted and the like enlist us in the war against crime, as we defy theories of telepassivity by interacting with the medium. Where commercials look like home videos, and home videos are watched by millions.

The tube has been democratized; the airwaves are open for your family’s video snapshots–all of which, without exception, look as boring to my eyes as they ever did. Actually, ABC knows this too. So they spice things up with vulgar sound effects and add a “cute” narration by host Bob Sagat. It all reminds me of a British TV show I watched as a child called Animal Magic, in which host Johnny Morris dubbed in the “thoughts” of various animals as they engaged in pratfalls, stunts, etc.

But if the analogy is correct–and in the prime-time zoo of AFHV, members of the public are rarely more than chimps playing around at someone’s tea party–the participants don’t seem to care. For a show that only debuted in January, AFHV has been fabulously successful. Its audience is huge. It’s receiving about 1,000 tapes a day from wannabe TV stars who seek a little fame and the $10,000 weekly prize, plus a chance to win the end-of-season bonanza of $100,000. Local TV stations across the nation are planning their own versions of the show. A tourist with a keen eye for bloopers or news can now make that family vacation self-financing.

It isn’t that people shouldn’t humiliate themselves for money. (After all, what’s work?) It’s ABC’s pseudodemocratic angle that bothers me. Media perestroika is apparently everywhere. This is a show where the audience makes the raw material and then votes on its merits. It is the studio audience that decides which sequence wins the weekly prize. Will it be the Girl Who Can’t Somersault, the Yo-yo Bookshelf Boys, or the Upside-down Costume Man? We wait with bated breath as the audience makes its choice. . . . Ah, it’s the Upside-down Costume Man, a gentleman who entertains his public by attaching a false head to his scrotum.

Democracy doesn’t end there. For all its banality, AFHV speaks to the TV audience in the media-savvy language of David Letterman. Bob Sagat keeps undermining the authority of television with cracks such as, “I’m going to go sit in that chair while the audience bursts into spontaneous applause.” Pause. Applause. Host gives us cynical grin. Cut to commercials. Sagat even gives us a free lesson in media studies: “What I’m about to do now is called a tease. . . . We’ll be right back.” In closing, he jokes: “I feel we bonded this evening.” This show not only lets you make the clips and decide the winners, it even deconstructs its own host.

But prime time is a funny place, in both senses of the word. While it wittily reveals the machinery of TV (hiding its own strategies of editing and narration up its sleeve), AFHV is also busy running the Stars and Stripes up the flagpole. Here’s an extract from the show’s thumping Vegas-style title song: “Got laughs from coast to coast / To make you smile . . . You’re red, white, and blue / The funny things you do America, America, this is you.” I’m not imagining the ideological move here. Producer Steve Paskay is quite explicit about it when he comments on the similarities of the tapes he’s sent and hypothesizes: “That proves to me that this really is the United States of America.” You might say critics take these things too seriously. But the political implication here isn’t mine, it’s theirs. To laugh together is to be a nation, to have a national identity. ABC tells us this quite openly. Our ability to laugh at ourselves supposedly guarantees both our Americanness and our innately democratic nature. Laughter is supposed to be a key component in free societies. But wait a minute–isn’t rib-tickling democracy supposed to direct its humor at the powerful? I can’t believe that the equation between laughter and democracy was meant to describe a format in which ordinary folks humiliate themselves in public and sell a piece of their leisure time to a gigantic media corporation.

TV Guide is much more ambitious than this in its analysis of the program: “Because people are people, this kind of television . . . is universally, timelessly popular.” (Don’t tell me I’m introducing politics into something trivial.) Here TV Guide is telling us that AFHV sustains a (bourgeois) theory of human nature. Quite a load for a show that gets its biggest laughs by showing someone’s face plastered with birthday cake.

Not that it needs a spoilsport TV critic to point out the dark side of these apparently harmless pleasures. “PRIZE-CRAZY VIEWERS RISKING THE LIVES OF CHILDREN & PETS” screamed a recent National Enquirer story. Producers on the program have apparently become concerned not only about the possibility that viewers will fake bloopers (the researchers now have to go to great lengths to weed out the cheats), but also that some of these setups deliberately endanger animals and young children. One researcher apparently considers some of the homemade clips to be so dangerous that they constitute child abuse. If members of the moral minority ever get a look at this show they ought to be disgusted by its incessant violence. (Remember the pain is real and you might consider AFHV the most violent program on television. This is stuff that makes MTV look like The Brady Bunch.) But then, the moralists are really only interested in sex and violence when it’s used against the powers that be.

Those old reds in the Frankfurt School once said that capitalism would never cease to invade the lives of workers, so that even our leisure time would be increasingly occupied in servicing the system. Now the equivalent of family snapshots are up for sale (preferably with a little cruelty and ridicule thrown in), in the name of ratings, the flag, and “timeless” human nature.

AFHV is a show that lost its innocence before its debut episode was over. In that first half-hour slot someone out there was figuring out how to create the right stunt and make it look “real.” Keep that camera wobbling, look natural when you fall off the bike . . . and could Fido bite the kid just one more time? After all, if Fox TV can fake segments of its Totally Hidden Video program, why shouldn’t the public join in?

Nobody can use a camcorder now without hearing wisecracks about AFHV. And there is no such thing as an innocent bystander anymore–television is everywhere. You can’t find yourself in a weird real-life situation without wondering if there’s a Candid Camera crew lurking somewhere. Even a “real” camera crew might turn out to be a setup asking phony questions. Don’t lie–they’ll catch you out and put you in Totally Hidden Video. Don’t get yourself busted, or you’ll be on Cops. Don’t escape, or they’ll put you on America’s Most Wanted. And don’t, whatever you do, die in a grisly accident; some tourist will make $50 selling your image to the local TV station.

America’s Funniest Home Videos is the runaway hit of the season. Now wait for the spin-offs: America’s Funniest Answering Machine Messages. America’s Most Incriminating Telephone Records. America’s Strangest X-ray Slides. America’s Most Embarrassing Trash Can Contents. America’s Most Hilarious Therapy Notes. Somewhere out there, a child is waiting to capture parental substance abuse on home videotape, which will then be handed over to the authorities. But who are the authorities? Television, or the police? Just watch out, there’s a camcorder about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.