As a dad and a husband, there are four distinct personalities in my house, with ages ranging from 5 to 45-years-old. So, the daily battle of what to watch on the television is very real. But there is one “sure thing” show that guarantees peace in the family room; one program that brings us all together in communal content consumption and mirth. That show is America’s Funniest Home Videos, also known as AFV.
AFV has been airing on ABC for 29 years. It’s the networks longest-running, prime-time non-news program. AFV debuted in 1990, a full 15-years before the launch of YouTube and the meteoric rise of viral video. Before the popularity of Fail-culture, AFV was lovingly documenting Americans’ propensity to fall off of roofs, light themselves on fire at weddings and hit each other in the testicles with pinata sticks. The latter is so heavily featured, in fact, that I have I come to believe that pinatas are likely a secret weapon designed by the Mexican government to destroy the reproductive organs of Americans.
I was an AFV fan long before I had a family. My initial love of the program was steeped in irony. As a young man, I thrilled at tearing down the dumb stilted antics of host Bob Saget. I loved feeling superior as I scoffed at the stupidity of my stumbling, accident-prone countrymen. Clearly, I was better than these doofuses. Sure, they might win a grand-prize for having the “funniest video” but at least I wasn’t humiliating myself on live TV.
My attitude about the show has evolved over the years. When I worked as a bartender, for instance, I discovered that turning the silent dive bar TV to afternoon reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos would both lighten the mood of the drinkers and increase my tips. I started to realize there was a certain communal magic to watching everyday people embarrass themselves on camera, or witnessing animals doing adorable derpy things.
Of course, that very same magic became what eventually drove the success of YouTube. But despite the fact that YouTube offers a larger variety of cute animals, human failure, accidents, and astounding feats of skill, strength, and stupidity, AFV continues to thrive. And that was a mystery to me until I had kids.
As a father, the appeal of AFV has shifted dramatically. Watching the show now is a deeply empathetic experience. I laugh at teenagers falling off trampolines because I have two wild boys who will surely do equally stupid things when they hit that age. I laugh at the practical jokes because it makes me think of all the times I’ve freaked out my own wife. I laugh at the captured chaos of family life because I recognize that exact chaos. Also, and let’s just be frank about this, people getting hit in the balls is objectively funny.
So why not go to YouTube for all of that? Well, because YouTube is a garbage fire of meanspirited cynicism. Sure, you can see people failing, but the accidents always feel more brutal and calculated. The pranks feel incredibly mean. The community feels like it’s leaning into the hurt in a way that’s disturbing and frightening. Not too mention, the chance of seeing something truly horrifying on YouTube is pretty high. The most horrifying thing you’ll likely witness on AFV is an in-studio audience member’s bizarre smock or a truly terrible joke delivered by host Alfonso Rivera.
You see, AFV is deeply curated. There is no doubt they receive awful and disturbing videos, but those videos never make it to the screen. What does make it to the screen is a misty-eyed glimpse into the ludicrous family life of Americans. The families are wildly diverse. They clearly come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. But they all fight the same battle against the inexorable force of gravity, poor product design, inebriation, poor decision making, and hubris. And it so incredibly easy to recognize yourself in those battles because you’ve had them too. And, because the show treats it subjects with so much respect, you, as a viewer feel respected. On YouTube, I just generally feel used.
For their part, my boys like it because they get to revel in adults being taken down a notch. It wasn’t so long ago they were waging a mighty battle with gravity themselves. Seeing people like their mom and dad falling over in silly and ridiculous ways makes them feel better about themselves. Also, watching cute animals do dumb stuff is simply super entertaining for a kid.
So, we all get to laugh together. Up to a point, anyway.
Because frankly, I always turn the show off before the prize for “funniest video” is given out. For one thing, it’s boring. Plus, there never really can be a funniest video. Come on.
That said, turning the show off early doesn’t change the fact that I love it. Because at least for one night out of the week, my family is watching a show we can all enjoy together. We get to laugh at families that are like us. Even when the show is off, the funniest home video keeps rolling.