The Simpsons and America’s Funniest Home Videos are virtually the same age: Both began as specials at the end of 1989 and debuted as series on the same exact date, January 14, 1990. And now, 22 years later, both continue, pulling in respectable audiences while keeping at a very safe remove from the national conversation. And yet there is one critical difference: The Simpsons is still revered as an institution, even for those who may no longer watch it or smugly grumble “worst episode ever” when they do (a self-referential critique which in itself is evidence of the show’s importance). But who talks of AFV? Nobody. To publicly speak of watching it is to invite blanching, eye rolls, and speech moderation, with those around you slowing and shortening their words so as to adapt to your clearly limited mental capacity. But this is “doth protest too much” behavior. Because I suspect that anyone put in front of this show in a sealed, unmonitored TV room, where they could be assured that no one would ever know what had transpired inside, would laugh maniacally. It is the human condition to be amused by an exquisitely curated collection of people falling down.
I like to think that I have a discerning sense of humor; I could even be dubbed a comedy snob. I like intellectual humor, meta humor, and smart-stupid humor, and have no patience for sloppy comedies that think a fart or poop joke will make up for an obliviousness to pacing and timing. But when I watch AFV, I shriek and weep with laughter in a way that I do at nothing else. My thumb is affixed to my remote’s back-five-seconds button to replay the greatest tumbles, every time noticing new nuances of discomfort and awkwardness. My braying often makes my wife come downstairs to make sure I’m not having a seizure, and I demand she stay as I replay the evening’s montage, wheezing as I narrate it: “Look! He falls … off the trampoline … and gets his head stuck in the bars! The bars!” She tries to look at me with derision and pity, but she cannot help but laugh herself. The late great humorist David Rakoff once did a This American Life story in which he went to a friend’s house to tape himself sneeringly watching AFV, but it ends with audio of him giggling helplessly and gasping for breath while trying to distance himself by crying, “It’s so stupid!” But his secret is out: This NPR fixture was helpless to the pleasures of a pogo stick accident.
Season 23 starts this Sunday night on ABC. No new ground will be broken, nor should it be. New videos will be presented (People: Stop shooting video vertically with your phones! Learn how to compose your pratfalls for the secondary TV market!), old ones repackaged in brilliant montages. (To understand the talent behind AFV, simply go on YouTube to look at raw footage of uploaded pratfalls. Without the music and the instinct of the precise moment when to cut out, these amateur postings — pardon the pun — fall flat. Falling off a ladder is not art all on its own, friends.) Many haters wave off AFV as “that show where people get hit in the balls,” but this is reductive at best, un-American at worst. The crotch shot is a grace note that appears often, yes, but it is an accent in more crucial categories of Funniest Videos: the diving board accident; the oddly sleeping animal; the practical joke. After careful study and Zapruder-like replays of YouTube’s endless supply of montages, here are the five best species of AFV videos in ascending order. (And let’s get this shocking, contrarian confession out of the way first: I am not a fan of cute animal videos! I know they fuel the web, but I find myself fast-forwarding through them. Unless, that is, the animal is actively harassing or attacking someone. Geese, goats, and llamas are especially potent adversaries.)
5. People Being Scared. Whether it’s elaborate (someone jumping out of a closet with a terrifying costume) or low-tech (a co-worker popping out of a cardboard box; web videos where a terrifying image pops up after a lulling scene or hypnotic game) is immaterial — this is all about the reaction. Extra points for eliciting machismo-deflating squeals, Flintstonian running-in-place-in-terror, or tumbles that occur in the victim’s escape from a perceived threat. I’m not particularly a fan of parents terrifying their children, just because it’s all funny until the nightmares start and can’t stop, but I am happy to watch any adult run in circles with fear. (Or, as with this MVP, lash out and make the scarer regret their prankish nature.)
4. Water wipeouts. This is a wide category, but in this tight ranking, I would limit it to high-speed sports, which include accidents related to tubing, parasailing, waterskiing, and Jetskiing. Sorry, people falling into pools and off of boats: Work harder, and you could make this list next year!
3. White-people dancing gone wrong. Just an exhibition of a flat-out lack of rhythm is meh, but — like the many variations on potato chips — these musical moments really come alive when combined with different flavors: Falling off the stage or dance floor! Clonking heads with your partner! Trying to do a lift but being crushed under your partner! Different settings offer even more variations. While a wedding allows you to smash into a waiter, doing it at home allows the clumsy hoofer to tumble into Christmas trees and TV sets.
2. Old people falling down. Yes, I recognize the emerging theme of a heartless of love of injuries. But so be it: You don’t watch AFV to see people rescue puppies or do charity work. But unlike with Tosh.0, when you see people tumble on AFV, you have no fear that they were actually injured: no gaping wounds or tears. Which is why I can enjoy, guilt-free, our most fragile citizens falling down hills and off of golf carts. I like to think I will still find this amusing when I am in my 80s, but maybe I won’t. So, carpe diem, and enjoy it now!
1. Treadmill accidents. I used to be partial to trampolines, but there emerged a sameness to those falls. Sure, every once in a while someone would undergo a particularly creative egregious and elastic split as they landed between the springs, but I was generally left wanting more. And then I discovered the treadmill accident. I had once thought of the treadmill as the white noise of the gym, a tool that offered nothing that jogging couldn’t except for a safe consistency of location and insurance against inclement weather. But when misused, the treadmill has so much to give: It can work as a torture device and a catapult, sending a stumbler caroming into the wall or a rack of weights behind it. It can trap an exerciser whose pants are falling down. It can even have fun with animals! There is no more versatile and compact impetus for cardiovascular hilarity than the treadmill. Bravo. Sadly, I could find no AFV montage online, but this homegrown compilation gets at the magic. (However, it must be noted that a couple of moments captured in this reel are more violent than would make AFV. I prefer injuries the whole family can enjoy.)
Honorable Mention: Pinatas!