Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Fond Look Back at “America’s Funniest People”

In the early 1990s, Uncle Joey, Harley Quinn and that chick from the Whitesnake videos hosted an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” rip-off … and somehow, it’s greatest cultural contribution became the catchphrase of a mutant jack rabbit/antelope creature. 

I had a pretty shocking epiphany a few days ago, when I realized “America’s Funniest Home Videos” was STILL on the air. Granted, it's hosted by that dude from “Dancing with the Stars” instead of Bob Saget, but you have to admire the show’s staying power, especially considering the contemporary competition from sites like YouTube. Come to think of it, “AFHV” more or less heralded the arrival of the Tube a good 20 years in advance, celebrating all forms of visual jackassery, nincompoopery and cruel embarrassment before the World Wide Web even existed.

For those of you who never experienced the joy and whimsy of the 1990s as it happened, you’re probably in the dark as to what “America’s Funniest People” was. As the title implies, the show was indeed a blatant imitation of “AFHV,” right down to the casting of a fellow “Full House” star, Dave Coulier. However, the show, which ran for a few years on ABC, diverged from its inspiration in quite a few ways. Please allow me to spend a thousand or so words reflecting on a reality TV program that no one has even thought about in at least 18 years, if you don’t mind.

The key difference between the two programs was the format. While “AFHV” was all about user-generated content of people being hit in the testicles on accident, “AFP” was a program that highlighted people intentionally trying to be hilarious -- usually, by telling really stupid jokes or doing really goofy things with their faces that are more stomach-churning than funny-bone tickling. Probably my all-time favorite “gag” -- and I mean that in more ways than one -- was this one dude who held up a tomato that he said was “not feeling well.” The jokester than proceeded to squeeze the fruit’s chunky red guts out to imitate vomiting; needless to say, there was a sudden surge in squished tomatoes at my house for the ensuing week.

When I say the jokes were lame, I mean they were bottom of the barrel, almost to the point of being Dadaist anti-jokes. One guy simply held up a couple of compact discs, flashed them like a drug dealer and lisped “see-deez?” while another explained to us what the term “hut” meant in Ebonics -- as in, if you dropped a hammer on your toe, “it hut.”

Of course, the show also allowed people to tell jokes with meatier narratives, but that wasn’t the appeal of the show. The appeal of the show was watching people flick their lips open and showing you their entire gum line -- in hindsight, the show probably had more in common with “Guinness Prime Time” than it did “AFHV,” actually.

Which brings us to the show’s other big innovation over “AFHV.” You see, “AFP” wasn’t content with just one host, you got TWO of ‘em, which included none other than Arleen Sorkin -- aka, Harley motherfuckin’ Quinn from “Batman: the Animated Series.”

So, Harley and Uncle Joey served as our curators, as various ugly people did their damnedest to make the masses chuckle. Periodically, the show would switch things up and have a few musical performances. To me, these always seemed out of place -- I mean, going from a dude sticking his face through a cutout of a small body and doing puns about hot dogs to a barber shop quartet interlude was just too spastic, even for the Sega Genesis generation. I’m pretty sure the Olsen twins made an appearance or two as well, but I don’t trust Google with my YouTube search history so I can’t confirm it for sure.

The scant clips of the program I’ve found online are pretty much the definition of cringe-worthy, a veritable treasure trove of armpit fart noise serenades and piss poor ventriloquism acts. Some of the segments were just so unbelievably abstract that I have a hard time believing the skits could be considered comedy and not some sort of subversive Duchamp social horror. Believe it or not, a television network once asked Wrigley’s Gum and Pepsi Cola to shell out money to sponsor a program that consisted of people doing weird things with hair dryers for two minutes straight -- shit, did the dude who directed “Gummo” serve as an executive producer on this thing or something?

Reading the Wiki entry on the show really blew my goddamn mind. Not only did the thing last longer than I thought it did (can you believe this thing had a five year run from 1990 to 1994?), but apparently, Arleen Sorkin is some kind of cryptoracist, claiming ABC shit-canned her from the show because they wanted someone browner -- although, I guess one could argue Tawny Kitean was indeed noticeably less white, but DIGRESSION.

So, yeah, the show kind of changed formats around 1992. With the former David Coverdale humper splitting hosting duties with Coulier, there was a greater emphasis on lengthier skits -- like, full-fledged parodies of “Dirty Harry” and “Indiana Jones” and whatnot -- and more recurring features, like this segment where people ran around playing really stupid pranks (like dressing up as gorillas and chasing people) and a little dunking booth game show thing were kids got a chance to drown their parents for missing trivia questions.

Which leads us to what is probably the only thing anybody really remembers about the show -- the Jackalope.

Never heard of the Jackalope? Well, maybe this little quip will refresh your memory: “Fast as fast can be, you’ll never catch me!”

Fucking everybody over the age of 20 knows that line, but I’m guessing a good three-quarters of those in the know have no clue where it came from. Well, wonder about your senility no more, because that was the catchphrase of a Dave Coulier-voiced rabbit-antelope puppet who was the star of live-action “Looney Toons” segments on “AFP” every week.

As with seemingly everything else on the show, the Jackalope skits in hindsight seem to be self-reflexive horror-comedies. Perhaps it is for the best of I let the segments below speak for themselves.

Perhaps an oblique homage to “The Toxic Avenger,” the Jackalope skits all seemed to have some sort of aggressive pro-environmentalism bent to them. Shit, there was even one skit I vividly remember where the mascot actually was transformed into some muscle bound freak of nature by toxic waste -- alas, some things are still a bit too obscure to make the Dailymotion rounds, I take it.

I think the show breathed its final breath around the same time O.J.-A-Mania struck, and it  promptly was all but forgotten for about 10 years afterwards. The show had a light revival when old episodes began airing at odd hours on TBS, but unless you were just hanging out in front of the tube at noon on Wednesday’s during George W.’s first term of office, you probably missed out on the re-runs.

Today, “AFP” lives on only in dust-coated VHS cassette spools and the foggy memories of  twenty-somethings who kinda’ remember the program existing, but not really. The bits and pieces of the program out there in Internet land really aren’t exactly what I would call nostalgia fuel, as the show comes off as more unsettling than uproarious -- odds are, if you see the shows now, you’ll have the same thoughts I did, which were “man, this shit was fucked up and why didn’t I turn to drugs after being exposed to this and the AIDS episode of Captain Planet.”

Still, it’s a relic from a bygone-era, and if you’ve got an hour or so to spare, I guess you could find less productive ways to waste your life -- like spending an entire weekend scouring the ‘net for information on a game show that used to have monsters chasing contestants through a supermarket.


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