No menacing armed guards. No salivating attack dogs. No sweeping lasers. You simply breeze down the corridor of an office suite and through a wooden door that's not even locked. Inside a green-carpeted storage closet, thousands of videotapes, labeled in bland sequence (3L-21, 3L-22...), line a chain of seven-foot-tall cabinets. There is the faint hum of air-conditioning.
You are now in the funniest room in the country.
This is the tape vault for America's Funniest Home Videos, the longest-running prime-time entertainment show in ABC history. That would make this the Library of Congress of Groin Hits, the National Archives of Spinning Pugs, the Smithsonian of Denture-Losing Grannies. Of all the clips mailed in to the show over the last 17 years, the 77,414 knee-slappiest reside in this house of whacks.
You select a random tape on a shelf and ask coexecutive producer Michele Nasraway the obvious question: Is this one...funny? ''That's a very good year, actually,'' she says, as if reminiscing about a vintage Bordeaux. ''I can vouch for that.'' She looks around and smiles fondly: ''If you sat down and watched all these tapes, you would be crying.'' Tears of joy, that is.
America's Funniest Home Videos is always just there, like your liquored uncle with the disappearing quarter trick. It is a path-of-least-resistance guilty pleasure, not a sexy, must-see sensation. But dismissing it in such a way misses the big picture, much like the mustachioed dude who missed the angry bees he tried to swat away with a Ping-Pong paddle (episode 138). Returning for season 17 on Oct. 1, AFV has become that rare family show that unites generations in escapist glee. ''When you're looking at nuclear Armageddon and global warming,'' reminds host Tom Bergeron, ''a good crotch hit is like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.'' It has spawned scads of imitators and three spin-offs; more than 20 countries have produced their own versions of the show. It has sucker punched industry logic: With the exception of Fox's The Simpsons, no current prime-time network comedy series has aired longer. It has outlasted six exec regimes at ABC and weathered three hosting permutations (did Bob Saget really leave 10 years ago?).
While hardly the Nielsen superpower it was in 1990 when it peaked with 38 million weekly viewers AFV is no joke: It averaged nine million viewers last season (on par with Prison Break and The Amazing Race) and was up 7 percent from the previous year. It's been scheduled on almost every night of the week. It cannot be canceled. (When it was yanked in 1999, subsequent specials did well enough that the network reordered it as a series in 2001.) ''It's our Energizer Bunny,'' says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader. Praises CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl: ''It's one of the greatest utility players in TV history.''
Vin Di Bona was three seasons into producing the ABC kiddie quiz show Animal Crack-Ups, adapted from Japanese TV, when in 1988, Tokyo Broadcasting System offered him the rights to a variety show featuring sketches and home videos. ''I said, 'Let's try something different,''' Di Bona recalls. '''Let's make the whole show home videos and run a contest.''' ABC bought the pitch in four minutes. Di Bona issued a nationwide plea for clips, hired Saget, collected goofy sound effects, and shot a pilot culled from 1,800 submissions; the cameras shook because the crew was laughing so hard. And despite some crappy reviews, AFV's November 1989 special netted nearly 33 million viewers. Di Bona was soon summoned to ABC's executive suite. ''They said, 'Can you do 10 of these?''' he recalls. ''I said, 'Absolutely!' and I walked out, turned to my friend, and said, 'S---! How am I gonna do this?'''
Seventeen years and 363 episodes later, we too ask: How do they do it? How do they manage one of the world's biggest comedy libraries? What happens to all those tapes sent by ordinary folks with big Hollywood dreams? And who the heck decides what constitutes a quality crotch shot?
Every submission and to date, there have been more than 600,000 begins its journey in the screener room, where about 1,000 tapes arrive each week. (In its early-'90s heyday, AFV received 2,000 videos a day, necessitating two shifts of screeners working around the clock.) But being the first line of defense isn't a nonstop yukfest. ''I can't find the joke sometimes,'' says Jake Ford, who screens 200-plus clips daily, of which 10 or so may air. ''A senior woman thinks a duck in her lawn is hysterical, so she'll film it for a half-hour.'' If a clip passes muster, it's sent to the vault for safekeeping. If it is deemed unworthy say, a boy yawning during a wedding it's deported to a storage facility where tens of thousands of rejects reside. (They're later recycled.)
The screeners' picks are also sent to the writers' room, where a team led by coexec producer Todd Thicke (yes, Alan's younger brother) combs through the footage. On this August afternoon, Thicke pops in a tape and the peanut-gallery fun begins: An old man dressed as a bikinied gorilla performs a striptease. ''Does anyone want to put him on TV?'' asks Thicke skeptically. A writer answers: ''I'm dry on my Darwin jokes.'' Chimes in another: ''So far it's better than King Kong.'' Later, a spirited debate arises over a chicken pecking at a cat. ''We have to have some standards,'' says Thicke. A writer volleys back: ''But we can show a kid sticking his finger in a dog's butt?'' Says another: ''It's making me a little peckish.'' Groans, laughter. A note card marked ''Chicken pecks black cat's butt. Gross'' makes the wall, where the writers post the keepers.
Over the next few hours, dozens upon dozens of videos unspool: Bride leaks mucus at the altar, boy tumbles off bike (''You gotta fall harder than that, son!'' sasses a writer), and dog buries roadkill. Occasionally the room erupts in cackles or Ohhhhh!s, but often these professors of lowbrow laughs just sip their lattes in disappointed silence. In case you're wondering, the AFV writers are keenly aware that writing Jell-O jokes and deconstructing animal antics is a rather absurd way to pay the bills. ''It is tough to sound intellectual when you're discussing a lizard running up a woman's pants, but we do our best,'' says Thicke, a charter staffer. Agrees six-year vet Mike Palleschi: ''It gets a little surreal when you're judging the quality of a nut hit. We have an old guy at a piñata party who gets hit in the crotch, which was funny, but the look he does to the camera puts it above and beyond. And we say, 'Oh, now it's 80 percent funnier!' We know there's no real formula.'' Trace Beaulieu, a staff writer since 1997, seems to disagree. ''I think dogs have a better sense of comedy than cats,'' he opines. ''Cats have too much dignity''
The door to the tape vault is often ajar, since the vault's contents are in constant circulation. The writers might be working on a segment like ''Head, Gut or Groin'' (in which a clip is paused, and then Bergeron asks an audience member to guess the destination of a flying object), and they want to use the out-of-control toy rocket gem that aired a few years ago. Or a producer wants to celebrate the best in bike wipeouts for a music montage.
Fortunately, those 77,414 clips in the vault have been catalogued in AFV's computer database with a rating and a one-line description e.g., ''Monkey climbs up man's arm and humps his head'' and they're all accessible via keywords. (''Groin'' and ''crotch'' net 850 occurrences; ''fall'' yields 15,505; and ''nun'' offers 45 though 13 involve nunchucks.) In the search for clips, clarity is valued over cuteness. ''There's a clip of this little potbellied pig who rolls down a hill into a ravine,'' says Nasraway, growing exasperated. ''Somebody put in the database: 'Ham on a roll.' What is that? How are we supposed to find that clip?'' (Her brain's not a bad backup system. Here since season 1, Nasraway is a clip savant. Tell her that you liked the mulleted racquetball player who takes his own shot in the groin, and she immediately responds, ''Is he wearing yellow shorts?'')
The library is certainly invaluable to the writers. ''We did a bit called 'Ask Tom Stuff,' and for one answer, we cut to a guy falling off a trampoline and landing into a pool,'' recalls Palleschi. ''After the show, Vin said, 'I don't like that clip. Let's find a better one.' I was thinking, How are you going to find the same clip of a guy falling off a trampoline into a pool? Sure enough, there were 12 in the database. Not only do we have it, we have it better.'' He pauses. ''Did I mention we have two different people who have Civil War-era cannons who decided to build a snowman and shoot his head off with it?''
Of course, not all of the staffers' tasks can be handled by the computer. Contestants are contacted if the clip's action appears to be staged (''Our research department will try to get a backstory without just saying, 'Is this a setup?''' says Nasraway) or to have caused injury (''When we find out somebody had to go to the hospital, it's not funny to us anymore,'' she says). Still, AFV aficionados claim to spot faked calamities frequently. ''If you saw the whole thing, you'd see they're organic,'' says AFV scribe and consulting producer J. Elvis Weinstein. ''But because they work out so perfectly when they're trimmed to time, they seem set up.'' Plus, he notes, ''most real actors can't act that well.''
In truth, though, there's just one litmus test for clips. ''People have got to always know that they can watch and they will laugh. Not a 'Hee-hee.' A 'Ha-ha!' Big difference,'' says Di Bona. ''That's my bond with the American public, and I take it extremely seriously, as does everyone else here.'' But you have to wonder: As they fill the vaults with another season of wig slips and roof collapses, will they ever achieve the ultimate goal of finding the Funniest Home Video? ''The great American video there's always a quest,'' says Thicke, sighing reverently. ''It's always in the next envelope you open. The next tape you put in could be the one. It could be that magical holy grail where we all ascend, based on that one video. I'd like to believe that. Don't you like to believe that?''
How to Win 'AFV'
Still trying to shoot the perfect funny home video so you can snag AFV's weekly $10,000 prize? Check out these insider tips that might get you one step closer to your close-up.
''The audience tends to favor children and animals more than physical comedy,'' says coexec producer Michele Nasraway. ''A school performance is always good. You've got 15 kids on stage, something's not going to go according to plan.''
''You're always going to get a good reaction from a young baby who is testing foods for the first time,'' says executive producer Vin Di Bona. (He suggests a pickle.)
''Scare somebody,'' says writer Mike Palleschi. The element of surprise works, ''because it's planned, but not to the person that you're waking up at midnight with a marching band.''
Jokes host Tom Bergeron: ''Don't wear a cup.''