America, Let's Go to the Tape!

updated 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

This is not your ordinary office. The receptionist at the front desk is wearing Mickey Mouse ears. One of the employees is sporting a dinosaur hat Another boasts a pendant made of a videocassette case. And the shoptalk is quite distinctive, consisting of ruminations on the woman who got her hair stuck in the dishwasher or the rotund golfer who rolled down a hill after a particularly hard swing.

What else could this be but the Los Angeles offices of America 's Funniest Home Videos? If the mood here is giddy, even goofy, there's good reason for it—AFHV is the most successful new show on TV in many a season. Debuting Jan. 14 on ABC, it immediately vaulted into the Nielsen Top 10, and last week—after a mere nine weeks on the air—it climbed into the No. 1 spot Roseanne, get thee to a nunnery.

The idea for AFHV came courtesy of a highly successful Japanese variety series. Fun with Ken and Kato Chan, which for years featured a segment showing homemade viewer videos. After watching the tapes, Vin Di Bona 45, a former producer of Entertainment Tonight decided the concept was yet another Japanese import whose marketing time had come.

The program's premise is as simple as loading a camcorder. Viewers send in clips they've shot Screeners and producers wade through the tapes, group the best into categories (sports, babies, weddings), then dress them up with sound effects and with shtick from the show's co-writer and host comedian Bob Saget Before the show went on the air, executive producer Di Bona had to solicit tapes via magazine ads. Now, up to 1,700 tapes are delivered daily to the show's 19 overworked screeners, each of whom watches at least 70 cassettes a day.

The rule of thumb is that for every 100 videos submitted, only one will make it to air. Because it takes 40 to 50 snippets of tape to fill out an average half-hour installment, screeners must plow through about 4,000 videos for each show. Clearly, this is not a job for the easily discouraged, upset or offended. Take screener Catherine Galef, 22, who squints at a tape featuring a flock of sea gulls fluttering around some people at the beach. For the birds, she decides, hitting the eject button. "Before the show got really successful, we didn't get that many tapes a day, and the quality was better," she says. "Now we get tapes with no point to them: five hours at the hillbilly family reunion. I think it's kind of pathetic to see what other people think is funny."

Frequently, what people think is funny is not suitable for airing. A horse breaking wind, animals defecating, a woman giving birth on the shoulder of a freeway, Santa Claus on the toilet and babies vomiting are a few such examples. Ditto a nun bicycling into a nudist colony and a clip of a baby who appeared to be driving a car. Danger is one of the big AFHV taboos. So, too, is the staged stunt. Vying for AFHV's $10,000 weekly prize and $100,000 annual prize, contestants are sending in an increasing number of staged submissions. The setups, claim the screeners, are easy to spot. "Most Americans are bad actors," says screener Taz Goldstein, 21. "Usually, the giveaways are people who look where they're going to fall first, or they'll look to somebody else for approval."

Next to him, Galef shoves another tape into the VCR. "Okay, this kid just knocked over a plant," she mumbles. "Big deal. I could do that." Eject, pop in another cassette, this one of a child falling down a flight of stairs. Grit teeth, groan, eject tape, pop in another. This one has possibilities—a woman inveigling her dog to eat corn on the cob.

And so life at the AFHV factory goes on, marking another unlikely turn in American history. Used to be that guests would flee for the door at the hint of home videos. Now millions watch as folks like these on the next few pages (all weekly winners) compete for fame, fortune and 15 seconds on TV.

—Joanne Kaufman, Michael Alexander and John Griffiths in Los Angeles

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