The history of how Thanksgiving helped make silly home videos a surprise TV hit
A massive holiday snowstorm helped make viral videos an American tradition.
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The year is 1989. A dog in a Superman cape climbs up and down a tree with ease, walking to the ends of its branches and looking out over the neighborhood. Bob Saget's narration comes in, "The only thing that could stop him is a Kryptonite dog biscuit!"
Was there anything in the Eighties more wholesome — and prescient —than the premiere of America's Funniest Home Videos? It happened Thanksgiving weekend in 1989, and families loved the random clips from homes all over the country so much that they made the show an unexpected hit. And they set the stage for the viral video era.
Who could've guessed, after decades of networks lining up star-studded variety shows, that sometimes all it took to entertain an audience was just a baby unexpectedly spitting up on national TV?
Vin Di Bona, that's who.
Di Bona was the producer pushing for reality TV from the earliest days, starting with Battle of the Network Stars in 1976. He got some of his best ideas from watching shows in Tokyo, first gifting TV audiences with his goofy game show Animal Crack-Ups. Alan Thicke hosted that show, which played animal clips and then paused them, asking celebrities to answer questions about what happened in the video.
But when Di Bona watched a Tokyo Broadcasting System show called Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan — the show that inspired America's Funniest Home Videos — he knew he was onto something. Using some of the funniest clips from Fun TV, Di Bona put together a demo. He said that thanks to his sizzle reel, it only took him four minutes to sell the concept to ABC as a Thanksgiving weekend special.
Today, anybody with a phone can post a funny animal video or upload a home movie to the web and if it's funny enough, a lot of people will see it. But in 1989, people did not have that technology, so instead, they were sending in clunky VHS tapes of their cherished family jokes and hoping they'd get screened.
It's no wonder this was an easy thing to throw on the TV during a family holiday like Thanksgiving. Di Bona told the Television Academy, though, that the weather that weekend also helped.
"The pilot aired on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend in 1989," Di Bona said. "Violent snowstorms on the East Coast, torrential rain on the West Coast. It's Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Everybody's home, with nothing to do, and people started turning the show on."
He said by the second half-hour of the show, his phone started ringing off the hook. And Di Bona wasn't the only one getting calls. At the network, viewers were calling in, too.
"The operator said, 'So-and-so would like to talk to you. They're a viewer and they want to voice their opinion,'" Di Bona remembered.
"The first call was, 'That show was really interesting. No celebrities, and it made me laugh. What a great idea!'"
He said other callers were wives wondering where they could get a jacket like Bob Saget's for their husbands. The host's puns and dad-jokes had them doubling over!
It turned out that America's Funniest Home Videos was the highest-rated show on the network in 12 years, Di Bona said, becoming the most popular thing on ABC since Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days.
Now past its 30th season, the funny little show that Thanksgiving helped make a hit has proved to loyal fans to be as much a family tradition as Turkey Day.