Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

On Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show

Catherine Nicholson

GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO GRAHAM KENNEDY'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEO SHOW WHERE YOU MIGHT SEE YOUR NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOUR, YOU MIGHT SEE A WORKMATE, YOU MIGHT EVEN SEE YOURSELF ...

And now here's ...

Television. TV has never encouraged viewer participation in the production area. Many of the other communications media have developed local inflections in form, such as community newspapers, public radio and even local film production. These do provide some form of access, but the techno-literacy necessitated by the nature of the media limits the number of participants. The public has been allowed on but not in TV, performing strictly an 'in front of the cameras' role. Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show (GKFHVS) 1 reflects the growing accessibility of video technology to the domestic market, and is interesting in its foregrounding of private, family space in the public arena. However, I would argue that GKFHVS concedes very little space to the viewer as producer and even that the program actively works to reconstruct the viewer as audience.

TV constructs an imagined community for its audience, showing them, through the appearance of 'real people', the existence of the 'others' who comprise their society. 2 These people are constructed in contrast to professional presenters and tend to embody characteristics which exaggerate the difference - that is, they are less than immaculately groomed, articulate, composed and in control. Otherwise real people tend to appear on TV only as audiences such as the studio audience for GKFHVS, a device which confirms their position as viewers and not as producers.

Viewer participation in the show is firmly restricted to the contribution of videos, and within that category to those which are 'worthwhile', that is, decreed humorous ("send us your home video, and if it's amusing enough we play it"). Despite the show's promotion of itself as participation oriented - "the show where you help us to make the program", "you, the viewer, send us your home video tape", "you see how easy it is to get on this show" - the viewer is reconstructed as viewer through a metalanguage which emphasises the studio production process, and as audience through the emphasis on the studio audience.

Throughout each program, Kennedy refers to the off-camera crew and to the technical aspects of the show. It begins with a short dialogue Kennedy carries on with the (off-camera and off-mike) floor manager which goes as follows:

What? ... [turning to audience] My floor manager has just signalled me that it's time for our first lot of Australian home videos [off camera] Let's get one thing straight - it's time for our first lot of home videos when I say it's time for our first lot of Australian home videos ... [pause] ... [sheepishly, to audience] ... It's time for our first lot of Australian home videos ... [laughter].

Kennedy makes an attempt to assert his autonomy, but in his rapid capitulation shows who's really running things. Returning after the first ad break, the cameraman dollies at great speed past the studio audience and finally in to Kennedy who is leaning forward in his chair with arms outstretched, as if to embrace the camera. He mocks the cameraman's virtuoso display, quipping "send him off to America", but the arbitrary technique has been foregrounded (an 'arbitrary' code made famous in Australia by the award winning camerawork of the ABC's live Big Gig comedy show). This routine occurs once again later in the program. Such moments are clustered around the commercial breaks, punctuated by Kennedy making named references to the crew members.

The final reminder of the crew's presence is at the end of the show, where a headless figure intrudes into the frame to hand Kennedy a 'late video' in a parody of news convention. His response is, "Well, don't just stand there, put it in the old JVC VCR", in a collusion of acronyms which again foregrounds technology. Thus is created a metalanguage about TV production, which serves to reiterate the dichotomy between producer and consumer, that is, television and its audience.

The audience of TV land is addressed and constructed, even instructed, to behave in the same way as the studio audience. Throughout the program there are cutaways from the video sequences to shots of people in the studio audience laughing and grimacing in response to the visuals being shown. Kennedy directs both the studio and home audiences, and suggests the interchangeability of the two by suggesting that home viewers might like to come in to the studio to watch the program being made: "Would you like to come in and watch us put together Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show? If so ...". This instruction of the audience is supported by a soundtrack of uproarious laughter and applause at the appropriate moments. Non-verbal sound is also an important feature of GKFHVS, in this respect. The theme music of the show is trumpeted, which helps to create a vaudeville, pacy mood. Effects are vital to the impact of the clips. Collision noises, exaggerated to the aural equivalent of the written Pow! and Thwack! of a Batman cartoon, greatly increase the impact (Ouch!) of the crashes. Music is used to ironic effect; a sequence of people and animals colliding with the camera is accompanied by "Nowhere to Run", a go-cart accident is anticipated by "Born to be Wild".

The figure which marks and maintains the division between audience and crew is that of Kennedy himself. A seasoned performer from the earliest days of Australian TV, when he was known as "the king of TV", he brings to his presenter's role associations of former shows: "in terms of television language he [Kennedy] is a sign, and like any other, brings to the present use the cultural accumulations of past usages". 3 Kennedy's persona surfaces in the suggestive and/or 'sick' jokes he tells as gap-fillers between the videos:

One of my favourite hobbies is cooking. I'm sure, ladies and gentlemen of the studio audience, I'm sure you would enjoy my cooking. I just know you'd love my hot suggestions [lewd facial expression].

You know I'm constantly saying 'no one ever gets hurt', that we'd never show you anything where people got hurt. Well, now we're a big success, I can level with you: a lot'a people get hurt [audience laugh] - there are more disfigured kids in America...

When our production people told me that this next piece involved people enjoying themselves with inflatable rubber items [pause, laughter] I must confess I misunderstood [pause, laughter]. It turned out they meant inner tubes ...

Nearly every one of these links includes some reference to the crew: "production people", "Alex, there are some people in the front row", "write me something quick, Tim". Kennedy's function as mediator stresses the need for distancing between the public and the TV institution, signalling that he is there "holding it all together", performing a crucial translatory function.

The rise of TV has been accompanied by, and has benefited from, changes in the patterns discernible in public consumption. That is, a move away from public, mass activities into "myriad, decentralised consumer rites and pleasures in and around people's homes". 4 The redefinition of public and private spaces has seen the centering of the home in cultural life, a centre which is not only the seat of the family but also the principal place of leisure and consumption. While on one hand receiving [re]instruction in how-to-be-an-audience, the viewers of GKFHVS spend a proportion of the show looking into other's domestic lives.

This is a part of the construction of national 'imagined communities' about which Benedict Anderson speaks. TV is "one of the prime sites upon which a given nation is constructed". 5 In a country where the 'great outdoors' is part of the national ethos, and leisure the sanctified national [pre]occupation, the private domain must figure strongly in the construction of 'the national'. Families feature in the videos shown, reflecting the ethos of the home and placing it as the centre of leisure activity. There is a supposition made about the audience, that it consists of family groups, which Kennedy acknowledges when he addresses the viewers in plural form:

Now you're probably sitting at home saying to each other 'Why don't we enter this fabulously funny and entertaining show?' - are you saying that? I couldn't have put it better myself. Just send us an amusing home video AND some of this could be yours ...!

GKFHVS is structured as a competition, as a quest to Find the Funniest. This provides not only an incentive for viewers to participate by sending in their 'amusing' videos, but also financial backing for the show, as the two major sponsors provide prizes as well as advertising in the show's commercial breaks. The show delivers them a captive audience, as their advertising spills into the confines of each program. The advertisers insert their own promos, intact, into the show's format and give viewers a rapid fix on an identifiable image. Mitsubishi (which provides a car) and Medibank Private (which presumably sees a potential market in the accident-prone all-stars of the program!) both have their advertising logos as visuals for voiceovers thanking them for their support. The other prize contributor is JVC, which finds in the show an ideal illustration of the utilisation of its products. Conspicuous consumption and leisure are the twin honorifics of advanced capitalist society and they are enshrined within the discourse of GKFHVS.

The format of the show is anything but original. It is cloned from America's Funniest Home Videos more closely than in form, as it turns out. For some of the segments Kennedy provides the voiceovers; others have a strangely accented commentary which drowns out nearly all the diegetic sound. Not quite enough, however, to disguise the very American drawl of "Go play on the slide, sweetie" or "We'll come back and pick you up honey" which are barely noticeable on first (rapid) viewing, but which betray such segments as intact chunks of the American version of the show. The accented voice is nationally unidentifiable, but the flashes of soundtrack combined with the different 'look' of these segments confirm their true identity, which is unacknowledged in the body of the show. Instances such as this have prompted the New York Times to comment "Australia has become an advanced laboratory of the accelerating global homogenisation". 6 For globalisation TV-style, read: Americanisation.

The pedigree of the home video genre extends back to such shows as TV Bloopers, It'll be Alright on the Night, and Candid Camera (which now has its own viewer video section called 'Minties Moments'). These shows work, as does GKFHVS, on the observation and exploitation of failure. Although 'all in good fun', the programs by no means restrict themselves to purely innocent and humorous situations ("a lot'a people get hurt"). The vicarious pleasure of seeing someone else make themselves look stupid on TV is an enjoyable spectacle for the audience, it seems.

However malicious, the program does represent a truly televisual phenomenon, one which has moved from the world of the movies (Bloopers) to the street (Candid Camera) to the home (GKFHVS) in a generic migration that represents the changing centres of public activity. Despite a surface blurring of the division between performer and spectator, the program pays only lip service to the concept of public access. Nonetheless it does represent the growing accessibility of video technology, and the possibilities of domestic video cameras (with developments such as broadcast quality super-VHS), which open the way towards consuming self-made images and sound. Fully privatised consumer-production is unlikely while the network system is still in operation, but at the rate they are going to the wall who knows what lies around the corner?

Notes

1. GKFHVS began its first series on Channel 9 in 1990. It's second, 1991, series was hosted by Jacki McDonald. All quotations from it are taken from this series. Although it includes local content and a competition for the funniest clip of the week, GKFHVS also uses internationally syndicated clips and sequences which can be seen on similar shows in, for instance, the UK and USA.

2. John Hartley, "Invisible Fictions: television audiences, paedocracy, pleasure", in Textual Practice 1(2) (1987), pp.121-138.

3. John Fiske & John Hartley, Reading Television (London and New York: Methuen, 1978), p.152. See also Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (New York: Pantheon, 1983) and Jane Root, Open the Box (London: Comedia, 1986).

4. John Hartley & Tom O'Regan, "Quoting not science but sideboards: television in a new way of life", in Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith eds., The moving image: film and television in Western Australia (Perth: History & Film Association (WA) 1985), pp.65-73. See also Raymond Williams, TV: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974).

5. Cited in John Hartley, "Invisible Fictions" p.124. See also John Tulloch & Graeme Turner eds., Australian Television: programs, pleasures and Politics (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989).

6. Michaelangelo Rucci, "Letter from America" New York Times cited in Sunday Times Perth, Western Australia (May 20th 1990).


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