Day after day, he watched amateur videos.
He saw a small child left alone in a moving truck. He saw a bunny chewed by a dog, a cat dropped from the top of a barn, a horse smashed in the head with a crutch.
"Initially I laughed, not thinking about it," Smitty said about being an $8-an-hour screener for "America’s Funniest Home Videos," the ABC series whose popularity is soaring along with sales of lightweight camcorders that allow ordinary people to transfer every aspect of their lives to videotape. "But I began to watch these, visualizing the cameraperson. I imagined them standing there, with their video camera."
Smitty is not his real name. Worried about future employment, he requested anonymity before describing in detail some of the videos sent in to the Sunday-night program by people seeking to win a $10,000 weekly prize, which would then qualify them for the $100,000 payoff coming at the end of the season.
Although the show’s videos cover many topics, children head the list.
The revolting videos described here were rejected by screeners, having been rated not funny enough to pass along to segment producers for further evaluation in the step-by-step selection process whereby very few submissions ever get on the air.
That they even got made and were considered humorous, however, is a deeply disturbing commentary on the mentality of some Americans.
Child in truck: A woman puts a girl of about 2 in the driver’s seat of a pickup whose motor is running. Then, after someone has apparently slipped the truck into drive, it moves forward 10 to 15 miles per hour with the girl still in the driver’s seat, traveling about 15 yards before hitting a camper shell and pushing it into a small car.
The crying child is removed from the truck by the woman, who appears to be laughing.
Child on slide: Dressed in a frilly white party dress, a girl of about 2 climbs by herself to the top of a 10-foot slide, then goes down it and lands in a mud puddle at the base of the slide, hitting her head on the ground and crying.
"It’s obvious she was supposed to land in the puddle because she had nowhere else to land, and there was no one there to catch her," says Smitty. Not only that, she could have fallen from the top of the slide and been seriously hurt. "The producers don’t want anything that’s really violent," Smitty says. "But the people sending these in don’t seem to be able to differentiate what’s funny from what’s unsafe."
Child and inner tube: A man is sitting on the ground with his hand on an inflated rubber inner tube as a toddler playfully cavorts in front of him, seemingly wanting to be hit with the inner tube. As the little boy takes a step forward, the man swings the inner tube, hitting the boy in the head so hard that he’s knocked off his feet and hits the ground head first. In the background there’s laughter.
"The boy may have wanted to be hit, but not hit like that," says Smitty.
Infant in stroller: An infant is being pushed in a stroller. There’s an edit in the video, after which the child is still very clearly in the stroller, which is now rolling on its own quite fast down an incline toward a cross street. As it reaches the street, there is another edit, after which the stroller is seen rolling across the street and disappearing into a ravine. After another edit, smoke and fire pour from the spot where the stroller disappeared, as the infant crawls from the ravine.
The video was obviously staged, Smitty says. A doll may have been substituted for the child in the portion where the stroller rolls across the street into the ravine, he says. “It’s not that violent. I just think it’s sick.”
Child on father: A man is on the floor, leaning forward on his elbows and knees while pretending to watch TV. After mounting a chair behind him, a toddler girl jumps on his back, but as she does he collapses his arms, sending her face forward into the floor and making her cry.
"We have people making videos for us that are violent," Smitty says. "But how many did they screw up, when the kid actually did fall into the entertainment center? These people aren’t stupid, though. I don’t think anybody is going to send a video of a kid with a broken face and arm.”
Baby sleeping: A boy, about a year old, is sleeping while sitting on the floor with his back to a couch. The video goes on a number of minutes as the whimpering, sleeping, obviously exhausted child repeatedly teeters and appears on the verge of falling over, only to catch himself. Finally he does fall over, crying as he hits his head on the floor.
"We get lots of tapes of kids falling asleep in high chairs and rocking chairs and parents not putting them down," Smitty says. "And we see a lot of vomit. I’ve even seen a baby vomiting into a dad’s mouth."
More and more of the entries are being staged, he said. He described one sent in response to the show’s call for videos of children getting their first haircuts. “It took place where a poodle was getting trimmed. So they bring in this little boy in a wire dog-kennel cage, and he looks dazed. Then they put him up there where they have the dogs and cut his hair. Why would you want to freak out a kid like that?”
Or harm animals?
Smitty described some rejected videos that show that it’s not only kids who are endangered by some of these amateur filmmakers.
Bunny and puppy: The scene is a front lawn, where a girl of about 6 is handed a bunny, which can’t be more than a few weeks old. “I gotta baby bunny,” the girl says. Someone tells the girl to place the bunny on the grass. She does, and after the bunny runs into some bushes, a man frees a fairly good-sized black Labrador puppy from its leash and leads it to where the bunny is hiding, apparently thinking they’ll play together.
Suddenly, there is screaming. Next, the camera shows the dog with the writhing bunny in its mouth, gripping it so hard that it can’t be removed. Finally, the bunny is pried loose. “Did he kill it?” someone asks. “Yes,” the man replies, running off with the bunny in an attempt to spare the child, who has been crying throughout and sounds traumatized.
Next scene shows the entire family inside, where the man tells the little girl that when he put the bunny down to “get a hammer,” the bunny ran away.
Cat in barn: A farm boy and cat are sitting on the rafters of what appears to be a tall barn. Suddenly the boy tries to push the cat off. The cat tries to hold on with its claws, but ultimately falls. “You don’t see the cat hit the ground,” Smitty says. “But you know they’re high up because if they were just three or four feet off the ground, the cat would just jump for safety instead of trying to hold on.”
Racehorse on track: A trotter is loose on a track, still attached to its sulky. As it passes a man standing at the rail, he attempts to stop it by smashing it in the head with the heavy end of a wooden crutch. Then the video is edited so that the man appears to be hitting the horse again and again and again, as light music plays in the background.
Child and kitties: A toddler innocently picks up a very small kitten by its tail and tries to spin it, then puts it down and steps on it. Then he picks up another small kitten and throws it down so that it lands on its back in a puddle. Then he kicks the kitten.
Cat in bucket: A man puts a cat into a bucket. Then he swings the bucket around by its handle in a very fast windmill motion, with the cat still inside, screeching.
Although Smitty believes that “America’s Funniest Home Videos” has “tapped a resource that has an end,” that end doesn’t appear in sight given the huge profits of the ABC program and the low cost of producing video-oriented series. Among others said to be proposed or set for fall is the syndicated “$1,000,000 Video Challenge.” And one of its four categories is “Kids.”
Toddlers crashing, falling or being tossed in the air and then accidentally dropped on the ground, as happened in another recent submission to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” described by Smitty?
You wonder about a society where some people equate humor with abusing animals and using kids as stunt persons.