In the early 1990s, perhaps my favorite part of the week happened between 7:00 and 7:22 on Sundays, when America’s Funniest Home Videos broadcast their best submissions.
It’s hard to convey how precious this material was at the time. A good video of someone dropping a birthday cake down the stairs, or tumbling headlong into a kiddie pool during a dizzy-bat race, was still a rare and hilarious sight. Those perfect moments of comedic human accident were captured on video only rarely, because camcorders were still an expensive luxury item. To have all the best camcordered clips concentrated in one place was something truly special. Laughing at them with my parents and sister made for some of the best quality family time I remember.
There was only that twenty-two minutes per week though. (The final eight minutes of the show always consisted of Bob Saget drawing out the awarding of the weekly ten-thousand-dollar prize.) As with most highly gratifying things, supply was very limited. After that you had to do something else.
Today, those natural consumption limits don’t exist. You can watch videos of people fumbling cakes and falling in pools all day long. Everyone is filming everything all the time, and TikTok and Instagram offer endless reels of the funniest bits. You can watch wedding dances gone wrong, family dogs stealing unattended sandwiches, and spouses pranking each other with air horns and fake spiders — truckloads of what was once only available in that precious 22-minute weekly stretch.
However, if you spend any amount of time consuming this sort of content, intentionally or incidentally, you might have noticed over the past two years a dramatic increase in how much of it is fake or staged. A person falls down on purpose and “hilariously” flings their milkshake at the wall. A man plays a “prank” on his wife, who feigns surprise and indignation. A dog does a trick and the family pretends this is a spontaneous event they have never seen before.
There was always fake content, even in the days of AFHV, because you can fool some of the people all of the time, and fooling people into giving you views and clicks (and perhaps a ten-thousand dollar prize) has benefits. What’s unsettling to me is how the fake stuff has recently become more common than the real stuff. Just Google “prank on my wife,” and you will see mostly obvious fakes, even though a real prank would take only slightly more effort.
Strangely, the fake “funny moment” video has risen to prominence even while there are undoubtedly more real hilarious moments being filmed than ever, now that everyone has a recording device in their hands 33% of their waking lives.
My theory is that even though the supply of such content has gone up ten- or twenty-fold since the advent of the camera phone, the demand for such effortlessly-consumable content has recently skyrocketed to ludicrous proportions — especially since March 2020. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of millions of people were suddenly home and bored and unhappy, and began to consume far more of this sort of low-stakes screen-based gratification than ever before. Even with billions of people filming each other carrying wedding cakes and attempting to ride unicycles, there are only so many genuinely hilarious surprises getting captured, and it isn’t enough to fulfil the bottomless appetite of bored people swiping through them daily by the hundred.
Most disturbing of all is how many people seemingly have no ability to recognize the forced laughter, contrived setup, and omniscient camerawork that make a fraudulent “hilarious moment” so obvious. The vast majority of comments are of credulous laughing emojis and expressions of amazement. When the odd commenter points out the obvious deception, the crowd either denies the charges, or argues that it doesn’t matter if it’s fake or not, it’s still funny.
Now, if you’ve never been one for TikTok, Instagram Reels, or AFHV for that matter, this post may sound like someone ranting about an obscure phenomenon happening in some niche corner of the internet, like Star Wars fans complaining about the latest casting announcement. Perhaps it is partly that, but I believe this counterfeit video phenomenon is an omen of a much greater culture-wide danger, which philosophers have been warning us about for half a century now.
At first I was puzzled that so many viewers could be fooled by bad fakes, when to me they’re about as convincing as a dollar-store fake moustache. Then a terrifying thought dawned on me: I see through the fraud because I was born in 1980, and I still know what real life looks like. I know how people react to real-life comical situations, for example, because even though I grew up in the age of TV, I still spent far more of my youth observing reality than fabricated representations of reality. Today’s youth aren’t so lucky.
How Reality Shrinks
The Media Insider did a pretty good video illustrating a phenomenon Jean Baudrillard pointed out in the late 20th century: art and culture starts out focused on depicting the real world around us — nature, people, and the cosmos — but ends up focused on depicting art and culture itself.
Basically, culture is the stuff we make that depicts reality — film, books, blog posts, photos, paintings, songs, video clips, tweets — content, in other words. People make stuff that depicts reality because they find reality meaningful, especially when it’s sad, funny, just, unjust, beautiful, or awe-inspiring. People write poems about nature, direct films about unrequited love, and build temples decorated with sun emblems.
But what happens in an age when cultural content is generated and consumed in such great amounts that most of a person’s reality consists of consuming content? And what happens when much of that content isn’t even depicting reality anymore, but other content made in the past?
You might enjoy a podcast about a TV show that was based on a book that was based on traditional religious ideas. Satire of satire. Memes of memes. Reality — the original reference point for all of this — becomes more distant and more obscure in people’s minds and lives.
Seen from this perspective, the plague of fake videos, and the inability for young viewers to detect the unreality of them, makes sense. Not only are people losing the ability to discern between reality and fabrication, but they’re losing the sense that there is anything better, or more important, about reality. To someone whose life contains just as many depictions of laughter as real experiences of it, a staged joke with forced laughter becomes just as worthy of attention as the genuine surprise and resulting involuntary laughter we call comedy. (Even AFHV was known for the creepily embellished laughter of its studio audience.)
We’re all subject to this “shrinking reality” effect, but the younger you are, the more danger you’re in. Members of my generation have heads permanently filled with Simpsons and Seinfeld references, for example (if you recognize the phrases, “You don’t win friends with salad”, or “These pretzels are making me thirsty,” we probably have a lot to talk about), and of course those shows were themselves made of satirized depictions of both the reality of the 1990s and the other content we were consuming at the time.
I have no solution to this problem except to be aware of it, and not to discount its seriousness. Reality can be devalued by too much content consumption, especially when it’s content about content. Perhaps we should make sure to give ourselves intentional daily doses of first-order reality, in the same way we try to drink enough glasses of water, in the form of regular nature walks, physical hobbies, and face-to-face conversations.
Habits of automatic content consumption, such as always watching movies while you wash dishes, or always cruising Reddit while you go to the bathroom, seem especially dangerous. When those routines involve inexhaustible swiping or scrolling, it may not be inappropriate to consider the habit a properly dangerous one, because reality has so clearly lost the war for your attention in those situations.
That’s the healthier ideal I imagine, anyway — I say all this as a very content-addled and addicted person. It’s pretty scary how far we can slip, even if we’re careful. Just as some of us are already lamenting the loss of the Era of the Internet Being Fun and Interesting, I suspect we will one day look back wistfully on that innocent time, which is maybe still happening, when reality still made up the bulk of our reality.