You may have heard—your periodontist may have mentioned it to you—that America is going the way of ancient Rome. A people consumed by its pleasures while anarchy whoops at the gate, etc., etc. Possibly she (your periodontist) added that the Colosseum, site of reeking end-of-empire entertainments, is no longer a physical space but a virtual one, entering our homes via the television or computer screen; and that the mob assembled there does not bay frenziedly for gladiatorial blood, as in the slaughterous days of yore, but rather titters, snuffles, chokes on its cheese puffs, and cries “Oh nooo!”as it watches YouTube clips of old people falling over at weddings.
At the extremity of this tendency, we currently find Tosh.0, Comedy Central’s miscegenated Web/stand-up/variety show, which just finished its fourth season. You know how some people get their TV through the Internet? Well, with Tosh.0, you can get the Internet through your TV. You can get, for example, homemade video of a man in bra and panties having sex with a vacuum cleaner. Or a skateboarder getting hit by a van and flying 25 feet through the air. Or an old lady gone skydiving, her undergarments exposed by an ungallant updraft. “She’s never felt so barely alive!” comments our host, Daniel Tosh.
Offensive? I should hope so. Gratuitously offensive, you might even say—the point being that real offense must always be given gratuitously, thoughtlessly, out of a casual abundance of offensiveness. Tosh is a tall young man; his good looks are impious and faintly radioactive, and his mandibles are gleaming with Internet carrion. His show is unique in its horrors, but it is not without precedent. It represents, in fact, the apocalyptic fulfillment of an entertainment format that has been with us since 1989. Clip … comment … audience laughter … another clip … pain … shame. That’s right: Tosh.0 is America’s Funniest Home Videos for ironists and rubberneckers. Which is most of us these days.
America’s Funniest Home Videos—or AFV, as the cognoscenti call it, making it sound like a hard-core band from the Bay Area—is still going strong, the low-cost, high-yield jewel in the crown of ABC’s prime-time schedule. We are now somewhere in the show’s 23rd season, chortling unabatedly at the singing dogs, the startled cats, the moaning goats, the laughing babies, the philosophical toddlers, the backyard rocketeers. Host Tom Bergeron, heir to the throne of Bob Saget and later Daisy Fuentes (alongside John Fugelsang), is compact and buoyant, his hands spread wide, looking like he might at any moment start tap-dancing—he’s surely the most telegenic person ever to have come out of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Between clips, he timewastes deliriously, smirking and twinkling and pattering; his segues are so light, they barely make sense. Then he sets up the action: “Here’s what happens when you let your kid watch too many car-toons!” And—spang!—Dad gets hit in the head with a frying pan. “Here’s a multitasking athlete doing treadmill and gymnastics at the same time!” And a kid with a gym ball in his arms leaps at a moving treadmill … rebounds bonelessly upward … lands face-first on the treadmill belt … is inverted, propelled … har har har.
Is there something wrong with us, some defect in our sympathies, that we should take such pleasure in this adventitious slapstick? Not as long as we don’t see the blood—as long as we are permitted, that is, to imagine the human body as something elastic, pneumatic, comical, along the lines of a sentient space hopper. Those AFV clips that feature sudden impact tend to cut out half a second before we hear the first moan of the victim, as the bystanders are just beginning to converge, with worried faces and outstretched hands.
Tosh.0, by contrast, is all about the 10 seconds after that. Behold a large moron in a headband, attempting, with bare feet, to carry an armful of gifts across a (deliberately) buttered floor. He slips of course, and falls; the presents go flying. “I broke my toe,” he grunts sadly—and then we see it, instantly wishing we hadn’t, the poor toe not so much broken as broken off. As each clip is replayed, Tosh tries, in a supremely idle way, to say the most merciless and terrible thing he can possibly say about it. A stunt rider revs off a ramp, overshoots the small body of water in which he was supposed to splash down, and crash-lands in a cloud of dust and injury on the opposite shore. Howls from the spectators. Groans from the audience. Tosh: “Keep the ramp. He’ll need it to get into his house from now on.” His enunciation is camp and lavish—he loves this. An Asian girl does some amazingly speedy work with a jump rope, bouncing in tiny piston-like hops while her face locks in a rapturous squint. Nothing awful happens until Tosh opens his mouth: “I bet her parents are psyched they didn’t throw her in a river when she was born—she just burned off eight bowls of rice!”
There’s no safety here, none. One feels the need for a crash helmet, a condom, a crucifix. In the 1980s, if you wanted to enjoy footage of someone having his genitals repaired after an accident involving a combine harvester, you had to go to a Butthole Surfers show. Now you can turn on Tosh.0 and see a man with a 100-pound growth on his scrotum: it bounces between his knees as he walks. The light in Tosh’s eyes—how to describe it? End-times glee, I thought at first—but that won’t really do. In one of the notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge we find a “devil at the very end of hell, warming himself at the reflection of the fire in the ice.” Frigidity, mirrored hell-glare, a tormenting flame … Now we’re getting close. Where Tom Bergeron, in his palace of laughs, sleight-of-hands us away from any discomfort, Tosh, gloating amid his Web snuff, presides in triumph over the fragmentation of all discourse, and the occasional fragmentation of the human body. “Are you not entertained?” demanded Russell Crowe’s Maximus, immortally, in Gladiator, corpses all around him, his voice ringing across awed terraces of plebs. “Is this not why you are here?” Tosh might put the question a little differently: “Are you not offended?” And he’d be holding a dildo, not a sword.
Then there’s Tosh the rogue anthropologist, the almost-journalist, exploring some particular Internet phenomenon, even to the extent of “interviewing” the people involved. (A regular feature called “Web Redemption” invites viral heroes to revisit their most spectacular humiliations. “So your idea was to focus specifically on black people?” he asks a young Russian called Vitaly, who has been dressing up as a zombie and chasing passersby through Miami’s low-income neighborhoods. “The first reaction was from a black person,” explains Vitaly, “and he ran for his life … So we were like, ‘We need some white reactions.’ So I went after white people, and they didn’t give me any reactions; they were just laughing, standing there.” “White people are fearless!” crows Tosh.
I love you, reader, and I want you to be safe, so I’m going to caution you against watching more than one episode of Tosh.0 in a single sitting. Too much of him—and really, the least amount of him is too much—induces panic, vertigo, hives, gas. “The Jesuits are about to launch a nuclear bomb that has semen in it,” confides one of his momentary clip stars, a woman possessed of a fatal unblinking earnestness, and you feel like Emily Dickinson on a shaky afternoon: And then a Plank in Reason, broke / And I dropped down—and down … I believe that in small doses, however, Tosh can inoculate you against the distemper of the times. The Colosseum sands are grating at the base of your couch, and he won’t let you forget it.