In a recent episode of the Comedy Central series Tosh.0, host Daniel Tosh showed a clip of a woman who’d had an accident on her bicycle and ended up with a piece of hand-brake stuck in her leg. Tosh popped out a few one-liners about the clip, including this gem: “Ladies, this is why we invented stationary bikes for you.” That’s a pretty typical Tosh.0 joke: mild enough to make gripers seem humorless, but offensive enough to make Tosh seem daringly un-PC, as though he’s working without a filter. The joke typifies everything that’s made Tosh.0 a success, and Tosh himself divisive among comedy and TV fans.
Some comedians rallied to Tosh’s defense a couple of weeks ago when he reportedly suggested that it’d be funny if a vocal objector to one of his rape jokes got gang-raped herself, because comedians tend to believe that their mandate is to be funny regardless of whether they hurt anyone’s feelings. And they aren’t necessarily wrong. Even the most painstakingly non-offensive comic is bound to end up rubbing someone the wrong way, so it makes sense for comedians to err on the side of getting laughs, given the nature of the job. But one of the reasons so many non-comedians jumped on Tosh hard after the rape-joke incident is because to a large degree, he’s built a TV career out of being smug and mean, and that’s exactly the type of media personality whom people enjoy seeing getting a comeuppance.
I’m not going to judge whether Daniel Tosh is funny, because humor is way too subjective. On the rare occasions when I watch Tosh.0 or see Tosh do stand-up, he does make me laugh about 25 percent of the time, but also cringe about 25 percent of the time. During the other 50 percent, I can appreciate that he’s a pro. He’s quick, he’s charismatic, and he knows how to work an audience—and those are skills we don’t value enough here in the United States. In the UK, for example, “presenters” are a unique, thriving class of celebrity, while around these parts, television hosts are frequently the subject of ridicule, mocked as talentless fame-whores. But honestly, it isn’t easy to host a show—be it a talk show, game show, reality-competition show, or clip show—and Tosh does the job about as well as anyone on TV.
Clearly, Comedy Central agrees. Tosh.0 is in the middle of its fourth season, with a fifth likely on the way. The show has been a ratings success, even though it doesn’t have the critical cachet of Peabody-friendly Comedy Central staples like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Yet how much of that success is due to Tosh, and how much is due to the primary content of the show, much of which is culled from the Internet? In terms of actual format, Tosh.0 isn’t that different from I Love The 80’s or America’s Funniest Home Videos—or even from shows as seemingly far afield as SportsCenter or the nightly news—in that they all compile existing footage and repackage it in a compact, easy-to-digest way, relying on hosts, reporters, and commentators to set up the clips and offer some thoughts. And they tend to lean heavier on the comments than the clips.
I suspect the major reason for this is tied to the era in which we live. The perception among TV executives in 2012 is that their target audience can find any video clip they like on the Internet—from sports highlights to kooky kittens—so it’s TV’s job to add value to non-unique content. That’s why sports fans who try to watch last night’s highlights in the morning are instead subjected to endless analysis. That’s why a simple idea like SyFy’s recent Insane Or Inspired?—which compiled clips of ordinary people trying crazy stunts—was peppered with talking-head comedians spouting such witticisms as, “This isn’t going to end well,” and, “Holy spinal injury, Batman!” Even if what the hosts and analysts are saying is inane, the presumption is that the audience won’t watch without something going on besides just clips.
Even before YouTube, TV shows built around pre-existing footage relied on strong hosts, as a way to set themselves apart from the other TV shows built around pre-existing footage—and also because people working in TV do like to be creative, even when their format doesn’t seem to demand it. As to whether the audience wants them to be creative, well, there’s evidence to support both sides of the issue.
Personally, I’ve never heard anyone say there should be less video and more jabber on these kinds of shows. On the other hand, it’s probably fair to say that Tosh.0 wouldn’t exist without The Soup, the popular E!clip show formerly known as Talk Soup. That series became a critical hit and an audience favorite with the same basic style Tosh.0 later copied, with a smart-ass host standing in front of a green-screen backdrop and making wisecracks about videos that were all over TV and the Internet the previous week. It’s also probably fair to say that The Soup wouldn’t be as well-liked if not for the way host Joel McHale and his writers bring a particular point of view to the material, simultaneously righteously disgusted and perversely delighted by what gets shown on television these days. An all-clips/no-jokes Soup wouldn’t work.
Not so long ago, though, Tosh.0 wasn’t the only Soup clone on the airwaves; the two shows shared space with The Dish, Sports Soup, and Web Soup. Now all those shows are gone, and aside from The Soup and Tosh.0, the basic-cable clip show has largely returned to the abysmal talking-head/wink-’n’-smirk VH1 model. Did the Soup copies die off because their hosts and writers weren’t clever enough? Or was it because the kind of material they were highlighting—viral videos and crazy moments from sports and reality shows—didn’t really need a host?
The end of Web Soup is especially instructive because it debuted right around the same time as Tosh.0, in June 2009. At the time, I wrote a blog post comparing the two, and decided Web Soup used its viral-video content better, and that Chris Hardwick was a more likeable host, though a less-polished one. But I also praised Tosh.0 for its ambition, noting that it featured some inspired original content, anchored with panache by Tosh. By the end of that summer, I’d mostly stopped watching both. I quit Web Soup because it was starting to lean harder on gross-out material—perhaps to compete with the vomit-and-poop-heavy Tosh.0. I quit Tosh.0 because Tosh himself seemed to lack any kind of self-deprecation or empathy, and frequently came off as a bully toward people who’d already embarrassed themselves. (To be fair, The Soup and McHale sometimes have this issue as well.)
But it’d be shortsighted to say Tosh.0 has thrived solely because of its video clips, especially given that those alone weren’t enough to keep Web Soup around. Viewers are clearly responding to Tosh, with his rapid-fire delivery and willingness to be obnoxious. And checking back in on the show of late, I see everything I praised it for back in 2009 is still in evidence. Earlier this season, Tosh did a bit where he auctioned off memorabilia for charity, then took the money he raised to Las Vegas to risk it all on one hand of blackjack. It was a funny sketch, playing off the tension of the situation, and relying on the audience’s awareness that Tosh is just enough of a dick (on camera, at least) to blow a wad of cash earmarked for charity.
And that’s the major key to why Tosh.0 is still around while so many similar shows are gone. There’s might yet be a place on TV for a clip show that just shows clips, with little to no hosting presence. But if a show like this is going to have a host, better that host be someone with vision and a persona—even if a lot of viewers hate him for both.