(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Steve Heisler drops in on Tosh.0. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff views Rizzoli & Isles.)
“Tosh is a dick, but I like most of the videos, and the Web Redemptions are sometimes okay.”
My roommate said this to me about six months ago, defending his decision to start recording episodes of Tosh.0 on our DVR. Up until that point, I’d written the show off as something I wouldn’t be interested in—I’d seen Tosh perform live a few times and just found his onstage persona really smug, without the Anthony Jeselnik-like joke-writing prowess to justify it. But I watched an episode nonetheless, agreed with half my roommate's assertion, and decided my time would be better spent watching the Web Redemption segments online when someone really cool was on, like the double rainbow guy, or the one where the kid asks if he’s in real life. (I keep wanting to call it “Denny At The Dentist,” which, if you know The Room, would be another video entirely.)
But apparently I’m in the slim minority. Tosh.0 is Comedy Central’s highest rated series, pulling in four million weekly viewers at this point. (No puppets required!) For some perspective, The Daily Show sometimes gets two million on a really good day. I don’t think Tosh.0 would be as popular as it is if everyone thought Tosh was a dick, either. People love this guy, so much so that the network can make more bank on live shows, like the recent Tosh On Ice Tour.
It’s tough to watch Tosh.0, though, when a similar, far superior show is out there. Web Soup, hosted by Chris Hardwick, strives to make some order out of the chaos that is YouTube, and it’s fueled by Hardwick’s infectious joy for discovering weird, fringe people doing weird, fringe things. The culture isn’t mocked; it’s celebrated. For example, there’s a segment on Web Soup called, “Is That Really A Thing?!” and another devoted exclusively to nut shots. Yes, that last one sounds cheap, but it’s more in the vein of America’s Funniest Home Videos when someone gets hit in the nuts—sort of like, “Ouch! I wish this wasn’t as funny as it was, but I can’t help myself! Also, geez, buddy; I’m sorry,” which seems like a healthy way to embrace shameful web culture.
The vibe I get from every Tosh.0 segment—including the one he opened with tonight, where a guy jumps off a cliff with a really short bungee cord and snaps his face into the rock—is more along the lines of, “Yep… bet that guy’s in some serious pain.” There aren’t any fluke accidents in the Tosh.0 clips; the people in the videos deserved their pain. “I guess face beats rock,” Tosh quipped after showing this video. “What beats face? Chris Brown.”
Every joke on Tosh.0 is there to make Tosh look good, always at the expense of the people in the videos. The first of four segments—the show takes three commercial breaks—involves Tosh showing a short video, riffing on it for a few seconds, and moving on. Because of the show’s editing (a huge pet peeve of mine is the way Comedy Central always edits jokes too close together to allow for any space for taking a joke in), Tosh is in rapid-fire mode. A video of someone who looks like their big toe was grafted onto their pinky finger… that one garners more than a couple responses, and of course, Tosh spares the guy no expense, finding painstaking, Khloe Kardashian-inspired ways to say, “That’s a huge finger.” Later there’s a Web Breakdown segment, where a video is shown, then dissected. Tonight, it was a video of a convenience store clerk getting hit by a car. I’m all for giving something extra attention if it’s exceedingly odd or if it wasn’t clear upon the first pass what actually happened. But this one is fairly cut-and-dry: Guy gets hit by a car, and the passenger gets out like nothing happened. By the end of the Breakdown, Tosh is grasping at straws, joking about women drivers and non-white convenience store operators. Apparently, it’s not considered hacky if there’s grainy video attached.
Even the Web Redemption video tonight focused more on Tosh than it did the person he’s trying to redeem. A Phillies fan was Tasered at a game after running on the field, which was a video I’d never heard of despite the fact that it’s more than a year old (which is, like, infinity years in Internet time). By the time the next commercial break rolled around, the fan had Tasered a security guard, thus completing the mandatory amount of redemption. The rest, though, involved Tosh taking off his clothes, Tosh riffing about a cross-dressing hooker, Tosh destroying his car, and Tosh asking questions where the question itself is a joke and no answer’s required.
There’s a huge asterisk that could be attached to all this. If you like Tosh, then of course the episode is going to be enjoyable. Presumably, I’d like Tosh a lot more if I was able to get much of a sense of who he was—besides the guy who makes snippy comments from the sidelines. Tosh.0 leaves little room for Tosh if you really add it up. It was a mere three or four minutes before the first commercial break, and Tosh delivered his jokes so quickly, I feared he’d run out of breath. The Web Redemption was a step in the right direction, but he followed it up with a sketch that he didn’t appear in, and worse, it was a sketch where the joke was apparent within the first few seconds, then never went anywhere else. (It was a play on “It Gets Better” called “It Gets Way, Way, Way, Way, Way Worse,” about straight marriage and those nagging wives!!!) The final segment was a series of promotions for Tosh’s live show, the fact that he accepts user-submissions, his Twitter feed, and the next episode. I’d say a good half of the episode involved Tosh not talking. It’s no wonder that when he does speak, he needs to make every joke about himself.
Here’s what I will say, though: There were videos I cringed at. There were videos I snickered at. There were videos I watched with great interest. It’s just simple human nature that when people do weird things, I’m going to be subconsciously drawn to them—like when I see a homeless woman pull down her pants or power walkers. And yes, there were a few lines of Tosh’s that got me (though any comment about NBA Jam is, to pardon to expression, a slam-dunk for my comic sensibilities). From a purely video perspective, Tosh.0 can certainly be compelling.
But Tosh.0 is to Daniel Tosh as YouTube is to YouTube comments: They come from a place of snark, cruelty, and laziness. And sure, maybe it’s fake-snark, fake-cruelty, and fake-laziness, but it’s YouTube comments all the same; it’s noise. Daniel Tosh is popular because he says the things people secretly want Internet trolls to say—so they can marvel at the trolls' audacity. I'm not above that, sure, but it’s not something I strive to experience on a regular basis.
Much in the same way I rarely read YouTube comments, I’m rarely going to be watching Daniel Tosh. Because while I like most of the videos, and the Web Redemptions are sometimes okay, Tosh is a dick—or rather, he comes off as one. And we all know the best way to deal with Internet trolls is to ignore them.