Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Watching Someone Get Hit in the Nuts Has Always United Humanity

The history of bloopers, from phonograph fuck-ups to today’s YouTube variety

If you look at the internet today, there are a few things that you can learn about humanity:

1. Our political systems have serious problems.

2. Communicating without using real faces or names can strip us of our empathy and turn us into cruelty machines.

3. We love bloopers!

No, seriously. Humans love bloopers. They tick so many of our brains’ little checkboxes. There’s the schadenfreude element — that joy of seeing someone else fail, especially someone who seems infallible, like a celebrity or pro athlete. There’s the subversion of expectations — you’re seeing something that you expect to go one way go very much another. And then there’s that great human truism, perhaps the thing that ties us together the most as a species — it’s always funny when people get hit in the nuts.

Bloopers have surely existed for as long as long as humans have been able to see other humans make mistakes, but for our purposes, we’re going to start with boners. Boners are the bloopers of yesteryear, and not just because having an inopportune boner is like your own little blooper machine. Before it meant erection, “boner” was actually what people called bloopers. (According to The Dictionary of American Slang, the use of “boner” as we firmly know it didn’t arise until the 1950s.) So even in 1952, it was totally okay to put a book on the shelves with this title:

Other wonderfully titled boner books include The Pocket Book of Boners, The 2nd Boners Omnibus, and perhaps my favorite, Prize Boners for 1932 (a great year for boners, guys). “Boners” could refer to any type of error, such as in a newspaper, but boner books often fell into one of two categories. Newspaper boners…

Image from ‘The Rotatrian,’ January 1956

…and boners from schoolchildren. Like, you know how you have that friend on Facebook who always shares “funny” stuff their kid says, but it’s not all that funny unless you’re there when the kid says it? That’s basically what schoolkid boners were. At best they reach the level of dad joke. For example, here’s a boner from the 1940 book 10,000 Jokes, Toasts & Stories:

All people were petrified during the Stone Age.

If you want to come back later because you need time to do all of your laughing, I totally understand.

According to the Associated Press, the first recorded boner is on an Edison-recorded tinfoil cylinder from 1878. On the recording, a man tries to recite “Old Mother Hubbard,” but flubs the lines and says, “Look at me; I don’t know the song.” (He also apparently didn’t know the difference between a song and a rhyme.)

If anybody should be credited with popularizing audio bloopers and getting “blooper” to replace “boner,” it’s Kermit Schafer. I first discovered Schafer in the labyrinthine deep-discount section of a used bookstore, the sort of section where self-published memoirs and software manuals from 1996 go to die. That’s where I found a copy of Schafer’s 1979 book Prize Bloopers. The 130-page book is just short paragraphs recounting flubs people made on TV and radio, occasionally punctuated with illustrations. For example:

DISC JOCKEY: “And now from Paul Simon, ’50 Ways to Love Your Liver.’”

And:

On radio station WLEC, Sandusky, Ohio, the station presents eerie Edgar Allan Poe stories and ghost stories on Halloween. Program Director Karl Bates presides over the proceedings and bills himself as “Your Master of Suspense.” Following a commercial, the announcer turned the program back to Karl with the words, “And now, Master Bates.”

And “bloopers” that appear to just be bad writing:

Heard on “All My Children”: “If your father were alive, he’d turn over in his grave.”

If you’d think that humor this tepid couldn’t last more than one book, you’d be so, so wrong. Schafer created dozens of blooper books, records and TV specials — basically, he made millions by building an empire based on other people’s mistakes.

However, Schafer is also equally famous for his fabrications of those mistakes. The producer repeatedly came under fire because several of the audio bloopers he released were real in spirit, but not in fact. For example, radio broadcaster Harry von Zell famously spoonerized President Herbert Hoover’s name on the radio in 1931, calling him Hoobert Heever. This tame flub would have been consumed by the langoliers, except that Schafer claimed to have a recording of the audio — and claimed that the mistake actually happened as von Zell was introducing Hoover live on air. Neither of these things is true, according to Snopes: The audio was fake. But truth doesn’t necessarily sell records.

There’s a format that’s harder to fake, though — video.

Dick Clark took over the blooper helm after Schafer’s death, launching a series of blooper specials, as well as a weekly TV show hosted by Clark, TV’s Censored Bloopers. (If you have a hazy memory of this actually being hosted by Ed McMahon, that’s either because in 1984, the Clark show melded with a show McMahon was doing with old commercials, or it’s because Ed McMahon is haunting your dreams.) The mid-1980s is also when VHS tapes started becoming affordable for the masses, leading to that great American tradition of the 1980s and 1990s: the mail-order blooper videocassette.

Bloopers had always been ephemeral, and it felt like a bit of magic to see one on a live broadcast. But for the first time ever, you could watch them on demand. It was like suddenly being able to catch a shooting star, but with more goofy sound effects:

Bloopers started being seen less as embarrassments and more as bonuses. Sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air started showing their bloopers under the credits. Films started appending bloopers to the end in the early 1970s, and even more productions released them as it became easy to package a DVD with extras.

Bloopers had what might be their last great pre-internet gasp with Celebrities… At Their Worst!, the spiritual baby of Kermit Schafer’s albums. The first of the CDs was released in 1998 and included the famous Casey Kasem dead dog rant (which was also famously sampled by Negativland):

There were a couple more volumes of Celebrities… At Their Worst!, but the cheapening of bloopers was already on its way. Internet file-sharing made bloopers easier to share — Napster came out in 1999. And as technology improved and everybody started carrying cellphones, it became simpler to capture bloopers as well — gone were the days of needing someone to sneak a tape of some celebrity’s foul-mouthed rant out of a studio. Now, bloopers are captured and served online early and often; every Twitter user worth their digital salt knows to screengrab a celebrity’s embarrassing tweet before it gets deleted so the blooper can have its one hour of viral fame.

I know it’s such an old-man cane shake to say that bloopers were better when they were harder to get, but watching bloopers online feels like getting an unwrapped gift instead of a wrapped one; it’s less special. There’s less ceremony. It doesn’t matter, though: We’ll be watching bloopers on the internet until the earth blows up or humans become beings of pure consciousness, whichever comes first. But I bet that even when we’re creatures made of light, freed of our corporeal bodies, we’ll still find it funny when someone gets hit in the balls.