In the week following Halloween, Jimmy Kimmel’s stunt involving kids and their candy climbed to over 20 million views on YouTube. But public fascination with the gag doesn’t change the fact that it is cruel and sadistic. It underscores the worst elements of mass media and social media, and the incendiary possibilities of combining the two.
The “joke,” as explained to viewers by Mr. Kimmel on Nov. 4, has as its premise: “You know, for kids, Halloween candy is kind of a sacred thing. For a lot of them it’s the first time they ever earn anything.”
The ABC host went on to explain that for the third year in a row he asked viewers to deceive their small children by claiming to have eaten all their candy. Parents were encouraged to record and upload videos of the reactions. “We got an avalanche of great responses,” he noted.
What followed was nearly six minutes of kids screaming, kicking and crying. One boy tells his mom, “I hate you.” A girl fights through tears to point out that she spent two hours collecting the treats. “I’ll get you,” says another girl. Mostly, the video consists of near-frantic screams by kids who appear to be only about four or five years old.
Perhaps you’re among those who find it funny.
Why? Why does the studio audience laugh through the entire piece? Why did so many parents follow Mr. Kimmel’s horrible directive? Why did NBC’s “Today” show run a big chunk of it the next morning while its five hosts hooted? Said Al Roker, laughing heartily, “The good news is, Jimmy is springing for therapy for all those children.”
Maybe our taste in entertainment is changing for the worse, but there’s a lot more going on in this case. The power of authority vested in Jimmy Kimmel by virtue of being a popular network host is enough to make a significant number of young parents suspend their own judgment of right and wrong long enough to try the gag. Many of the clips end with an admission completely lost on toddlers: “Jimmy Kimmel told me to do it.”
To be clear, this type of child abuse - and I believe intentionally provoking a happy child to cry real tears for comedic purposes is just that - is not nearly as bad as the more serious abuse that goes on every day. Yet, those crimes are not inspired by TV, at least not overtly.
If the same stunt had been tried by school teachers, there would have been immediate efforts to have them fired. If a bit with similar intensity were urged on pet owners instead of parents, I submit that the network would have been deluged with protests.
Yet, when it comes to kids, the showbiz paper Variety headlined the story, “Jimmy Kimmel’s Annual Halloween Prank Continues to Slay.” The writer, A.J. Marechal, declared, “What unfolds in each clip is apocalyptic devastation, the kind that can only bring the L-O-Ls for viewers.” LOL? OMG, what are we thinking?
I showed the segment to a business associate, a family member and a successful Hollywood producer. Each indicated initially that the material was amusing; one believed it to be “hilarious.” After discussion, however, all three became convinced that their reactions had been misguided and that they had briefly overlooked the basic cruelty in the stunt, rendering it unfunny.
I don’t credit my powers of persuasion. Rather, I believe the power is with television and social media. Just as we tend to believe that news and commentary is accurate simply because it appears on-screen, so, too, do we initially assume that if ABC-TV, its respected host, and millions of YouTube users believe something is acceptable, then it is.
Mr. Kimmel ended the presentation by saying: “Thanks to all the kids and their terrible parents who pitched in to make that possible.”
No, Jimmy. You’re a great talent and the future king of latenight, but you’ve got this one wrong. The parents aren’t terrible, they’re victims of media seduction. And your biggest mistake wasn’t persuading them to try the gag, it was using your enormous power to signal millions of others that it was OK to laugh at the sad results.