America's Funniest Home Videos creator returns home

by Carl Lavigne / Beacon Staff • October 30, 2013

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Di Bona came back to his alma mater and chatted with a student after his presentation.
Beacon Staff
Di Bona came back to his alma mater and chatted with a student after his presentation.
Beacon Staff

When Vin Di Bona’s friend Henry Winkler sent him a script, he passed up a $100,000 job to take a chance on it.  The script eventually became the hit series MacGyver.  Di Bona pulled a lesson from this experience that he shared with Emerson students: take risks.

“You’ve got to play with fire sometime,” he said.

Emerson’s chapter of the National Broadcasting Society hosted a talk with the Emerson alumnus and creator of America’s Funniest Home Videos inside the Di Bona Family Studio in the Tufte Center.  Joshua Waterman, NBS President, said he invited Di Bona, who graduated in 1966, because he embodies Emerson College’s spirit.

Di Bona spoke about his experiences in Hollywood, from schmoozing with A-list elites to his first nine months without a job.  The first half of the event was predominantly Di Bona sharing his life story, while the second half was an open question and answer session.  Di Bona encouraged students to persevere and persist.

“The thing about Emerson students [is] the word ‘no’ doesn’t exist in our lexicon when we get out of here,” he said.  “The word ‘no’ should just be water off our backs.”

Di Bona said he began his career at Emerson at the WECB and WERS radio stations.  During his second year at the college, he got interested in television.  He described his first film project as overwhelming.

“I was scared shitless,” he said.  “I said ‘television is not for me.’  But by the second project, I started to feel better about myself.”

In 1986, Di Bona was part of a deal that would eventually make him the creator of the longest-running prime-time show on ABC. CBS Network had an agreement that allowed it to use all of Tokyo Broadcasting’s content and publish it in the U.S.  Tokyo Broadcasting offered Di Bona a show that featured animals doing silly things to get food, and he tried to get it on American television.

“I pitched it 136 times,” Di Bona said.  “No buys.”

But 136 rejections was just the beginning.  He finally sold the rights to the show to ABC, and the show, Animal Crack-Ups, was on air  for three years.

In 1989, Di Bona said Tokyo Broadcasting approached him with a variety show.  He stripped the show of its music and comedy sections, leaving only the funny home video contest.  He said he sold the idea to ABC in four minutes

Throughout his years in Hollywood, Di Bona said he kept his alma mater in mind.  He contributed money to build his eponymous studio in the Tufte center, and has been a strong supporter of Emerson’s Los Angeles program.  He said he always wanted to come back and help students get the education he did.

“When I left campus … I made a promise that I’d build a television studio,” he said.

Di Bona said he has contributed more than just money to the Emerson community.  Taylor Kissin, a junior visual and media arts major, said he felt the time Di Bona spent telling students his life story was well worth the time.

“It was a very rewarding conversation,” Kissin said.  “I’m happy he was willing to share.”

Di Bona spent a lot of time promoting Emerson’s new LA campus. He highlighted the intimacy between Emerson’s campus and Hollywood.  Unlike other film schools in the area, Emerson’s campus is located in the heart of Hollywood.

Di Bona fielded questions from the audience on topics ranging from YouTube’s encroachment on his funny home video territory, to what made a good audition tape.  Due to the ever-changing nature of television, students were eager to ask an established professional.

Julian Cohen, a junior visual and media arts major who attended the event, said he appreciated Di Bona’s sincerity and honesty.

“It’s good to have someone who’s been here,” he said.

Di Bona noted the importance of young minds and fresh ideas in the television industry.  While professionals like himself know what they’re doing, he said, younger generations know what’s new and popular.  He said a traditional education is still important — students who want to be a part of the television industry need to know how to create a coherent story.

“They’re not going to hand you the keys to the castle,” he said, “just because you’ve got a good idea and you’re a nice person.”