Lights, Camera, Extraction!

Kids are pulling out their teeth with a string and a slammed door—and filming it for YouTube.

Missing tooth.

Photo by Digital Vision/Thinkstock

There are lots of ways to lose a tooth—a punch in the mouth, a face-first fall on the sidewalk, a career as a hockey player. But there’s one way that’s particularly iconic: tying one end of a string to the tooth, the other end to a doorknob, and then slamming the door.

I’m not sure where I first saw the doorknob method, but it was definitely in a comedic setting—maybe in an old Warner Bros. cartoon, or in this Three Stooges routine. Perhaps this is why I’ve always considered the doorknob method to be inherently slapstick and absurdist, or maybe it’s been featured in comedic settings because it is inherently slapstick and absurdist. Either way, it never occurred to me that regular people were using string and doorknobs to remove their teeth, especially in the 21st century.

Recently, however, I was poking around on YouTube, where I clicked on one of those “Related Videos” links and found myself viewing a formative, doorknob-driven moment in the life of a young girl named Caitlin:

As I soon discovered, there are hundreds of similar videos floating around on YouTube—a genre unto itself. Not all the videos are as simple and straightforward as Caitlin’s (and few have supporting characters as good as her little brother, who offers to shoot out her tooth with his BB gun), but most hew to the same basic blueprint, which typically includes a parent or other authority figure providing introductory narration; a young child with a loose baby tooth, which is often wiggled to excruciating effect in the video’s opening moments; the child’s brief, somewhat muted exclamation of “Ow!” a second or two after the moment of extraction; and a search, usually successful, for the liberated tooth. Most of the videos also feature a post-extraction shot of the child’s toothless grin, and a triumphant close-up of the extracted tooth, although Caitlin’s videographer—clearly a minimalist—opted not to include those elements.

Tooth extraction videos tend to run only a minute or two, but they make for surprisingly riveting viewing, primarily because of the tension involved. Caitlin was a smiling and apparently eager participant in her video, but the children in other videos are often palpably nervous. Sometimes the parents are nervous too, although they’re more often egging the kids on. It’s not uncommon to hear a parent cheerily saying something to the effect of “This is what my parents did for me when I was growing up, and I didn’t want to deny that experience to my kid!” Meanwhile, the child is sitting there with a string on his tooth and an unhappy look on his face, stripped of dignity and agency (which, when you think about it, is how many of us feel in a dentist’s chair). The cumulative effect is oddly compelling. And though you sometimes end up watching through latticed fingers, the ending is almost always a happy one, which makes it easy to click on the next video, at which point the tension ratchets back up and the whole process repeats itself.

Some of the videos offer SportsCenter-worthy highlights. Occasionally, for example, you’ll get a good view of the tooth popping out of the kid’s mouth. In this case, the videographer was thoughtful enough to provide a slow-motion replay of that key moment:

And even if everything happens too quickly for you to see the tooth popping out, there’s something very satisfying about hearing the clickety-clack of the tooth hitting the floor (which is why doorknob videos should never be shot in a carpeted room):

As you can see, that last video branched out a bit from our previous examples, because the extraction was executed via a refrigerator door, not a room door. This marks the beginning of a subgenre. Cabinet doors, RV doors, even garage doors—there’s apparently no type of door that can’t be repurposed as a dental instrument:

These videos raise an obvious question: Why don’t the parents just yank the string themselves, instead of tying it to a door? The answer, I think, is twofold. First, pulling a tooth right out of your child’s mouth seems a bit harsh. The door functions as a buffer that deflects culpability: “I’m not doing this to you; the door is doing it!”

Moreover, there’s something appealingly Rube Goldberg-ish about the doorknob method. You’re not just removing a tooth, you’re devising a machine. How often do most of us get to do that? You can hear the satisfaction people derive from this when they slam the door and then exclaim, “It worked!,” clearly delighted that something so analog can still produce a desired result in our increasingly digital world.

* * *

By now a certain nagging concern has probably occurred to you. “Sure, doorknob dentistry is entertaining,” you’re thinking, “but is it safe?” It’s a fair question. At the very least, the process seems a tad unsanitary, no? Perhaps we should consult an expert—an expert like Dr. John Rubinstein, a respected New York dentist who happens to have cared for my teeth since 1988 without once resorting to strings or doors.

I assumed Dr. Rubinstein would reflexively pooh-pooh the doorknob method simply as a matter of professional protocol. Surely anyone with a dental license must be required by some sort of fraternal code to say, “Don’t try this at home,” right? So I was surprised when his attitude toward the doorknob method turned out to be surprisingly laissez-faire. “If the tooth is loose and it’s bothersome to the child, there’s nothing wrong with removing it that way,” he said. “Sure, you could say, ‘Someone could get hurt’ or ‘It could cause an infection,’ but the chances of that happening are extremely remote.”

So there you go, the official blessing of a professional. And maybe that’s not so surprising, because dentistry, string, and doors all date back several thousand years, which means early dentists may have employed or even pioneered the doorknob method themselves. While we’ll never know who Doorknob Patient Zero was, it’s a safe bet he or she lived a long, long time ago.

But that was then. Why should we restrict ourselves to doorknobs now that modern society has provided us with so many other moving or movable objects to which we can attach the business end of the string? That question has apparently occurred to scores of enterprising YouTubers, who’ve devised and documented a near-endless series of string-based tooth extraction methods that make the doorknob approach seem primitive by comparison. And while it’s easy to dismiss some of the resulting videos as Jackass outtakes, I prefer to see them as inspiring signs of America’s enduring ingenuity.

The non-doorknob methods can be broken down into four primary categories, each characterized by the types of objects used to extract the teeth, as follows:

1. Things With Wheels. Virtually anything that rolls can be harnessed to remove a tooth. This is a fairly large category, so let’s start with the smallest wheeled objects and progress to the largest, beginning with a model train:

Next up is a skateboard:

Then a radio-controlled Hummer:

Pedal power works, as you can see with this tricycle:

A motorized vehicle seems like overkill, but that hasn’t stopped people from using a golf cart:

Or a Harley:

Sometimes you just can’t get the job done without a full-size car:

And we conclude this category by taking it to its logical extreme—a 4x4 Ford truck:

2. Balls and Other Sports-Related Things. If you can throw it, bounce it, kick it, or whack it, chances are someone has tied it to a tooth. We’ll begin with the national pastime, baseball. (The boy in full uniform is a nice touch.):

You can also use a football:

Or a basketball:

Or a soccer ball:

Or a tennis ball:

Or a golf ball:

Hockey doesn’t use a ball, but no worries—a puck works just as well:

3. Things That Fly. Humans have always been fascinated by flight—all the more so, it appears, when the flying object in question is connected to a tooth. First up is a paper airplane:

Next we have a toy plane:

A Nerf dart works well:

As does a bow and arrow:

And surely you knew this was coming—a model rocket:

4. Living Things. From sled dogs to plow mules, animals have long been deployed to provide the power for certain tasks—a list of tasks to which we can now add tooth extraction. Let’s begin with man’s best friend, the family dog:

Cats are notoriously persnickety when it comes to doing as they’re told, but here’s one that managed to perform more or less on cue:

A rabbit? Sure, why not:

But why press a pet into service when a sibling can do the job just as well:

* * *

There’s more, but you get the gist. Whatever else you can say about all these methods, they’ve no doubt made life a lot more interesting for the Tooth Fairy.

The funny thing, though, is that all of these methods are unnecessary. “There’s no need to do any of this, because the baby tooth will fall out on its own,” said Dr Rubinstein, my dentist. “But often it’s something that makes the parents feel better.”