The Roots of Reality TV Go Back More Than 60 Years


Jimmy Johnson can thank Allen Funt for his stint on Survivor

On This Date in History:  With the success of Survivor on US airwaves in 2000, the trend for the first decade of 21st century American television has been “reality” tv.  We’ve seen everything from washed up celebrities sharing a house to Donald Trump firing people for ratings.  While Survivor seems to have been derived from a 1997 Swedish television show, the history of the genre really goes back farther than that; much farther.  While this notion may leave you scratching your head, it’s really something that even the youngest of Americans have probably heard of, even if they never saw it.

Allen Funt Was A Creative Genius in Early TV

On this date in 1948, Candid Camera debuted. Its creator, Cornell University gradutate Allen Funt, was somewhat of a prodigy.  He graduated from high school at 15 and, after graduating from Cornell, he attended Columbia University school of Business Administration and then took some art classes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  That led him to a job in the art department of an advertising agency and then a copywriter.  From there, he was transferred to the radio department.  His radio experience was used in his service in the US Army Signal Corps where he experimented with location recording.  The predecessor to the tape recorder was a device known as a wire recorder and the mobility of the recorder allowed him to try out several concealment techniques.  That led to a career in radio following the war when he took his skills to ABC Radio and a show he called Candid Microphone.  The budget must have been tight because Allen Funt played the roles of several different characters to set up the gags on unsuspecting people.  He played the part of a dentist or a mechanic or some other occupation to create situations in which the victim would react to some unexpected set of circumstances.   Here is a sample of a Candid Microphone episode with Bela Lugosi (part1) (part 2) He took the concept to TV but for the first season he kept the name Candid Microphone.

Candid Microphone Bits Are Still Available

Candid Camera is much catchier and made more sense for TV and it was probably pretty fortunate for Funt that he wised up.  In developing the show, Funt is credited with hidden camera style comedy programming.  At one time or another, Candid Camera was shown on all three television networks but it had its greatest success on CBS from 1960 to 1966.  After that, it lived on as a syndicated show.  There have been  several attempts to revive the show, most recently with Funt’s son as the host.  But, it never really caught the same fire it had in the past.  But, with the Internet and camera phones, the concept lives on today but in its day, Candid Camera provided some of the funniest moments in television history. If you think about it, Funt really created reality TV. So I guess we can blame him for Big Brother.  The Museum of Broadcast in Communications credits Candid Camera as “the first and longest running reality-based comedy program.”

Kids are Always Great TV

Allen Funt will forever be known for his Candid Camera antics and, after he got in front of the camera instead of behind the microphone, he became quite the celebrity.  Funt was once offered a citation for bravery from the FAA.  Seems that in the early 1970’s, he was on an airplane that was hijacked with the villains demanding that the flight be diverted to Cuba.  Now, the passengers had all seen Funt and recognized him from this successful tv show.  So, they assumed that it was a Candid Camera gag.  The passengers repeatedly broke out in laughter at the hijackers actions and, at one point, broke out in applause.  The folks on the plane were not the least bit nervous and the hijackers were totally perplexed.  Funt turned down the award saying that he was just another passenger.  The truth was, he was probably the most terrified person on the plane because he was the only one who knew that it was not a joke.  After the plane landed in Cuba, all of the passengers returned safely to the United States.  By then, the rest of the passengers realized the joke that there was no joke was on them.

Funt Used His Celebrity to Raise Money for Schools in Carmel and Big Sur

I suppose Funt was running out of family friendly material for his hidden camera but there was all sorts of areas of the human experience left to be explored.  In 1970, he produced a full length film called, What Do You Say To A Naked Lady?  The premise is to uncover the reaction of people to unexpected encounters with nudity.  In one scene,  a young nude woman casually exits an elevator in an office building.  Funt also turned the cameras on a test audience watching a preview of the film.  Some members of the audience, no doubt expecting something like the tv show, were quite indignant while others were outspoken in praise.  In the 1980’s, he went even further by producing a series of adult oriented videos called Candid Candid Camera which featured nude women in various situations and ran on the Playboy Channel.  Perhaps this little bit of trivia gives some insight as to why he was twice divorced; once in 1964 and a second time in 1978.  I suppose it may have been difficult to be living with someone who liked to set up hidden cameras all over the place.  Or maybe its just difficult to live with a genius.  His creativity really pushed television entertainment forward, which I believe is lacking today.  At the turn of the century, “reality TV” was seen as a real breakthrough by those who never considered that Allen Funt had done it about a half century before.

Weather Bottom Line:  The dewpoint is back into the mid 70’s and that is pretty soupy.  In spite of the moisture, we’ll be visting the mid to upper 90’s for the rest of the week.  The only real hope for a break will be a scattered thunderstorm as a frontal boundary flops around close enough to perhaps focus some activity in our area for the next couple of days.  Look for a better chance sometime Saturday evening with a cold front approaching area.  The front will stick around as an area of low pressure moves up along the boundary and that should enhance our prospects for rain further on Sunday into the first half of Monday.  The biggest deal about it, though we need the rain, is that it will knock out the extreme heat for a few days.  So, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.


One Response

  1. I’ve love the Bela lugosi episode of Candid Microphone. Anyone interested in Bela Lugosi might like to visit my blog, Howlin’ where they can find an archive in support of the Lugosi autobiography Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in England by Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks.

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