Editor's note: "TV History 101” is a new semi-regular feature on The TV Professor, looking at some of the great moments, and maybe not great moments, worth remembering in TV history. Our debut installment? We’re looking at Candid Camera.
On August 10, 1948, Candid Camera changed the course of TV history. If you love or hate reality TV, in many ways, you have its host Allen Funt to thank – or blame.
What was Candid Camera? For those who don’t remember the show and have no clue, it was a reality TV series in which practical jokes were played on unsuspecting people – and the TV audience would watch and laugh at (or with) the “victim.”
The fun was putting ordinary people in strange situations and watching their reactions.
For instance, one of the pranks involved a Candid Camera employee asking a stranger to hold a tape measure for a minute.
The person agreed, and the Candid Camera staffer took the tape measure around a building and then asked somebody else to hold the end of the tape measure for a minute -- and then he quickly left.
The two people remained there, each holding their end of the tape measure, having no idea why or how long they'd have to stand there – and having no clue that they’re secretly being filmed.
It was all in good fun, and generally by the end, when Allen Funt revealed to them what had just transpired and said his catchphrase, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,” the victims were laughing as well.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
A Little About the History of Candid Camera
The TV series actually began a little over a year earlier on radio, with the title Candid Microphone on June 28, 1947. But it was really a series meant for TV.
Funt was born in 1914, the son of a New York City diamond merchant. He attended art school after graduating from high school at the age of 15 and earned a degree from Cornell University and became a commercial artist. World War II interrupted things, however, and Funt wound up in the Army Signal Corp, serving at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, working and experimenting with radio equipment. That came in handy later.
In fact, partially what led to Candid Camera was that Funt suggested morale at the post would be improved if the GIs were given a chance to air their gripes. Funt set up a “gripe room” where soldiers good gripe about their superiors. Later, Funt played the gripes back on recordings for the entertainment of the troops, officers included. It was a hit.
After the war, at some point, Funt wound up being a copywriter and one of his jobs was to come up with ideas for radio shows. Candid Microphone was one of those ideas.
The longevity of this series is almost unreal. Here’s a timeline of its many incarnations.
1948-49. Candid Camera airs on ABC. Doesn’t last too long, though.
1949-51. So ABC drops it, but NBC picks it right back up and goes two more seasons.
1951-54. During this period, for some reason, none of the networks want the show, but Allen Funt gets the series into syndication, and so it airs on various channels around the country. It's a check your local listings sort of scenario.
1958. After a four-year absence from the airwaves, NBC ran at least one segment of it on The Tonight Show, starring Jack Paar.
1959. Candid Camera segments aired on CBS's The Garry Moore Show, a variety series, which became very popular.
1960-67. Candid Camera, as its own series, ran for seven seasons on CBS. This would arguably be Candid Camera’s heyday when it became iconic, if it wasn’t already there, and emcee Allen Funt became a household name, if he already wasn’t one, though he sometimes had other sidekick hosts on the show with him. But finally, in 1967, the last season ended, and the show was finished for good.
1974-79. Never mind. ABC decided to run a special during the summer, and in the fall, Funt took the series back into syndication, where it was again, a big hit. But all good things come to an end, and the show was definitely finally finished in 1979, never to be seen again.
1983. OK, sorry, that's not quite right. The series emerged again when NBC ran a 35th anniversary special of Candid Camera.
1987-88. Now the timeline is just trying to embarrass me. CBS started running Candid Camera specials on TV with Allen Funt and his son Peter.
1991-92. OK, I guess Candid Camera will never end. This time, though, Allen Funt, 77 years old, stayed away from the camera, and in 1993, he suffered a serious stroke, which pretty much ended his career. Dom DeLuise and Eva LaRue were the hosts of this incarnation. Funt later said in his 1994 autobiography that he wasn’t too thrilled with this version. It aired on ABC, inspired by the network’s America's Funniest Home Videos, which was definitely inspired by Candid Camera.
1996-97. CBS decided to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary, and it was popular enough that the network ran some Candid Camera specials.
1998-2000. CBS aired Candid Camera as a weekly show starring Peter Funt and Suzanne Somers. In 1999, Allen Funt breathed his last. His death was unfortunately no prank.
2001-2004. In an attempt to prove that Candid Camera would never die, the series moved to the PAX TV network. Dina Eastwood, then the wife of Clint and now his ex-spouse, became the host.
2014. In its last gasp for air, new episodes of Candid Camera ran on TV Land – but only for 10 episodes. Peter Funt and Blossom and Big Bang Theory actress and future semi-regular Jeopardy host Mayim Bialik were the emcees.
So what happened on Candid Camera?
What didn’t happen? The series aired over 1,000 episodes, each of them filled with creative and often elaborate pranks.
Funt once told a reporter, "We have to plot every job like an army general laying out a battle plan. More than once we've been caught looking over a place and been accused of planning a stickup."
Some of Candid Camera’s many pranks include:
- A young guy gets on a crowded elevator. Everybody starts doing the same thing at the same time, like a couple men take off their hat, and so the guy does it, too. When the guys put their hats back on, the young man does it as well.
- Another elevator gag: Three people are facing the back of the elevator, so the “victim,” falling to peer pressure, ends up facing the back of the elevator as well.
- People bowl – and the pins smash apart when the ball hits them.
- People bowl – and the pins move, dodging the ball!
- A guy standing in a short line at the bank during the 1970s can never reach the end, due to the way Candid Camera has rigged it. Actually, it’s kind of a painful prank to watch.
- A customer at a fruit stand starts eating fruit to taste it -- and with no plans to buy it. This one aired on Candid Microphone.
- Another Candid Microphone gag: Mr. Funt himself went to a reading room of a private library and started reading out loud, to another library patron's frustration.
- And another Candid Microphone gag: A locksmith was called to release a young woman chained to her desk. Mr. Funt, her "boss" explained that the key had been lost -- and she was chained to the desk because it was the only way he could get his employee to work.
- People in New York City were startled by a hand reaching out of a sewer grating. Several people just handed the hat to the hand and kept on their merry way.
- People go up an escalator and reach a landing. The only way off the landing is to ride another escalator, which is coming down. In other words, they are essentially trapped. The only way to get off the landing is to run back down the up escalator or to run up the down escalator.
- A woman goes to a gas station in her car and asks for help with her engine. The mechanic is perplexed. There is no engine. What really baffled him is, the woman did drive into the gas station – coasting down a slight hill. She asks the mechanic to take a look at her car, which seems to not be running very well, and she goes to the restroom to powder her nose. When she returns, the mechanic informs her that the engine is missing. "Look, there was a motor in this car when I drove in, and you'd better put it back,” the lady said. The mechanic is bewildered. "Lady," he says, “you was gone only a minute. How could I have taken the motor out?" He ends up searching the car for the motor, and when he is about to have a nervous breakdown, he is told, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
- A cop issues parking tickets to people who have done a poor job parking in their driveway. This was one of the gags in one of the last versions of Candid Camera, with host Dina Eastwood impersonating a cop. It’s a pretty clever gag – but as you can imagine, some people release a lot of curse words.
Allen Funt's Favorite Prank
At least, as of 1960, this was his favorite prank, as Allen Funt told The Los Angeles Times:
"I hooked a microphone into a mailbox and stood back some distance, behind shrubbery, so I could see people walking by. One fellow came by eating an apple. The mike stopped him and asked him if he had seen the mailman. It told him the mailman had better come soon and empty me because I was all filled up.
"Well, this guy carried on a whole conversation with me. Then the guy hails another passerby and tells him the mailbox can talk. 'Say something,' he says to the mailbox.
"The box was silent.
The guy with the apple almost went out of his mind. He screamed, he kicked, and he pulled at the mailbox. Finally, the other guy walked away shaking his head."
How the “victims” on Candid Camera reacted
For the most part, surprisingly well. Many victims were probably thrilled to know that they weren’t seeing things and hadn’t gone crazy, and that the world wasn’t conspiring against them. Just Mr. Funt and his camera crew.
“The vast majority of the people are good-natured about it,” Funt told The Los Angeles Times in 1960. “The ham in them comes out when you tell them they're going to be on radio or television, and they readily sign a release giving us permission to use the stuff on the air."
Funt said in that interview that he had only been “clocked” by two people. One of those instances came from a woman at the beach, and her strap came loose, and she was apparently exposed for, like, half a second. She told Funt, who was nearby minding his own business, that this better not wind up on TV – and she slapped him.
Years after that interview, in 1969, Allen Funt's life took a much more surreal turn. Four hijackers took over an airplane that he and his family were on, as they traveled from Newark to Miami.
Everybody was naturally panic-stricken until a passenger recognized Funt and assumed the whole thing was a gag.
The passenger told everybody around her not to worry. They were on Candid Camera.
Funt assured her that he had nothing to do with this, but nobody believed him. It probably didn't help Funt's case that he and his wife and kids were traveling with some cameramen (they were on their way to Florida, on a trip related to the series). Funt continued to insist to his fellow passengers that this was no prank. They were being hijacked. For real!
Nobody believed him, and everybody on the plane relaxed and laughed and had a good ol’ time – until they landed in Cuba and realized that they were, indeed, being hijacked. Then everybody got mad at Funt.
Later, Funt was offered a citation for bravery by the Federal Aviation Administration – but he turned it down. As he pointed out, he was just a passenger like everybody else – and maybe more panicked than anyone, because he knew that the hijacking was no joke.
The legacy of Candid Camera
While Allen Funt may get some of the blame for the state of reality TV today, anything you don't like about reality TV is really not his fault.
As far as Candid Camera is concerned, Funt put on a well-meaning, good-natured TV series that poked fun at human nature. Whatever else followed, it isn’t like he had a hand in it. Some reality TV has obviously been a lot of fun, and some, you watch with the sense that your brain cells are imploding. I’ll leave it to you to decide which reality TV shows that air today are quality and what’s dreck.
You could almost argue that Funt’s legacy is the cell phone camera – and how we can all now record interesting and surreal moments for laughs and posterity. But maybe that’s giving him way too much credit.
Actually, Funt should probably be mostly revered for his many reminders that nobody should take life's little indignities and mundane moments too seriously and that it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves. And maybe that we should all smile more, even when the cameras aren't around.
Where you can watch Candid Camera (at the time of this writing): There don’t seem to be any streaming services where you can, say, watch the entire series – or even a few seasons – which is a crying shame. You can find a lot of clips on YouTube, and there are compilation DVDs you can buy on Amazon.com and elsewhere.
Articles similar to this Candid Camera blog post: This is the first “TV History 101,” and if you liked this article, maybe you’d like to check out the “Streaming Time Capsule” series. The first one in that series is about a failed Three Stooges TV pilot. Or check out the second "TV History 101" article, which is about the history of the TV dinner.