NBC’s “Real People”

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Today is the birthday of comedian Byron Allen (b. 1961). At age 14 he was already working as a joke writer for Jimmy “J.J.” Walker; at 18, he was the youngest stand-up comedian ever to play The Tonight Show, a record that still stands.

A year after that, Allen was hired to be one of the “personalities” who co-hosted Real People (1979-1984), often touted as being “the first reality television show”, but that’s frankly a stretch. What was Candid Camera if not a reality show; and there were many more programs of this nature before Real People (PBS’s An American Family is another that springs to mind). Further, the format of the series was very different from today’s reality television; chiefly because the segments were dominated by the clunky framing device of hosts introducing the clips to a live studio audience and joking about them afterwards.

The result was usually painfully self-conscious and unfunny. Not only was the writing terrible but the over-explanation of everything was just insulting: “Now here’s a kid who loves to step in Jell-O. Check out this kid steppin’ in Jell-o! (roll clip, then:) Hey, how about that kid steppin’ in Jell-o? I know wouldn’t want to step in Jell-o!”

Still some of the hosts transcended the format a bit. Allen was likable, for one. Another of the cast was Fred Willard (not sure why he’s not in the photo above; he was one of the main people). John Barbour came across sort of like a tv journalist; Bill Rafferty  was a game show host. The worst of the lot was Skip Stephenson who had a tedious routine about hitting on the only female co-host Sarah Purcell. It was more creepy and awkward than funny; it felt like some horrible high school nightmare that wouldn’t go away. The show was produced by George Schlatter, who’d done a much better job with earlier tv fodder like Ernie Kovacs and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. 

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