How “Candid Camera” May Have Destroyed America

Blame Allen Funt (1914-1999).

As the motive force behind Candid Camera and its predecessor Candid Microphone (1947-2014) Funt may be said to be the father of both reality television and fake news. The show was groundbreaking in its way, and certainly forward-looking, though the doors it opened I think are ultimately deleterious from the perspectives of both entertainment and information. If you are too young to get the reference, Candid Camera was a show where practical jokes were played on unsuspecting innocent bystanders in front of hidden cameras, with the results being packaged and presented in the form of a television show. The stunts could range from the joke-shop variety (some piece of furniture or household item of some sort rigged to malfunction) to having celebrities like Buster Keaton or Woody Allen behave in a bizarre fashion in a public situation. And the point was to film the reactions of the ordinary people as they encountered these odd situations. Then, when the thing had played out, the show’s representative would say “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” and the butt of the joke would usually collapse in embarrassed laughter. If you ever watch any old 20th century show or movie and a character says something like “Is that a gag? Where’s the camera? Is Allen Funt back there? etc” this is what they are referring to.

Funt had created the show on radio as Candid Microphone in 1947. The TV version premiered the following year. Through certain phases of its history it was a segment on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and The Garry Moore Show. Over the years, Funt’s co-hosts on the show included such TV luminaries as Arthur Godfrey, Durwood Kirby, Bess Myerson, Phyllis George, Joanne Pflug, and others. The original incarnation of the show was before my time; it went off the air in 1967. I watched it during its reboot (1974-79).

At any rate, Candid Camera paved the way for such later excursions as America’s Funniest Home Videos, and really all the reality TV that followed. It is essentially documentary footage, capturing actuality, presented as entertainment. It would be an understatement to say I am not a fan of this kind of thing; I find myself actively hostile to it. I find it manipulative on the one hand, and unimaginative on the other. I like artists, writers, actors, directors, who create things. I am never going to be enthusiastic about “Let’s point a camera at this civilian and see what happens.” Further, I think the knowledge that producers can fake and stage events in this way has fed a culture of confusion among the less educated section of the public, which seems unable to gauge relative truth or properly evaluate sources, to the extent that they distrust revered, long-standing news organizations, and lend full credence to pseudoscience and, without naming names, demagogic politics. What is a fact and what is a “hoax”? The blurring of reality and artifice is a net loss for culture, and ultimately possibly democracy. And that’s not a joke at all.

To learn more about variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,