Question: I loved That's Incredible when I was little, but my dad always used to say that they faked everything. Did they?
Answer: Now, "fake" is a very strong word, Sam. Let's just say that the producers of the show, one of the pioneers of the reality genre, liked to make sure segments played well visually and didn't ask their guests too many questions about how things were done.
TV Guide looked into the issue in 1982 and found all sorts of examples of exaggeration and a bit of skimping on the skepticism. In the former category, for instance, there was Oregon lumberjack Earl Ford, who was lauded for his "incredible" accuracy in felling trees. "It's something that not many lumberjacks could even dream of doing," cohost John Davidson said when Ford dropped a 90-foot fir tree on target. Contacted by a reporter, however, a self-effacing Ford disagreed. "You have to be able to aim the tree where you want it to fall," he said. Furthermore, when the show took Ford back to the L.A. studio to drop a telephone pole between Davidson and cohort Fran Tarkenton, Ford freaked. "What the hell do you want me to do this for?" he asked. "I could teach someone to fell a telephone pole in 15 minutes. That part didn't make it to air, of course, but audiences did hear Davidson gush: "Truly a lumberjack's lumberjack."
One thorn in the side of the show was magician James Randi, better known as "The Amazing Randy," who specialized in exposing hoaxsters. When self-proclaimed martial-arts expert Sung Chai appeared on the show to move the pages of a phone book with his mind, Davidson shouted that he used no wires, air blowers or gimmicks at all. Then he appeared on That's My Line with Randi, who scattered Styrofoam packing peanuts around the phone book to show that Chai (appearing as James Hydrich) couldn't do it without blowing on the page. Chai tried for a half-hour before telling host Bob Barker: "This isn't a magic trick. I have to start out with something small and move to something big to build myself up."
Feats involving "incredible" skill rather than uncanny powers often fared no better. I remember watching the show as a kid and being impressed by Jim Mather, who came with the following introduction: "[Mather] catches and breaks arrows as they fly through the air at 130 mph. Jim is an award-winning karate champion, and he's been training for years. Don't ever try this at home!"
Randi listened, and tried it at a local schoolyard. Turns out Mather used "flu-flu" arrows, which have larger-than-normal feathers and fletching wrapped around the shaft to slow them down. After flying 75 to 100 feet, the arrows are spent and are about to fall to the ground.
The shows' heads wouldn't talk to TV Guide, but unnamed writers, producers and researchers admitted that the series wasn't trying to present unassailable cases. "We're not 60 Minutes," a reporter was told. "We don't try to disprove our stories."
Why would you when they can be so lucrative, after all? One segment featured a product called Explosafe, which kept auto gas tanks from exploding in accidents. Of course, other than on TV, a gas tank doesn't really explode in a normal car fire; it's more of a flare-up. So in order to make a demonstration more dramatic, a That's Incredible crew filmed an unprotected car's tank exploding in a staged fire, then spliced the footage together with that of a dummy burning merrily in the car's interior after they doused it with gasoline.
Far from exciting stuff, and while the Explosafe spokesmen made no spectacular claims about their product, readily admitting it was designed for military vehicles rather than civilian cars (at the time, the U.S. Air Force had been using a similar product, manufactured by Scott Paper Company for 15 years), Tarkenton informed viewers that they could install Explosafe in their cars for $250.
All of which made perfect sense once sources on the show told TV Guide that some of their colleagues had bought stock in Explosafe's parent company before the installment aired ("The segment was pure promotion," said one), gambling that the stock would take off. Not much of a gamble, really. In one afternoon, it rose from $3.50 to $33 a share on the Toronto stock exchange.
Which may explain why Davidson made a point of distancing Tarkenton, himself, and cohost Cathy Lee Crosby from the show's claims, accountability-wise, in an earlier interview. "Fran, Cathy Lee and I are not creatively responsible," he said in 1981. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't take any of the credit or blame."
And when you think about it, that's quite credible.