Question: I'm a big Survivor fan. Forget the Super Bowl, bring on the Outback! But my dad says all these reality shows owe everything to Candid Camera. I say he just can't admit anything his generation didn't invent is good. What do you say? — Salvy
Televisionary: Why, I say nonsense, bilgewater, and poppycock to the ageist notions of you young whippersnappers!
Your dad's right — while today's reality show's may be worlds away from Allen Funt's original Candid Camera, there's no denying the genre started with that show. There are some very important differences in taste, mind you, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Candid Camera started life on the radio as Candid Microphone. It moved to TV as a 1948 ABC show bearing the same name, jumped to NBC and adopted the more familiar moniker in 1949, then shifted to CBS in 1960. Its stock in trade was the unscripted and unexpected, starring the unsuspecting: an auto mechanic asked to fix a car that had no engine, passengers in an elevator that traveled sideways, a bowler whose ball came back without any finger holes, people who dropped letters into a talking mailbox.
Not everything was a sight gag pulled on average citizens, though. Funt's curiosity about the human foibles and behavioral quirks was honed as a Cornell University psychology research assistant and through his duties recording soldiers' letters with the Army Signal Corps. He often found people, kids in particular, needed no prompting to get wacky. And he wasn't alone in his enthusiasm for such matters. Audiences got a kick out of seeing people just like them in awkward situations, and the show's appeal is long-lived. It was an off-and-on prime-time presence for decades, it made people laugh in various specials and syndicated runs, and even now it can be seen Sunday nights on Pax (7 pm/ET) with hosts Peter Funt (son of the creator) and Suzanne Somers (Three's Company, She's the Sheriff).
Now, regular readers of this column know I tend to be fairly open-minded when it comes to subject matter, language, plots and such, but even I have to say there's something a little sad about the reality genre's mutation from Candid Camera's innocuous gags to the toying-with-lives aspects of a show like Temptation Island. The worst thing that ever happened to someone appearing on the former was perhaps momentary embarrassment — and even that was usually taken care of when all was revealed. But Island's lurid concept — setting up people for conflict, tears and misery just to goose the ratings — crosses the line. Color me old-fashioned.