Saturday, August 10, 2013

Candid Camera and the Funt Family Dynasty of Gotcha

On August 10, 1948 Alan Funt premiered Candid Camera on ABC Television.  It was reality programing before it had had a name.  Since then the program has had as many lives as six cats but has been aired regularly on network TV, in syndication, as a special segments on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show and Gary Moore’s variety program, and in numerous specials. 
At the center was always show creator Alan Funt, who adapted it from a radio program called Candid Microphone and/or his son Peter.  The concept was simple—Funt filmed ordinary people without their knowledge, often when set up in some kind of prank or ruse.  It was a durable premise. 
Many broadcasters and celebrities co-hosted various incarnations of the program.  The longest uninterrupted stretch on network TV aired on CBS from 1960 to ’67 and featured Arthur Godfrey the first season, the Garry Moore Show’s announcer Durward Kirby from 1961 to 1966, and former Miss America Bess Myerson for the final season of the run.  These are the classic episodes most remembered by Baby Boomers. 
Because he filmed on the East Coast instead of California, the people captured on the lens seemed all the more real—often bundled up in heavy winter coats, eating at greasy spoon diners—the site of many gags—and often talking in thick accents. 
Sometimes celebrities like Buster Keaton helped set up gags, but most frequently it was Funt himself, who looked so ordinary that no one ever seemed to recognize him.  Other episodes simply let the camera’s roll.  On hilarious bit was filmed from behind a two-way mirror in a high school boy’s restroom—surely impossible to do these days—which caught the teenagers carefully combing and fussing with their elaborate pompadours and duck tail hair styles. 
Other co-hosts over the years have included John Bartholomew Tucker; Dorothy Collins of Your Hit Parade; writer Fannie Flagg, who had worked behind the scenes on the show in the ‘50’s;  Phyllis George, another former Miss America; actress Betsy Palmer and comic actress Jo Ann Pflug. 
After Alan died in 1992, Peter took over the franchise.  There were a number of TV specials and a return to the CBS line-up from 1996 to 2001with Suzanne Summers as co-host.  The show moved to basic cable PAX network until 2004 with Dian Ruiz Eastwood, wife of Clint Eastwood as co-host. 
The show is currently out of production and re-runs are no longer in syndication, although Peter Funt continues to try to revive the franchise.  He is celebrating the 65th anniversary of the TV show this year on the Candid Camera web site where you can now download classic episodes bringing the show to yet another platform.
The format, however lived on in a number guises including Ashton Kusher’s Punked, Howie Mandel’s various vehicles, Betty White’s recently canceled senior citizen version Off Their Rockers on NBC, and several low-rent cable rip-offs.

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