Candid Camera was the world’s first reality comedy series and it went on to become the longest-running reality comedy series of all time. It’s had its stops and starts with several breaks from the screen but the familiar format always returns. There’s something about the gentle humor of the show that makes it universally appealing.
Smile! You’re On Candid Camera!
Let’s take a look now at the history of the program and what makes it so special to so many people around the world. From the show’s greatest tricks to the people who created it, there’s so much to learn from Candid Camera. Donald Trump was even featured on an episode, so read on to find out how that went!
It Began On Radio
Of course, it wasn’t Candid Camera when it ran on the radio – the show was Candid Microphone. It first broadcast in June of 1947 and was designed in a similar fashion to the way that the TV show would turn out.
The idea was to combine psychology and pranks to deliver a unique reaction from the people taking part. TV bosses realized immediately that the show would be better if the audience could see what was happening and it was quickly snatched it up for broadcast. Candid Microphone spent just over a year on air before it paved the way for the TV show.
Meet Allen Funt
Allen Funt was the creator of Candid Camera. He was also the show’s host for a long, long time. He was with the show when it was Candid Microphone and orchestrated its breakout on to TV in 1948.
Despite his obsession with psychology, Allen studied Fine Arts at Cornell University and then followed it with a degree in Business Administration from Columbia University.
He didn’t go straight into the entertainment industry, instead, he spent a period of time in the military serving his country before moving into radio programming. It was at ABC Radio that he was given permission to make Candid Microphone.
The Way It Worked
Candid Camera was built on a very simple premise. Ordinary people, who did not know in advance that they were being filmed, would be confronted by strange situations.
Their reactions would be videotaped and then the host would step forward to reveal the prank often accompanied by the catchphrase used on the show, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.“
That may sound brutal, but in the main show’s pranks were just harmless fun and the victims would be happy to laugh off the situations they found themselves in and rarely became upset about their treatment in front of the camera. Except for a few, of course…
An Exception To The Rule
Ann Jillian is the actress best known by the public for playing Cassie Cranston on the TV show, It’s a Living. She was also the victim of the biggest prank played on Candid Camera.
She was approached by a charity agent, working through the show, who asked her to donate some money to a good cause. When she agreed the show arranged for a pretend police officer to intercept her on the way to making her donation.
He convinced her that the charity was a con and to write a much bigger check than she’d intended to as part of a sting. The actual sting reveals the charity agent to be genuine and Ann had to honor the donation through gritted teeth.
A Quick Switch
While Candid Camera (still at this point called Candid Microphone) aired on ABC in 1948, the network couldn’t hold on to the show for very long and the show was bought out by NBC.
NBC began to broadcast Candid Camera rather than Candid Microphone in the fall of 1949. The show was sponsored by the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris — something that would be impossible today when tobacco advertising is banned on television. The show ran on NBC for two more years before its popularity allowed it to move into syndication. From there, things really took off for Candid Camera.
A Show Between Homes
Candid Camera found itself transferred back to NBC in 1958 where it lost its status as a standalone show and became a minor segment on Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show.
Then in 1959 it moved on to CBS and was included as a small feature on The Garry Moore Show which was dedicated to launching new comedy talent for the nation.
Candid Camera managed to revive the public’s interest during its run on The Garry Moore Show in 1960. The show was given the freedom of its own slot on the TV schedules again, also on CBS.
The Golden Period
From 1960 to 1967, Candid Camera would enjoy its longest single run on American television and would remain with CBS.
Allen Funt worked with Arthur Godfrey The Old Redhead in the first season but his career was already fading, oddly for a show that was once sponsored by big tobacco, became an increasingly fervent anti-tobacco campaigner after beating lung cancer.
Godfrey was replaced by Durward Kirby for the rest of the run and Funt will have known Kirby well by then as he was the announcer on the Garry Moore Show which had revived Candid Camera‘s fortunes.
Miss America And Candid Camera
Bess Myerson was the winner of the Miss America pageant in 1945. She was the first-ever Jewish woman to win Miss America and the timing, at the end of World War II, was considered both poignant and necessary.
She joined the Candid Camera team for its last season of its long run on CBS in 1967. It was also the year that Candid Camera transitioned to color. She is fondly remembered for her performances on screen but rather less so for her involvement in political scandals during the 1980s.
Bess lived until the age of 90. She passed away in 2014.
A Seven-Year Hiatus
Candid Camera’s run on CBS ended in 1967 and it would be seven years before it returned to the small screen. ABC had planned an anniversary episode in 1974 to celebrate the 25th year following the launch of Candid Microphone on TV.
The episode was particularly well received and the program was picked up again for a five-year run in syndication.
Allen Funt returned as the host of the show and shared air time, to begin with, with John Bartholomew Tucker — a former radio show host — and Dorothy Collins who had also made the transition from radio to television.
There have been some classic pranks played on the show over the years. One of the most memorable was an expensive prank to pull off in real life.
A queue of stunt men each driving a car was formed at a bridge where a police officer, to anyone who was watching, was clearly giving the wrong directions and each car plummeted from the bridge to the water below.
Of course, the drivers further down the queue had no idea that they were being set up and their reactions were something to behold. We can imagine that it was both terrifying and hilarious when the news was finally broken to them.
After the five-year syndication run was up, Candid Camera made a singular return for a 35th-year-anniversary special which aired on NBC.
This time there was no resurrection of the show and it would be another four years before it returned on a semi-regular basis on CBS.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Candid Camera was given a complete season run again, this time as a daily show in syndication from 1991-1992.
The show returned again once more in 1996 for a 50th-anniversary performance on CBS. This show once again whetted appetites for a full-time return of Candid Camera.
The Hijacking Incident
Since Allen Funt was known for hosting Candid Camera back in the day, people who saw him on the streets must have been pretty paranoid that they were secretly being filmed if they saw him around.
In 1969, Funt was on a trip to Miami both for business and a family vacation. He boarded in Newark with his family and camera crew.
Suddenly, the pilot calmly announced that they were en route to Havana, Cuba, but none of the other passengers thought anything of it, having seen Funt on the flight with them. They thought it was a big prank for Candid Camera. But….
This Is Not A Prank!
Allen Funt’s concerns grew over everyone else’s lack thereof. According to his account, Allen Funt knew this was not a joke when he noticed a man holding a knife to one of the stewardess’s neck.
Of the entire ordeal, Funt said, “Looking back at the experience, the unbelievable thing is the way everybody took it as one big joke. We saw the knife but everybody was cool and calm, just a little annoyed at the delay. It is strange how you can be so close to danger and not feel it.”
Although Funt tried to convince the passengers that the hijacking was actually happening, they didn’t take him seriously until they actually landed in Cuba instead of Miami.
Like Father, Like Son
Allen Funt was joined by his son Peter Funt as a co-host of Candid Camera for the occasional airings of Candid Camera following its 35th anniversary.
It wasn’t the first time his son had been involved with the show. He’d made his first appearance on Candid Camera when he was just three years old! Peter played a shoe shiner that charged $10 per shoe.
During the broadcast run of these episodes tragedy struck. Allen Funt had a stroke from which he was unable to make a full recovery and it seemed that Peter would take over the family mantle as show host except the networks had other ideas.
The Pizza Hut Year
The 1991-1992 year of daily airings of Candid Camera was tanking for two reasons. The first being that it was the first time that the show had been run without the direct involvement of the Funt family. Instead, it was hosted by Dom DeLuise and Eva LaRue. Allen Funt authorized this because he needed the money and the network insisted.
However, Funt was never happy with this season and he complained bitterly that there was far too much involvement from the show’s sponsor, Pizza Hut, which distracted the audience from the comedy that the show was famous for.
Peter’s Awaited Return
The failure of the Dom DeLuise version of Candid Camera paved the way for Peter Funt to return to the show. This time, because of his father’s ill health, he would be the lead presenter.
He was teamed up with Suzanne Somers, famous for playing Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company and Carol Lambert on Step by Step, in a new weekly format of Candid Camera. Peter also became the executive producer of the show during this period and the show remained on the air until 2004 until it took another 10-year break as TV fashions once again shifted around it.
Given the show’s nature, it’s quite amazing that it wasn’t sued on a regular basis by its victims. However, the show had managed to avoid any litigation up until 2001.
Philip Zelnick changed that record. He had been a passenger on a flight through Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport. He said that he’d been injured during the filming of the show when he was forced to pass through a fake X-ray machine.
The courts agreed with Zelnick though the financial settlement was agreed out of court. Zelnick received $95,000 from Funt personally and another $7,500 from PAX TV.
Donald Trump Gets Candid
In 2004, then-would-be President Trump was asked to be in a skit for Candid Camera. The footage resurfaced in light of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood scandal, in which he disgustingly talks about groping women.
His appearance on Candid Camera only supplemented his creepy reputation. Huffington Post reached out to Peter Funt, who was running the show at that point, for access to the footage.
In the (rather dry) skit, Trump hires unsuspecting matchmakers to help him find a date with a “simple woman.” In the middle of his consultation, an actress playing his secretary would walk in, scantily clad and made up. As his “secretary” leaves the room, he’d point to his assistant and say “I’m looking for someone simple, like her,” much to the confusion of the matchmaker.
Trump’s Not Really Acting
According to Huffington Post Trump had trouble remembering his lines and even made womanizing comments during his skit. As a part of the skit, the actress would ask if she would be riding with him in his limo and in one instance, Trump would smirk and say, “Absolutely, as close as you can.” He even insulted one of the women in front of her face, saying, “While she’s here, I mean, this look is good, but frankly I’m not sure it’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
Peter Funt didn’t even end up using the skit on the show, telling Huffington Post:
“The joke was Trump would describe the exact opposite of the type of woman he prefers… They entire day was a mess because Trump couldn’t get his part right… I told CBS we wouldn’t use it. However, four years later, when we were doing the series on cable, I resurrected a few minutes, more as a joke about Trump himself. I’ve worked with a lot of people with oversized egos, but Trump’s made it impossible for us to do a believable sequence.”
It’s Not Easy Filming Pranks
Have you ever told a joke and then watched it fall flat because your delivery wasn’t quite right or the audience didn’t quite share your sense of humor?
It’s easily done and Candid Camera found itself dogged by similar issues when filming. Live action humor also requires meticulous planning for the camera crew as they have to ensure that the reaction is captured without distracting the person involved in the prank.
In the end, the Candid Camera crew filmed 50 or more scenes to end up with 4-5 usable reactions. That’s not a cheap way to make television.
One Last Hurrah?
Candid Camera made a return to TV when it was picked up for a 10-episode run in 2014. The TV Land Cable channel recommissioned the show and once again Peter Funt returned to host it.
He was joined by Mayim Bialik, best known for playing the title role in Blossom and for her part as Amy Farrah Fowler in the smash hit comedy Big Bang Theory.
Sadly, Mayim’s star quality couldn’t save Candid Camera from the ax at the end of the season. An option on Season 2 was declined and for the moment, there are no plans to bring Candid Camera back to the small screen.
Allen Funt’s Legacy
Allen Funt’s off camera work was as important as his on-screen work. He loved Candid Camera and considered it to be his life’s defining moment and he took the enthusiasm he had for the show and put it to work for charity.
He formed the Laughter Therapy Foundation which is designed to help bring joy to the lives of people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The foundation, which is now run by Peter Funt, uses the library of material generated by Candid Camera to create comedy tapes to enrich the lives of the unfortunate.
Peter Funt Off Screen
Peter Funt works tirelessly outside of the Candid Camera universe too. He’s a regular humor columnist for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s also been published by Harvard Business Press and his weekly column is syndicated.
He has a training company too, which uses Candid Camera footage to drive home the point he’s trying to make. He’s also an accomplished public speaker and he uses footage from the show to support the message that he’s trying to convey and it’s considered to be a very effective format by people who have attended his talks.
Candid Camera has also had an international impact. In Britain, a clone of the show also called Candid Camera ran for seven years in the 1960s and later both Trigger Happy TV and Jeremy Beadle’s Beadle’s About were clearly inspired by the show.
The Australians also ran a local clone of the show in the 1990s and the Germans have had a clone running from the 1980s right up to the present day called Verstehen Sie Spass.
Peter Funt has said that he dislikes many of the clones because they treat people as stupid rather than seeing them as wonderful as they did when making Candid Camera.