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Candid Camera – Five Decades of Smiles (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Candid Camera - Five Decades of Smiles

Candid Camera – Five Decades of Smiles

Candid Camera

Five Decades of Smiles (Rhino Video-2005)

Candid Camera – the original reality show – began life on radio as Candid Microphone in 1947, at the dawn of the television age. Its creator, Allen Funt, would spend the rest of his life championing this can’t-miss concept, making it the longest-running entertainment program in history – with good reason.

The idea of Candid Camera needs no explanation, but it sure did when it debuted on WNBT-TV in New York City in 1948. Amazingly, this premiere broadcast is preserved and included on the must-have DVD, Candid Camera: 5 Decades of Smiles (Rhino).

In this very first episode, before a studio audience of very well-dressed and thrilled-to-be-there people, host Funt takes more time explaining the concept of the series than the time it actually takes screening the bits themselves. He is also proud of the fact that the broadcast is “coast to coast,” although the actual number of television owners that evening probably number only in the thousands.

Funt projects a benign, fatherly persona that — in most cases — prevents anyone from feeling offended by being the unwitting subject of a televised prank. What he is careful to offer is gentle humor for an easily amused audience and – seemingly — nothing more. Of course, we slowly realize that there is much more to this tomfoolery than meets the eye: it’s a study in human behavior. Though the series will survive (sometimes barely) through five turbulent and culture-altering decades, we learn that times may change, but human nature remains consistent.

As of this premiere episode, the eventual catchphrase – “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” has not yet been fine-tuned, and Funt fumbles with the clunky “You’ll never know when you’ll be made the star of Candid Camera!” He explains the notion of “secret film,” and introduces actual celebrities in the audience, including the too-classy-for television John Garfield and “Mrs. Eddie Albert” (“you may know her better as the wonderful Margo!”). One of the victims of Funt’s secret film prank receives as a lovely parting gift a “wonderful new Polaroid camera!”

The very first stunts on this very first program are not as funny as they are fascinating. We watch regular people walking on the streets of Olde New York, housewives attempting to return hats at Klein’s department store on Union Square, and a loosey-goosey father in a maternity ward just after his son is born. When he is told he is on television, he becomes so overwhelmed that he almost faints – once again proving that television trumps childbirth.

Of course, they roll out what is to become a Candid Camera standard and instant classic: the talking mailbox, chatting it up with befuddled passersby. Astoundingly, the shock of a mailbox talking wears off quickly, and the victims engage in regular conversation with it as if it is the most natural act in the world. And when a man on the street is finally told that he is on Candid Camera, he responds like a typical New Yorker: “what the hell you talkin’ about?”

Say what you want about Funt – he had guts – and he made it look easy. However, throughout the 1950s, Candid Camera was merely a poor stepchild of the television schedule, appearing only as segments, bits and afterthoughts on variety programs like The Jack Paar Show.

By 1960, however, Funt’s baby was ready for prime time, and it was placed as a regular series on CBS’ powerful Sunday night lineup. It was an instant smash. Because network execs may have felt Funt to be too “ethnic,” they humiliatingly demoted him to that of a minor co-host to the more All-American, smooth-talking pitchman Arthur Godfrey (“I’m thrilled to be working regularly,” Godfrey says without shame). Godfrey eventually had a famous falling out with Funt and was replaced by the even milder and more Nordic-looking Durwood Kirby.

The series hit its stride almost immediately: a lady (Dorothy Lamour, actually!) is baffling a service station attendant by driving a car without a motor (“Oh, now where is it?” she frets); we laugh at bowlers’ frustrated expressions; a live kangaroo is left in a ladies’ restroom; a centerpiece squirts water at a couple eating a meal; Woody Allen himself dictates a love letter to a puzzled secretary; passengers are horrified by the sight of a lady pilot (“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” a worried stewardess says); and – in that favorite postwar prop, the supermarket, we get to watch harried housewives dealing with food displays that fall down dramatically and a shopping cart that has a mind of its own. Unintentionally funny is a trashy mom smoking up a storm in the middle of the supermarket, then tossing the butt behind a Jell-O display.

True to Andy Warhol’s statement about the future during that very decade, it looked as if everyone really would be famous for fifteen minutes, thanks to Candid Camera. Yet the average-looking Funt, for as associated with the show as he would become, would fail to get recognized by victims over and over again.  (“It’s a television show, Pop. You’re on it,” Funt says to a “sweet old Italian gentleman.” The old man says sadly, “I watch it all the time. I got no place to go.”).

By the mid-sixties, the word “smile” was added to the show’s theme song, to downplay the potentially perceived cruelty. And although the bits would range from the hilarious to the downright monotonous, Funt was always correct: “we want to catch people in the act of being themselves.” The idea being driven home again and again is that it is an honor to be caught by Candid Camera; it will quickly become a beloved tradition as American as apple pie.

Perhaps the wildest Candid Camera stunt took place in 1961, when the show was filmed in the Soviet Union and broadcast – reluctantly – on American television. This was one of the few thaws in the Cold War, as Westerners marveled at watching their enemies being themselves, and in a surprisingly ordinary way: a man tries to talk himself out of a ticket; Eastern bloc tourists pose without smiles in front of a famous war cannon; and Funt himself tries to read a Moscow subway passenger’s newspaper (in Communist Russia, it was considered a sin not to share).  What’s even more fascinating is that Funt pulled all of this off without a permit – the idea of using “secret film” in the Soviet Union – even if it was only for the sake of schtick – was quite ballsy.

By 1966, the show was broadcast in color. Durwood Kirby warned us nervously about the coming switch: “Color means [having to utilize] more light and that means more suspicion.” And although Kirby would be replaced by former Miss America Bess Meyerson, Candid Camera would only survive for another season on network television.

In 1970, with the sexual revolution in full swing, Funt produced “the cleanest dirty movie ever made,” called What Do You Say To A Naked Lady?, which was precisely that (a beautiful naked woman exits an elevator and the camera focuses on the stunned witnesses). By 1974, the series syndicated itself and a year later inexplicably moved to Nashville (perhaps to be closer to the real real people that New York couldn’t provide).

Film was still used (rather than videotape) and the aging technology gave the pranks a sort of claustrophobic and stale feel. Somehow – in this era of pessimism and jadedness — the cute novelty was starting to wear off. Not even co-host Phyllis George could perk up the proceedings (though her replacement, Jo Ann Pflug, made a much more enthusiastic attempt – marvel at her hairdo, sprayed to within an inch of its life).

Funt, with his never-say-die support of the concept, appealed to the people of Nashville in this mind-boggling explanation: “This is the program where we hide cameras only to catch you in the art of being yourself, because there is no way that people are more interesting than when they are caught off guard doing something that all of us do, but are rarely ever observed.”  In a shining example of democracy in action (‘70s style), the audience was invited to vote as to whether Funt should continue to wear a tie (guess the outcome — and we have Stanley Blacker and Company to blame for Funt’s outrageous seventies wardrobe).

Still, as badly lit as these filmed pranks seemed, there were bright spots during this era – some of them blindingly bright. Most amazing is Muhammed Ali making a surprise appearance before a series of school children who just finished chatting excitedly about him; also, an unknown Richard Belzer, playing a cheese importer, forces a secretary to eat disgusting cheese; a waterbed in a sales showroom springs a leak, to a shopper’s horror; and the good old talking mailbox chats it up once more, this time with an African-American mailperson.

By the 1980s, Candid Camera was reduced to mild theme specials (kids, money, sports, doctors, sex) on HBO (“Candid” Candid Camera) and on the traditional networks. Cameras became lighter, film got faster, microphones were more delicate, but America had caught up by now, with their own camcorders. Funt’s son, Peter, began to take over the hosting duties, usually playing a slow-talking authority figure purposely getting on the victims’ very last nerve. In one especially memorable bit, he hilariously plays a cheap boss who monitors his staff’s every stamp and phone call – those poor office temps were always favored victims of the show.

Allen Funt reluctantly wrestled with semi-retirement, but not before you get to witness him in a pure-80s headband (we also get treated to pure-80s co-hosts like Susan Anton and “Downtown” Julie Brown). And – let’s face it — who deserves to be punk’d more than American fools wearing acid-washed jeans, mullets, backwards baseball caps and jams shorts?

In the 1990s and beyond, Candid Camera soldiered on in the form of specials and then a return to regular weekly series on CBS and PAX. An attempt at a daily syndicated version (with host Dom DeLuise) didn’t work. However, using the sparklingly confident Suzanne Somers as a co-host was a brainy move, as the show dared to become slightly more brazen. Peter Funt introduces the star with this witty tease: “435 men and women were caught in the act – the act of being themselves, that is! And I can’t think of a sexier person I’d rather do battle with than our special guest. Please welcome Suzanne Somers!”

Of course, with the advent of America’s Funniest Home Videos, reality television and a 500-channel cable universe, Candid Camera victims seem evermore jaded to the phenomenon of being caught on camera (when a sexy woman assertively asks guys on the street for a kiss, a man responds with, “are you a prostitute?”).  Yet, with the popularity of Seinfeld, a show about nothing suddenly hits the spot like never before.

Candid Camera now becomes faster, slicker, less raw and more media savvy – it has to be: viewers can now e-mail their suggestions for pranks and log onto the show’s website.

Starbucks presently houses the schtick that used to be performed in more traditional coffee shops; reluctant computer students are taught to operate a mouse with their feet; food is physically delivered by fax to a stunned office temp; a monotone voice drones on for minutes in a seemingly endless voicemail prompt; the DMV issues a license plate named DUFUS to an angry driver; a perfume with no smell is marketed to a focus group; a nervous tattoo artist freaks out a potential customer; a husband is kept on a leash; and – in a shockingly bold post-9/11 stunt – a restaurant offers only plastic knives in an attempt to take precautions against terrorism.

Sadly, the senior Funt died in 1999 after a debilitating stroke in 1993. However, his legacy remains strong and vital, as Candid Camera clips are now used in psychological research and behavioral education, and also to deliver laughter medicine to cancer patients.

As a youth, Allen Funt was influenced by a 1788 poem by Robert Burns, which said, “The greatest gift would be to see ourselves as others see us.” Funt brought this concept to life with tender care, cutting-edge skill and a true sense of what it means to entertain while educating.

For more information on Candid Camera, log onto

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005  All Rights Reserved.  Posted: October 1, 2005.

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