As a television show,Candid Camera enjoyed immense popularity with American viewers at mid-twentieth century even as it fundamentally changed the way in which Americans perceived behavior on the television screen and their own vulnerability to being observed. The catch phrase "candid camera" had been current in American English by the 1930s, thanks to the development of fine-grained, high-speed films which made spontaneous picture-taking of unselfconscious subjects a staple of news and backyard photographers alike, freeing them from the constraints of long exposures and conspicuously large apparatus. But it was Allen Funt's brash sequences of ordinary people caught unawares on film that made "candid camera" synonymous with uninhibited surveillance of our unguarded moments, whether for the amusement of the studio audience or the more sinister purposes of commercial and state-sponsored snooping.
Funt was a former research assistant at Cornell University. His prior broadcast experience included gag-writing for the radio version of Truth or Consequences, serving as a consultant to Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, for her radio broadcasts during her husband's presidency, and independent radio production for such programs as Ladies Be Seated. During the Second World War he served in an Army Signal Corps unit in Oklahoma, where, using equipment assigned to him for recording soldiers' letters home, he began hidden-microphone taping of gripes by his fellow servicemen for broadcast on Armed Forces Radio. Funt's Candid Microphone, a postwar civilian version of the same idea, was first broadcast in 1947. A year later, he took the show to television, and ABC carried it—still as Candid Microphone —from August through December of 1948. The program, now renamed Candid Camera, shuffled among the three networks for the next five years, ending with NBC in the summer of 1953.
After a seven year hiatus, Candid Camera was revived on CBS, where it ran from October of 1960 through September of 1967. Co-hosting the show in its first season was Arthur Godfrey, followed by Durward Kirby for the next five years, and Bess Myerson (ironically destined to become New York City's consumer-affairs director) in 1966-1967. As its fame spread, Candid Camera was imitated even overseas: in Italy, a program called Lo Specchio Segreto ("I See It in Secret"), emceed by Nanni Loy, first aired in 1964 on the RAI network; it too spawned numerous imitations. Funt, meanwhile, returned to America's airwaves with a syndicated version of the program, The New Candid Camera, which was broadcast on various networks from 1974 to 1978. Moviegoers were also exposed to Candid Camera, both in Funt's 1970 film What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? and in a generous handful of 1980s home-video reprints of episodes from the shows as well.
Some of Funt's stunts have become classics in the manipulation of frame and the reactions of the unsuspecting victims (almost always punchlined by Funt or one of his accomplices saying "You're on Candid Camera. ") In one sequence, a roadblock was stationed at a border-crossing from Pennsylvania into Delaware to turn motorists back with the explanation, "The state is full today." Taste was a timeless source of merriment: an airport water cooler was filled with lemonade; and customers in a supermarket were asked to sample and comment on a new candy bar made with ingredients in a combination designed to be revolting.
The relationship between the television studio and the psychology laboratory was not lost on Funt, who told readers of Psychology Today that he had switched from sound recording to television because he "wanted to go beyond what people merely said, to record what they did—their gestures, facial expressions, confusions and delights." By comparison with later (and sassier) imitators such as America's Funniest Home Videos and Totally Hidden Video, both of which premiered in the late 1980s, Funt was scrupulous about declining to air, and actually destroying, off-color or overly intrusive footage. Candid Camera aspired to be humor but also art: "We used the medium of TV well," Funt would write proudly. "The audience saw ordinary people like themselves and the reality of events as they were unfolding. Each piece was brief, self-contained and the simple humor of the situation could be quickly understood by virtually anyone in our audience."
The New Candid Camera returned to television in the 1990s, now touted as "the granddaddy of all 'gotcha' shows" and co-hosted by Funt's son Peter, who as a child had made his debut on the show posing as a shoeshine boy charging $10 a shoe. Although the revival was not renewed by King Productions for the 1992-1993 season, specials continued to be made throughout the decade, mixing contemporary situations (a petition drive in Toronto advocating joint United States-Canada holidays, a fake sales rep selling a fictitious and overpriced line of business equipment to unsuspecting office managers) with classic sequences from the old shows. By this time Allen Funt, now in his eighties, was living comfortably in retirement.
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