'Candid Camera' — The original reality TV series debuted more than a half century ago

August 11, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Television audiences cheer as castaways band together to oust their island mates in a bid for $1 million. Viewers religiously tune in to spy on a hip posse of photogenic twentysomethings living in some professionally designed dream manse in the hopes that some will break down, hook up, or get the boot. More than ever it appears people like to watch their brethren interact in a public arena, and it all began 52 years ago, with a waiter trying to convince bewildered diners they could order only liver, on the Aug. 10, 1948, debut of Candid Camera.

Inspired by his Army years recording servicemen’s messages to loved ones back home, creator-host Allen Funt, then a 33-year-old former advertising artist, conceived the show to catch people ”in the act of being themselves.” His idea, Candid Microphone, hit network-radio airwaves in 1947. Its TV debut followed the next year on ABC, and the show’s name changed to Candid Camera when NBC picked it up in 1949.

Funt’s eye on Americans set up permanent shop in 1960 at CBS, where the jolly jokester — and cohosts including Arthur Godfrey, Durward Kirby, and Bess Myerson — amused audiences with clips of their clandestine tomfoolery and their singsong call to ”smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” A talking mailbox coaxes a passerby into a conversation. Children react to the sounds of their heartbeats. A uniformed guard informs confused travelers that Delaware is closed for the day.

Critics claimed Funt’s subjects were ”ridiculed, shamed, and made the butt of jokes,” but that didn’t turn viewers off. An instant top 10 hit for CBS, Candid Camera has continued to air, off and on, ever since: in syndication from 1974 to ’78, on anniversary specials, and on CBS (its latest season just wrapped). ”The people we present every week are surrogates,” says Allen’s son and current Candid Camera host Peter Funt of the prank-fest’s time-tested appeal. ”We see ourselves in the behavior of the people on the show.” And audiences’ innate voyeuristic tendencies have helped send a flotilla of reality programs sailing in its wake: America’s Funniest Home Videos, When Animals Attack, and The Tom Green Show, to name a few.

What would the patriarch of reality TV think? ”Before my father’s death [in 1999], he was not pleased with the direction that some shows were taking, if it was the World’s Worst Car Crashes or whatever the show might be,” says Funt. ”But I think he’d find Survivor and Big Brother interesting.” Regardless of Candid Camera‘s lasting success, Funt hopes its legacy will be this: ”that people are at once smarter, nicer, and funnier than we all give ourselves credit for.” Unless, of course, there’s $1 million and instant fame at stake.

Time Capsule: August 10, 1948
At the movies, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star in the John Huston-directed gangster drama Key Largo. On TV, New Yorkers tune in to a star-studded ceremony marking the on-air debut of WJZ-TV, the local affiliate for the fledgling American Broadcasting Co. In bookstores, Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead is No. 1 on Publishers Weekly’s best-seller list. And in the news, a Mercedes-Benz built for Hitler’s ”victory” parades begins an American tour to encourage U.S. Air Force enlistment.

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