Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Smile! (Or not)

Allen Funt created television's Candid Camera. But he was not the star.

If Funt were alive today, he would concur.

Funt, who took the idea of a roving microphone capturing unguarded moments from the days of radio and turned it into a TV phenomenon, also never liked the notion that his show made fools out of unsuspecting people.

Funt preferred to think that Candid Camera was more of a series of case studies on human behavior, rather than a gag-filled half-hour.

Regardless, the star wasn't Funt, though he hosted the in-studio segments and often appeared during the hidden camera "case studies."

The stars of Candid Camera were always the people---the folks whose behavior was being chronicled in a very unfiltered and unscripted way.

Therefore, the laughs that resulted were always from the audience's glee at the reactions of the unwitting, caught by Funt's hidden camera.

But that was then.

TV Land has trotted out a new version of Candid Camera, hosted by Funt's son, Peter, and actor Mayim Bialik.

As in Allen Funt's original version, the hosts in the studio don't matter. Not that the younger Funt and Bialik do a poor job (they don't), but they aren't the stars.

The new version, however, falls flat.

It's not the fault of Funt and Bialik. It's the fault of the people. And that's not even fair, really.

The charm of the original Candid Camera was not only watching normal people in abnormal situations, it was in the reveal---that moment when Funt, et al would finally let the unsuspecting in on the joke.

"You're on Candid Camera!"

But back in the original show's days, there weren't cameras all over the place. There weren't cell phones and tablets and the like, all equipped with cameras that could be whipped out at a moment's notice, ready to capture just about anything the possessor wished to capture, newsworthy or not.

Today, people aren't stunned or shocked by the presence of a camera, even if they didn't know one was trained on them for a case study.

So the reaction to the reveal in the new version is, well, muted.

And a muted reaction isn't very entertaining to the TV viewers.

Now, that might not be so bad if the situations the people are placed in made up for the less-than-spectacular reveal reactions.

But they don't.

Candid Camera debuted in 1948 and there have been a few relaunches along the way. So we're talking 66 years, essentially, of the show's existence. That's a long time and it's hard to come up with fresh new stuff.


Allen Funt, back when this notion still had the power to amaze


But again, the society in which we live makes it awfully difficult for us to be flabbergasted anymore by what we see going on in front of our eyes.

Whether it's a soap dispenser at a market that doesn't stop dispensing or a retail outlet that charges a $10 fee to shop in the store as opposed to online (both used in the new version), does anything really surprise us anymore?

The charm of Candid Camera was rooted in two certainties that existed decades ago that simply don't anymore---a much more impressionable public and a genuine amazement that a hidden camera could be set up. The people were video virgins, so to speak.

Today's society is far less impressionable and there are cameras everywhere anymore. In fact, it seems like we are all on camera more than we aren't, when you add security cameras and the like into the mix.

I think it would be more of a surprise if the revealing person shouted, "You're NOT on camera now!"

Still, I give TV Land credit for trying to appeal to those of us who remember when an evening with Allen Funt and company was truly a special event. The situations were comical, the reactions were priceless and the reveals were the cherry on top.

However---and it's not TV Land's fault---today's society is just so damned hard to amaze and impress. And we are certainly not aghast at the notion of a camera lens shooting us through a hole in a wall.

The result is that watching the new Candid Camera is like dusting off an old Jack-in-the-Box and failing to be stunned by the clown popping out---while being wistful of the days when it did.

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Editor's note: The following e-mail arrived from none other than Peter Funt himself, who saw this post, on October 1, 2014:

Funny thing about the "original." There's no bigger fan of my Dad's work than me, and I never suggest that my stuff is as good as his was at his prime. However, I find that our memories have a way of distorting and condensing and selecting from the past. I think what you and some other viewers are, in effect, saying is: When I recall the handful of fabulous reveals that Allen got over decades – perhaps seen in highlights or "best of" packages – they're better than what Peter gets week in and week out. How true! 

It's hard to compete with a legend. Fortunately that's not my objective. Good luck with your site.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Getting Festive, PC or Not

I wonder if you could get away with calling them "Ethnic Festivals" these days.

I've kind of lost track of political correctness. I don't know what is acceptable terminology anymore.

But what I do know is that, as a high schooler and into my college years, my buddies and I would descend on Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit and partake in "ethnic" food, people watch, and maybe have a nip or two.

Yes, it was before we were of legal drinking age. Amazing how enterprising teenagers can be.

Anyhow, they called them Ethnic Festivals and they would rotate throughout the summer, on the weekends.

You know---Greek, Italian, Arab-American, etc.

The Plaza would be host to live music, vendor stands/kiosks and underneath, in the below-ground portion of the Plaza, were loads of food nooks. Imagine an underground food court, like they have at the malls.

All you needed to do to find the food vendors below was to follow your nose. The food was yummy. There was also a marvelous view of Windsor, including the iconic Canadian Club sign east of the Plaza, with its gargantuan, lighted-up letters.

But what I remember most was the people watching.

For whatever reason, the Festivals used to attract some of the most bizarre people that Detroit had to offer.

My friends and I would call these folks "characters" and to be approached by them---which happened more often than you might think---was to be "characterized."

They were mostly street bums---probably homeless. But there were also individuals who were just plain eccentric and strange looking, wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes they would stop us and ask for money or booze or just start talking gibberish.

We likely did some of that aimless wandering around too, come to think of it. Maybe even the gibberish, depending on what time of night you're talking.

But it was a fine way for teenage boys to spend a summer's evening. We didn't go there looking for girls, per se, but if there was ever communication with the fairer sex, it certainly wasn't dismissed out of hand.

Because, as I recall, there were lots of cutie pies flitting around the Plaza during those festivals as well.

I think about those Festivals now and again, because working downtown now as I do, I have the occasion to drive by Hart Plaza from time to time.

I know that the Plaza is still home to festivals and celebrations and the like---including the occasional protest---but I don't think they're called "Ethnic Festivals" anymore. In fact, I don't even think they have weekly events such as the ones I am recalling, anymore.

The newspapers, in their Friday entertainment sections, would list what the Festival was that particular weekend at Hart Plaza. Not that it mattered to us; we pretty much went down there no matter what nationality was being represented.

Ethnic Festivals---politically correct terminology or not, they were a part of my youth.

They had their time, which is all you can really ask I suppose.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's the Response, Stupid

There's some sad irony in the Ray Rice conundrum as far as the National Football League is concerned.

The NFL is a league that has a legacy of toughness and images of "real men" doing battle on mud-strewn gridirons, snow and other unfavorable elements.

It's a league whose players like to throw around the word "respect," whether it's not getting enough or giving too much.

"Real men" and "respect" don't fit Rice, the ex-Baltimore Ravens running back who was caught red-fisted via security camera, cold-cocking his fiancee in an elevator last February.

This blog is expressly for my non-sports rantings, but just because the first several paragraphs have been littered with NFL references, the Rice situation has nothing to do with pro football, per se.

Real men don't hit women. And that's not how you gain respect. It is, however, all about not having any of the R-word for your fellow human beings, let alone the woman to who you are now married.

Rice's wife, Janay, has publicly asked to call off the dogs when it comes to the playing of the video that shows Rice punching her so hard that she was knocked out cold from slamming her head against a metal railing inside the elevator.

She could have been killed, had she hit her head on the rail in a different way.

Janay Rice, understandably, wants us to know that her life with Ray is theirs and this horrible incident is theirs to deal with, privately.

She's right, of course, but good luck with that.

It's not for any of us to judge Janay Rice on her decision to stand by her husband despite the disgusting act of violence he perpetrated against her for all the world (it turned out) to see.

She has her reasons and they ought to be respected. There's that R-word again.

The most troublesome part of the Rice saga is not that Janay chose to stay with her fiance and marry him.

The focus right now, as it should be, is on the NFL and its handling of the Rice situation.

There have been several missteps along the way.

First was the ridiculously meager two-game suspension that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied on Rice, based (supposedly) on the original video, which showed Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of the elevator.

Even without the much more damning second video, sitting Rice for two games based on the original video was even too lenient. A slap on the wrist for a direct punch to the face.

Then the second video emerged, courtesy of those busy beavers over at TMZ.

The second video shows the harrowing images of Rice as his fiancee approaches him in anger. He slugs her and she hits her head on the rail before collapsing, unconscious.

No one knows what goes on behind closed doors? Thanks to our "cameras are everywhere" society, not always.

The second league miscue, an unforced fumble, was Goodell's office claiming that the league never saw the second video until last week, although a law enforcement person has proof (via a voicemail) that someone within the NFL received the video five months ago---a DVD copy that the law enforcement person sent, acting on his/her own sense of obligation.

This is where the NFL is going off the rails, potentially.

Ray and Janay Rice

If it is indeed proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the league viewed the second video before metering out the feeble suspension, then this moves directly to the "cover up" category without passing GO and without collecting $200.

The NFL seems to be riding a technicality already; in other words, it seems like their defense is going to be that, yes, we may have received a video a long time ago, but that doesn't mean that anyone viewed it.

This is malarkey, of course, and it's on its way to be proven false because the voicemail in question includes this comment from a female voice who confirmed the video's receipt: "You're right/ (The video)'s terrible."

Why would you call a video terrible if you'd never viewed it?

Goodell switched Rice's suspension from two games to indefinite after the second video came to light. A cynic would tell you that Goodell switched gears only after proof of the second video's existence was revealed to everyone.

Big difference between the two sentences above this one.

In Watergate lexicon, "What did the commissioner know and when did he know it?"

That question---the one of what did a power-to-be know and when was it known---is the question that frequently is the first domino that leads to resignations or firings.

When will people of authority realize that it's not the first act of misdeed that will bring your organization to its knees; it's the attemped covering up of said act of misdeed that will do it.

Maybe the NFL is filled with real men of respect, after all. Quite a few of the league's players have taken to social media to express their anger and disgust over Rice's actions.

But let's see how the players respond if it turns out that the league was derelict in its handling of this matter.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Avoidable Tragedy the Worst Kind

In a perfect world, Derek Flemming would have been able to march up to the driver of a car that cut him off, express some anger, and get back into his own vehicle---without fear of losing his life.

The 43 year-old husband and father of two young children would have vented his anger and frustration and still lived to re-tell the story to friends, co-workers and family at every opportunity.

We do that a lot, you know---turn storyteller when we are wronged, whether it's from poor service at a restaurant to being incredulous at a retailer's return policy, among other things.

But then we get it out of our system and we move on, until someone else relates a story that fires your mental file cabinet into gear and your story gets retold yet again.

But Flemming paid the ultimate price in an act that unfortunately will have people---like yours truly---getting into "blame the victim" mode.

Flemming was gunned down at a traffic light near Howell after he allegedly complained to a driver who cut him off in traffic and who was---again, allegedly---driving recklessly. The 69 year-old man had stopped in front of Flemming's vehicle at the light. Flemming exited his vehicle and said something like, according to his wife, who was in the car with her husband, "What's your problem?"

Then Flemming was shot dead by the older driver.

I know we don't live in a perfect world. If we did, my knee jerk reaction wouldn't have been (as it was when I read of the tragic story), "Ooh...you shouldn't have gotten out of your car."

We have all been cut off in traffic. We have all been frustrated by rudeness in public. And we have all fantasized about what we would like to have done or said, if only we had thought about those reactions at the time.

You have no idea how many fictional, imagined conversations or actions I have wistfully thought of in my head in response to surliness, idiocy and the like. Usually I think of those responses when it's way too late.

Maybe that's a good thing.

Certainly Flemming, who was on his way to pick up his kids after their first day of school, would have made it to his children and would have had dinner with them that night, if he had only checked himself before exiting his vehicle.

You can call that blaming the victim all you like. You can say that a man should be able to stand up for himself. You can say that rude, reckless drivers deserve to be confronted.

You can say that Derek Flemming shouldn't have been expecting the confronted driver to have a gun so readily available and with the demented mindset to use it at a drop of a hat.

All true.

But would you rather be right, confrontational and dead, or grumble to yourself---and your wife---and live?


People gather near the area where Derek Flemming was gunned down on Tuesday

It's sad that this is the subconscious choice that we are now forced to make in this dangerous, violent world. Maybe it's not so subconscious.

So the rude and the reckless and the surly get a free pass? Not necessarily. There are other ways to throw the karma back into their court.

In Flemming's case, there is a device called a cell phone. And it accepts emergency numbers.

I walk our dog every evening and in the 10 years that I have been doing so, I have called the police some six or seven times. The reasons range from chickens appearing at a strip mall (true story) to a drunk man passed out on a sidewalk to high suspicions of domestic violence taking place at a private residence.

I call the authorities, calmly describe the situation and let the cops do their thing.

And I live to tell about it, which I have, several times.

Should Derek Flemming have gotten out of his vehicle and confronted a dangerous, reckless, rude driver? Or should he have dialed 911 and reported the reckless driver? Flemming was situated behind the older man, so a license plate number could have easily been reported as well.

This isn't second-guessing. It's not a case of hindsight being 20/20.

We live in a world where people simply aren't to be trifled with on many occasions. No one knows who's packing heat these days. Worse, no one knows the mental stability of those who are armed.

Did the 69 year-old driver feel threatened by the unarmed Flemming, who approached the older man's vehicle clearly in anger, according to witnesses?

Playing Devil's Advocate, you can say that the older man didn't know if Flemming was armed or not. Just because Flemming didn't approach with a gun drawn doesn't mean he wasn't carrying concealed.

Maybe the older driver panicked.

Regardless, Derek Flemming is dead. And he doesn't have to be.

His epitaph, of course, ought not to read "He shouldn't have gotten out of his car." Flemming was a husband and a dad, and the owner of his own landscaping business. He was much more than a man who made a split-second decision that ultimately cost him his life.

As if we need yet another reminder that things are rough out there.