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.

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