73 Years of Smiles and Insights

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It was 73 years ago this month that my dad, Allen Funt, brought “Candid Camera” to television. Remarkably, between his career and mine we hold a record with the only entertainment show to have produced new episodes in eight different decades.

I still don’t have all the answers, but I’ve heard most of the questions.

Are people harder to fool these days? No! Folks are easier to fool. That may seem counterintuitive, but I’m certain it’s true. Much of it has to do with multitasking. When my father did the show he had to work at distracting people. These days they do it to themselves. Many people we now encounter are fiddling with personal devices, tackling routine activities with less-than-full focus. That makes them easier targets for our little experiments, but also more vulnerable to mishaps and genuine scams.

Is the show really real? Of course. The entire concept—and our reputation—is based on making “Candid Camera” real. Some competitors have faked hidden-camera scenes. Not us. Frankly, much of our material is only funny because it is spontaneous and unrehearsed.

As part of our birthday celebration I’ve written a book called “Self-Amused,” drawing upon many of our adventures and insights.

In doing recent versions of our show I worried briefly that people are now so tech-savvy that some of our props and fake setups wouldn’t be believed. Instead, we found that the omnipresence of technology has reached a point where people will now accept almost anything.

We showed customers at a salon an “un-tanning machine” that ostensibly sucked off dark pigment in seconds. We notified residents in a Denver suburb that they would be getting mail delivery via drone. We told patients at a dentist’s office that they’d now be performing a DIY dental exam. In each case, just about everyone bought in. At the dental office, several people were even prepared to give themselves a shot of Novocain before we intervened.

I don’t necessarily believe 21st-century Americans are more gullible, but they tend to give that impression by protesting life’s little insults without taking time to fully digest the situation.

For instance, we told shoppers in Seaside, Calif., they would be charged a “$10 in-store fee” for not buying online. We told customers at a New York City food store that to pay with a credit card they would need “three forms of photo ID.” We hired a cop in Scottsdale, Ariz., to enforce a “2 m.p.h. pedestrian speed limit.”

Most people took these propositions to be true. They shot back quickly at big government, big business or any other entity that seemed to have too big a role in managing their lives.

We tried a few political experiments and the results were predictable. We showed New Yorkers petitions to recall state officials, but the names were all fictitious. Many people supported the effort, among them a lawyer who carefully explained that one should never sign anything without complete knowledge of the facts, and then signed anyway. In California, our fake candidate obtained dozens of campaign signatures without ever stating a position, a party or even her full name.

In Arizona, we hired two actors to portray “illegal immigrants.” One played a well-dressed gentleman from England, the other a blue-collar worker from Mexico. The British fellow got plenty of signatures to “vouch for good character,” while the Mexican guy had difficulty just getting people to stop and listen.

Much hasn’t changed over the years. For example, I expected to encounter more profanity in everyday conversation, but it’s really not there. I also wondered whether young people would be less spontaneous and engaged when caught in our scenarios, yet there’s no hint of that whatsoever. I thought in these litigious times fewer people would sign a waiver to appear on our show, but the percentages have stayed about the same over the years.

I do note that today more people step out in public looking a bit disheveled and unkempt and are then hesitant to sign because they’re not happy with their appearance. Fortunately for our show, people are still, for the most part, willing to engage a stranger and to smile when a little joke is revealed.

One more question I’m often asked: How many Emmy awards has “Candid Camera” won?

None. No Emmy, Golden Globe or Peabody. We haven’t even received a TV Guide viewers’ honorable mention certificate. We did, however, win one special award. A national plumbing supply company gave us a trophy because our slogan—”Smile, you’re on Candid Camera”—was found to be the most popular graffiti above restroom urinals.

Copyright 2021 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCamera.com.