Smile, You're on Life Support!

People had been watching TV for only a handful of years before Allen Funt was inspired to reverse the relationship. It occurred to the affable young radio personality that it might prove amusing instead for TV cameras to watch ordinary people grapple with situations in which they ordinarily wouldn’t find themselves. In 1948 "Candid Camera" was born. The hidden-camera format pioneered by the late broadcaster has proved to be one of television’s most enduring. Today the program, hosted by his son Peter, retains its popularity and airs twice a week on the PAX network. More surprising than its durability, though, is the number of imitators the show has suddenly spawned at the dawn of the new millennium.

Now, I’ve watched "Candid Camera" since I was a kid and always thought it was a harmless hoot. I never considered it particularly cerebral. Next to some of the recent dumbed-down rip-offs, however, the original looks like "Masterpiece Theater."

"Hoaxbusters" is the least offensive of the wannabes. Airing periodically on the Learning Channel, the show offers a sort of consumer-alert spin on the setup. Scams and cons are perpetrated on unsuspecting citizens. In one episode, feeble-minded tourists in Great Britain sign up for a "$5000 Tour of Royal Households for $500," apparently believing they’ll be hanging out in the inner sanctums of places like Buckingham Palace. Once they’ve paid their money and made total fools of themselves, the host takes his hapless victims aside, returns their cash and points out the hidden lens with a "Smile, you’re on camera!"

"These people aren’t stupid," he fudges for the home viewer, "they just fell for a deal that sounds too good to be true."

Right. And this show’s not a rip-off. It just borrows from Funt’s classic, right down to its signature sign-off.

"Spy TV" is another story. Essentially everything bogus about contemporary society is embodied by the broadcast. Inspired in part by "Redhanded," a short-lived "CC" clone that aired on UPN in 1999, Holland-based Endemol Entertainment decided the world needed a hidden-camera show that’s irresponsible, tasteless and mean-spirited. And that’s exactly what it brought to NBC last June.

At that time, "Spy TV" was hosted smarmily by "Ed"’s Michael Ian Black. He was shown slinking from place to place in a special spy van rigged with lots of monitors, blinking consoles and surveillance equipment. Ostensibly Black and his buds would go on location playing pranks on unsuspecting members of the public.

It became obvious at once that the tone of Endemol’s show differed profoundly from that of Funt’s. Where the ploys of "Candid Camera" featured imaginative premises, "Spy TV" relied on sensational spectacle. Where Funt and company made a gentle, joyful study of human nature, "Spy TV" made its victims look foolish or pathetic. Much of the time, it also came close to giving them heart attacks.

And that’s not just my opinion. It’s company policy. The network’s own Web site hails the program as the "show that uses hidden cameras for humiliation." It invites viewers to send in suggestions for pranks to be played on people they know, "whether you’re getting even or just getting laughs."

This past season Black was replaced by actress and former beauty queen Ali Landry. The spy van was put on blocks in favor of a glitzy new fashion-show-style runway from which the host now introduces segments. While its window dressing may have been upgraded, however, the programming retains its frat-boy cruel streak. If anything, this season was more cold-blooded than the last. Compare the following classic "Candid Camera" segments with some recently broadcast on "Spy TV":

CC: New Yorkers don’t know what to make of it when they come across a man walking an invisible dog. Funt & Co. rigged a leash so that it extended stiffly in front of the fellow as though pulled by a pet.

STV: A group of friends don’t know whether they’ll make it out alive when the limo they’re riding in unexpectedly drives onto a racetrack and proceeds in the wrong direction while speeding automobiles streak past, missing the vehicle by inches.

CC: People are surprised when it turns out the elevator they’ve just ridden has traveled sideways rather than up and down.

STV: An elderly woman is terrified when she’s told her son is inside a Port-O-Let that’s dangling from a helicopter high in the air. She appears on the verge of collapse when informed that the helicopter is about to release the toilet and send it crashing onto the rocky terrain below.

CC: A talking horse gives disbelieving passersby hot tips at a race track.

STV: At a burial site, a gag corpse gives cemetery workers a shock when it lunges out of its casket at them.

When the creative minds behind "Spy TV" aren’t scaring people within an inch of their lives, they like to make victims so uncomfortable they wish they were dead. A recent set-up involved "hiring" a secretary for a female talent agent. Fabio pays a visit, he and the "agent" make out noisily behind her closed door, and then the agent’s "husband and kids" unexpectedly pay a visit, eventually discovering her infidelity. Not only had the job applicant not really found work as she believed, she was clearly distressed by the awkward situation well beyond what any well-adjusted viewer would find funny.

Think the genre has hit bottom? Think again. The worst is yet to come. That would be the opinion, I dare say, of the Washington, D.C., attorney and his wife who in April filed a $10 million suit against MTV and the producers of the yet-to-air prank show "Harassment." The two claim they suffered distress upon discovering what appeared to be a mutilated dead body in a hotel room on Jan. 25. Hey, can’t they take a joke?

That’s the point. These shows aren’t about playing jokes anymore. They’re about playing dirty tricks. They’re about playing games with people’s minds — games that only the warped, the puerile or the misanthropic could possibly consider entertaining.

Funt must be spinning in his grave. He once remarked that he considered himself "a student of human nature rather than a practical joker." Many agreed. In his book, "The Lonely Crowd," the renowned sociologist David Reisman called Funt "the second-most ingenious sociologist in America."

Something tells me the creators of today’s hidden-camera shows aren’t going to be remembered for their ingenuity. My bet is, if they’re remembered at all it will be for causing, in just a few years, the demise of a format that had flourished for half a century on American television.

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