A recent episode of the brilliant Radiolab podcast covered the contributions of Allen Funt and Candid Camera to television history. The prank show was essentially the first reality television show ever, although it began as something else entirely: a way to ease soldiers into complaining about their time in World War II. Allen Funt was the host of a radio show at the time called “The Gripe Booth,” where soldiers would come into his studio and talk about their gripes. However, he found that the soldiers weren’t very good on the radio if they knew they were being recorded, so he did a dry run first, telling the soldiers that the mic wasn’t on. He recorded them secretly and ended up using those secretly recorded conversations on his show.
As relayed by Radiolab reporter Latif Nasser, this morphed into a Candid Camera radio show and later, a television version. It did not go without controversy, however. Listeners and viewers frequently complained that it was a form of eavesdropping, an invasion of privacy. It wasn’t until years later that Funt stumbled upon the idea of the “reveal”: At the end of each segment, he’d say, “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera.”
That one change dramatically altered the show. What was once considered an invasion of privacy was transformed into a harmless, amusing prank. The reveal let the victim of that prank in on the joke. It seems intuitive now, but until Candid Camera did it, the “reveal” was a foreign concept. Imagine an episode of Punk’d in which Ashton Kutcher never tells Justin Timberlake that it was all a prank, ending the segment with Timberlake crying on his stoop, believing the IRS was seizing all of his property.