Hidden Cameras and Human Behavior—An Interview with Allen Funt
Editor’s note: Every so often, one happens upon an artifact that both reveals something about the tenor of the times and hints at the times to come. In my research, I stumbled on an interview with Allen Funt, the man behind Candid Camera—arguably a progenitor of many of the reality television shows that proliferate the airwaves. The article appeared in the Fall 1965 edition of Film Comment magazine. Filmmaker Harrison Engle, one of founding presidents of IDA, wrote the article, excerpts of which we present to you below.
Allen Funt is know variously as the folksy creator of Candid Camera, as a successful aggressive television producer and as a difficult man with a considerable sense of his own worth. For nearly twenty years of radio, television and film, Funt has been a master of exploitation, stealing unguarded moments from our private lives and selling them back to us as entertainment. With hidden cameras and microphones, he has molded the commonplace into his own popular art form and has won audiences, ratings and a personal fortune.
One can speculate about the reasons for Candid Camera’s continued success in the United States—that puritanical guilt feelings make us both fear and enjoy being watched secretly, or that expansive Americanism has enabled us to laugh freely at ourselves. But there are more apparent reasons why such a Spartan comic idea has endured. Funt seems to know what is “news” and where to point his camera. He has a strong sense of Situation. Each sketch is short and highly memorable because of its inherent simplicity. Each has a clear premise. At their best, the sketches are genuinely funny. They are, in effect, short jokes in which one can identify with both the subject and the Candid Camera front man in the scene.
Perhaps we should begin by having you define “candid.”
Funt: “Candid” in general photographic terms means unposed, relatively unposed. For us, “candid” means hidden and completely unaware photography.
Do you think you really find truths about people even though your situations are so highly contrived?
The truth about people very often sneaks in despite our effort. We never, of course, have controls, so that we’re never sure what would happen to a certain individual if he was just carrying out his normal life without our interference or without our involvement. The closest to a scientific approach, the closest to the beginnings of truth, as you say, are these: we never show a piece of behavior that we are positive is atypical. …So the truth sneaks in occasionally—that is, the scientists’ truth. The truth about people, I think, is in all of the things we do, even if they’re not typical.
In your different situations you often have to “push” people to get their reactions. Do people have a limit emotionally and psychologically?
That question really has a many-headed response to it, and let me see if I can’t boil it down. The limits to which you can push people divide themselves roughly into the emotional limits, intellectual limits and psychological limits. On an emotional level, it’s a very strange thing that people have emotional short circuits if the provocation is too strong. Psychologically, the limit has more to do with whether a person is alone or with other people. There’s a kind of ego reflection if you’re with somebody else. If he’s alone he’ll take a hell of a lot more. If he’s with somebody else he’ll take a lot less.
Can you spot people who can be provoked into good reactions? And do you do this in the course of making your Candid Camera episodes?
I have to give a little basic definition, because I think we’re leading up the wrong alley of our work. I think the idea of provoking people into good reactions needs some re-examination. Let me tell you first that the best Candid Camera subject is the strong person who is best able to cope with our predicament, not least able. To the extent that we find a strong guy—who goes all the way from taking care of the predicament to turning the tables on is—that’s the best subject. The weakest subject needs the greatest provocation. The weakest subject leads us into a closest-to-error behavior.
Your show has been around on radio and television and in one form or another for almost 20 years. Why has your show endured?
Number one, the basic comedy of Candid Camera is the comedy of watching a man fall on the ice. It’s someone else. You’re happy it’s not you. You have a moment of superiority. And you recognize the possibility of yourself in the predicament. Beyond that, at our best, we are dealing with subjects closer to the real lives of our audience than almost any other show on television.
You were one of the first to examine ordinary people in everyday locales for your own kind of “documentary” entertainment. Do you consider yourself responsible in any way for the development of cinema vérité? Were you conscious of the difference between your techniques and those of others at that time?
I was very much aware of the differences between our approach and the approach of those who were doing things like it. The earliest documentarians I can think of were using real locations and, on occasion, real people, most of the time because they couldn’t afford actors or because it was more convenient. So we weren’t starting anything, we were developing it. And from the beginning, we were handicapped, in a sense, by a religion. The religion was that we had to use concealment, and that our subjects must not be at all aware of what we were doing. When some filmmakers tell me—“Well, people get used to the camera”…well, they weren’t aware of the camera, they were provoked or involved to the extent that they didn’t know the camera was there, or after two hours they’d forget about the camera,” we would constantly have to reply –“You go your way, but our way is ordained now.”
Now, to get back to this question of pioneering—I am vain enough to think that not only camera vérité, but all the realism in television commercials stems from our work. The whole body of those things using real people and simulating reality—all of those come directly from us. Our impact on cinema vérité was simply that we kept on showing that real people were engaging, that when the people on our show were funny it was not always an accident. If everything we did was an accident then we would have no value to the production field. The control was that we would think of a funny situation and then place a man in it. And after all, if this is to be art and not just an accident, it involves discipline. And our discipline is that every single week we get out a show. That’s not an accident.
Do you deliberately use telephoto lenses or other film devices to create an additional candid effect, to give an added eavesdropping quality?
No. The truth is that we never use any film techniques, because we want the thing to look a lot more like live pickups than film. We never use dissolves, we never use opticals, we never use more than one camera. No matter how easy it would be. Because our point of view has to be the eavesdropper’s point of view.
What is the usual reaction by people—or is there a usual reaction—when you tell them that it’s all a gag? Do they resent it? Do they laugh along with you at themselves?
I have to make a composite of so many people. But I would say that the prime response is one of relief. The relief is that the situation—no matter what kind of a situation—is really not one that they have to cope with.
The second thing is what I call “defensive disbelief.” Now, here’s what happens. Your ego says—“I’ve been fooled.” Your defensive response is—“You didn’t really fool me.” So I say—“Do you mind being on coast to coast?” He says—“I was? I knew it all the time.” That’s pure defensive disbelief.
Do people sometimes object because it was all a trick?
Oh, they do once in a while. But I’m always avoiding that half-of-one-percent exception. We have had people who have threatened to sue everybody from the president of CBS to our sponsors. Now, those are people who don’t think it’s funny—and there are many. But just go by the number of releases we get. We get 997 out of every thousand releases without any pressure.
How do you feel about critics who don’t like your eavesdropping and your playing practical jokes on people?
I feel terrible. I feel terrible because they’re right. You see, the horror of it is that you never can win those people. You let a critic point out any other fault that you can think of, and there’s something you can do about it. But we cannot change the basic strength or fault—you call it—of the concept of our program. We must have an initial advantage over our subject., and maybe a lasting advantage.
So that’s why the critics resent us. It’s not because we’re Big Brothers, because we’re not. We use enough restraint, enough self-discipline, so that we rarely do anything that would hurt a man, But the sympathy that is generated by a sensitive human being to the inequities of what we do is something we can never overcome.
Although people sign releases for your show, do you find that they generally have little idea of what their skit has been all about? They never see an edited version before airtime, do they?
They can hear a track immediately. They never see an edited version except on rare, rare occasions. People have a very hazy recall of what happened to them, but all of the very important elements are operating whether they have a vague or a clear recall. These are the important questions to most people’s lives—“Was I in the wrong place, was I with the wrong person, did I say, in general, the wrong thing?” Those things they remember. Now, whether they remember the comedic sequence of things, or the particular structure of it, is another thing.
You don’t get people who forget how…
How stupid they looked?
Yes, and come back later, after they’ve seen the show on TV, to complain.
No, we don’t have it happen that way. I think most filmmakers will agree with this--people look better on film in general than they do in real life. The second thing is, who is to judge whether a man looks silly on television? You may be looking at a man who’s big enough to smile at the kind of weaknesses that all of us have. He may also be the kind of egotist who doesn’t care how he looks, just as long as he got the notoriety. Generally the subject has no important second thoughts after the film is used, because most people get the whole spectrum of responses at once.
Do you think your episodes will last as statements about people in our time and in our society?
If somebody digs up a capsule of our society, if he finds all the documentary films that were ever done—and here I’m talking about Nanook and on down—I think he’ll learn more about human beings from our films than he will from almost any other documentary films I can think of. Now, mind you, I’m not saying he’ll learn more about making pictures, or that he’ll be more entertained, but I can’t think of a set of films that will give a stranger a better insight into our race than our kind of pictures. We have done so many now that if I picked 20 films out of 30 thousand episodes, I’d say they’d stand up with almost any documentary. They will be remembered, but not as entertainment. Most people in the film business are in it for entertainment. A small number for instruction and inspiration. We are in it for entertainment and for its comedic value. But the side thing—seeing children as we portray them, seeing certain kinds of adult behavior, and the insight about it that our films give you—I can’t think of anything that’s better.
Copyright © Film Comment Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.