Dispatches > The Buzz

Words to live by

Remembering the master trickster of Candid Camera, recognizing that it's a mad, Mad world, wishing ESPN a happy birthday

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

Remembering Allen Funt
Man does not know his time, as the Puritans said, but man also doesn't know he's on camera. So although it's vital to live coram Deo, before the face of God, Allen Funt made it useful for Americans also to live coram gawko, before the face of the viewing public. Not knowing who unwittingly would be next, the only sensible practice was to live by the admonition, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera." When Allen Funt started his new radio show in 1948, he never imagined he would be the father of reality television. What started as "Candid Microphone" and became "Candid Camera" has popped on and off the air ever since. Mr. Funt and his accomplices would hide mikes and camera, then watch people as they encountered some bizarre situations. The current version (hosted by Mr. Funt's son Peter) featured such gaga as the "Insta Press" dry-cleaning machine that shoots out customers wrapped in plastic bags. Another stunt used hidden musicians to keep perfect time to customers who walked through the store, making them think the Musak system was tracking them. Mr. Funt, who started his career delivering papers for Eleanor Roosevelt, says he was never caught in the act. "It's awfully hard to catch someone who does this for a living," he said. "Nobody ever really turned the tables on me." Regrettably, while the broadcast editions of Mr. Funt's radio and TV work are usually innocuous, the trickster had a more vulgar side, releasing sexually explicit versions of his voyeurisms in the 1970s and 1980s that now languish in obscurity. Yet Mr. Funt's clean stunts, like watching people while they are hassled by talking mailboxes or bowling balls with no holes, paved the way for today's fare where TV crews follow cops on a drug busts. Mr. Funt died early this month at age 84 of complications from the stroke that ended his career back in 1993. His gimmicks survive him because people like to watch others in spontaneous events and such tricks turn in big ratings for few dollars. A CD-ROM gone mad
That stack of Mad magazines that millions of 13-year-old boys kept on their nightstands has been digitized and released on CD-ROM. Toy giant Mattel, Inc. is releasing 564 issues on seven discs, everything from 1952 to 1998. The whole thing started as just another title in the line of William M. Gaines's EC Comics, the short-lived powerhouse responsible for Tales from the Crypt and other horror, sci-fi, and war comics. The company's success was cut short by a backlash of complaints against its product's content, which was considered explicit by 1950s standards. (The Comics Code seal on many of today's comic books is a relic of this dispute.) To save EC, Mr. Gaines shut down everything and bet his chips on Mad. The comic-book style was replaced with the larger format anchored by the "What, Me Worry?" guy. Antonio Prohias (the "Spy vs. Spy" guy) and Sergio Aragones came later. Movie satires served up everything from "Groan With the Wind" to "Saturday Night Feeble" to "Teen Rage Moolah Nitwit Turtles." The result was an intuition that redefined American comedy. Even though it's old hat today, for many baby boomers Mad was their first burst of adolescence. Mad survived, becoming the only major humor magazine on American newsstands. Mad has grayed a little over the years, since nobody thinks its style of comedy is subversive anymore. Alfred E. Newman's grin has reached cliché status in American iconography and is bound to turn up in political cartoons during any campaign (Jimmy Carter morphed well into the puckish caricature). Collectors still horde Mad memorabilia, and many look back to the days when they folded the back-cover fold-ins. On CD-ROM, it's more nostalgia than teen fare. What youngster today would get the joke of "The Barefoot Nocountessa," "Gold Mining Daughter," or "The Longest Yardbird"? ESPN: Enough Sports Programming? Never!
William Rasmussen, looking for a way to win some television exposure for his struggling Hartford Whalers National Hockey League team, wound up building ESPN. The team dumped him and ended up relocating to North Carolina, where it is now known as the Carolina Hurricanes. But while the Whalers got harpooned, Mr. Rasmussen's idea stayed alive as he cooked up his idea for a cable station called the Entertainment Sports Programming Network that would air taped college football games and daily highlights. ESPN debuted 20 years ago on Sept. 7, 1979. Back then the programming was B-grade. The first live event was the Professional Slo-Pitch Softball World Series. Slowly live college and NFL football would surpass darts and billiards on the schedule. Over time ESPN got bigger, made more money, and started changing. Sports was changing from a weekend exercise into an expensive lifestyle. ESPN coverage followed the hype of team marketers, emphasizing style over substance. The flagship program SportsCenter became more known for its wisecracks and jokes than for its coverage. Even George Grande, the first SportsCenter co-host, says he isn't thrilled with what ESPN has become. When he watches his old show, he turns off the sound. "I watch for the highlights," he said. "There's too much clutter now. I don't want to see a 30-second lead-in that has 18 clever phrases. It seems like every anchor is just trying to outdo each other." Yet ESPN, now part of the Disney empire, keeps growing. One bright spot was its acquisition of the independent Classic Sports channel that replays some of the great moments in sport. And the brand name covers four cable channels, a website, a sports magazine, and a restaurant chain. And it is getting its share of critics. Complains New York Post sportswriting legend Phil Mushnick: "It sometimes seems that the hearts and minds of the people they want to capture is in an 18- or 19-year-old male, wearing a Motley Crue T-shirt, probably hung over, living in his parents' basement with a half-eaten pizza in a box on the floor."

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