Somewhere, Allen Funt is smiling.
Funt, the granddaddy of TV prank shows (“Smile – you’re on ‘Candid Camera!’”), died more than a dozen years ago. But the impact of the less-snarky forbearer of Daniel Tosh can be seen all over the tube these days: With the ongoing success of "Tosh.0," last week's return of "Punk'd" and this week's debut of "Betty White's Off Their Rockers," we're entering an all-ages, new age in the hidden-camera gag genre at a time when cameras are everywhere.
The shows demonstrate a cross-generational appeal – even, if in most cases, the butts of the jokes are young enough to be White's great-grandchildren.
On her new show, set to begin its run Wednesday on NBC, White oversees an ensemble of gray pranksters who play against expectations of seniors as sweet, cuddly and harmless. You might think the premise would get, well, old fast. But the pilot, which aired in January following a special celebrating White's 90th birthday, proved clever and consistently funny. Among the highlights: One old man streaked ("“Take my picture, I’m beautiful!” he cried), an old woman asked a twentysomething man to help her join the Mile High Club (“What happens at 36,000 feet stays at 36,000 feet”), and a supposedly blind oldster sped away in a car as a younger man watched in shock.
Both the victims and prank perpetrators on the new "Punk'd," back on MTV after five years, are young – and celebrities. The first show of the post-Ashton Kutcher era got off to an amusing start last Thursday, thanks largely to guest host Justin Bieber, who, whatever you think of his music, has demonstrated a Justin Timberlake-like aptitude for comedy.
Bieber fooled Taylor Swift into thinking she ignited a raging fire on a party boat hosting a wedding, and somehow tricked Miley Cyrus into believing he viciously stomped a young actor. The new "Punk'd," with its elaborate stunts (a car crashed into a restaurant in one segment), seems a reaction to the success of Comedy Central's "Tosh.0," which draws the youth demographic MTV craves.
"Tosh.0," sometimes cruel in its comedy, isn't solely about pranks as much as it’s about showcasing a full-range of cringe-inducing mishaps captured on ever-present video when posting to the Web is a click away. Still, Tosh, in some respects, is TV’s closest current descendant of Funt, who mined unexpected humor from new forms of media – first radio (his original show was "Candid Microphone"), then television.
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Funt’s concept has stood the test of time, along with White, and, in far a more modest sense, “Punk’d,” whose first incarnation debuted nearly a decade ago. Check out some hidden camera comedy clips below, and get ready to smile:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.