Allen Funt's Candid Camera stunts still inform, prompt smiles in academia

Test question: An elevator passenger is joined by three others who immediately turn to face the side of the car. Struggling to resist the pressures of conformity, the first passenger eventually joins the rest because: 1. He is on Candid Camera, the 1960s television show conceived by the late Cornell University alumnus, Allen Funt, Class of 1934; 2. His actions will be scrutinized as an example of human behavior by research scholars who use the Allen Funt archives at Cornell University; 3. Both. The indecisive passenger entertained millions on the television show and now educates thousands of students at Cornell and at colleges across the United States.

The 1,802 students in Cornell's single most popular class, Psychology 101, know that the answer is "Both," that the wrong-facing passengers worked for Candid Camera and the conforming passenger would soon hear the familiar tag line, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera." They also learn the uses -- and limitations -- of unscientific data as portrayed on the hundreds of old kinescope prints of the TV show now housed at Cornell.

"Allen Funt never considered himself an academic or a scientist -- in fact, he was not an 'all-A' student at Cornell -- and he was surprised when we asked for the educational rights to Candid Camera clips," said James B. Maas, the Cornell professor of psychology who has taught the introductory psych class since 1964 and who arranged for the donation the same year.

Maas remembers that he was both rebuffed by a form rejection letter and encouraged by Funt's handwritten note at the bottom, inviting him to the entertainer's Manhattan office to discuss the donation. The Cornell psychologist wrote a grant proposal over the weekend and was in Funt's office Monday morning.

Funt not only donated non-commercial educational rights to the television shows, but also audio recordings of its radio predecessor, Candid Microphone, and funds that enabled Cornell undergraduate students to catalog the material for research and educational purposes.

Maas later wrote an article for a psychology journal offering to researchers and educators the materials (now available through McGraw Hill's College Division) but also noting the limitations of television entertainment as a reflection of real life. There was, for example, the "adequate sampling" problem: Funt shot about 100 scenes for every one that appeared on Candid Camera. Nevertheless, many of the most interesting episodes were compiled into educational films. Maas, himself, went on to become a prize-winning film-maker as well as noted expert on the psychology of sleep.

Of his work with Candid Camera, Funt said: "Nothing I know of is more beautiful or more fun. And it is the happiest accident that some of the things we photographed can serve as points of observation for people who have scientific interests." Maas now thinks the earliest Candid Camera shows were the best, that some of Funt's later scenarios were rather contrived, and that "his work with kids was priceless."

The Cornell professor handles several requests each year from researchers seeking the television archives, and he still uses Candid Camera clips in his Psych 101 class. Students enjoy them almost as much as the non-academic Funt, who was persuaded to lecture in Psych 101 in 1967 and in 1968. At first the graduate was reluctant to return to the Ithaca campus, in part, he said, because he still owed his alma mater for parking fines.

His host arranged to have the distinguished scofflaw's fines forgiven, and Maas had one other surprise. When Funt's car arrived on campus, white-gloved traffic officers motioned him into a reserved parking spot -- directly in front of the lecture hall.

Allen Funt hesitated. And smiled. For once, he was not on Candid Camera.

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