So I have this theory about Radiolab. People will tell you it’s “a show about curiosity” that has made its bread and butter telling science stories. People will tell you it’s a radio show about what happens in the laboratory. But people are liars. Well, not liars, but saying that Radiolab is a science show is only half-true.
You want the whole truth? The truth is that Radiolab is also a laboratory for radio. Its a place where producers and storytellers can experiment and push boundaries. Radiolab’s “Smile My Ass” makes the most sense when you think of it as a mix of these two Radiolabs.
Radiolab producer Latif Nasser had never heard of Candid Camera. When he first heard about it he became obsessed. 1 Candid Camera, he learned, actually started as a radio show.
The idea came to creator Alan Funt while he was recording soldiers griping about their living and work conditions. 2 He quickly learned that people clammed up and spoke unnaturally in front of a microphone. He quickly came up with a simple workaround: tell people they’re not being recorded when really, they are. It worked like a charm.
Funt soon became interested in capturing candid moments outside of soldiers griping. In pursuit of his dream he went around taping ordinary people doing ordinary things, like getting a haircut. When he went back and listened to the tape from the bugged barbershop, however, he was disappointed. Barbershops are boring. 3
To spice things up, Funt started to fabricate situations that provoke people into saying and doing interesting things. The rest, as they say, is history. The radio show took off and eventually became the Candid Camera we all know and love. 4
Of course there’s a classic Radiolab twist, because Jad and Robert love surprises. I won’t spoil it here, but it does launch the Radiolab staff into a discussion of our public and private selves. Funt’s show was groundbreaking at the time, because it brought the private lives of ordinary people into the public arena. Today, people willingly share pictures of their lives on Instagram, their thoughts on Twitter, and just about everything on Facebook. If Funt first blurred the distinction between private and public, we’ve nearly erased the line all together. These closing philosophical musings lend the episode importance and meaning. It satiates the curious mind.
Still, as I listened, I felt that the first half of the episode, full of background information on Candid Camera, was a bit unnecessary. The pacing seemed off and I was waiting, a bit impatiently, for the twist, the good stuff.
The first half of the episode, I think, makes sense as a meditation on the craft of radio. Funt learned the hard way that not everything makes good radio. Just sticking a microphone in someone’s face isn’t enough. You have to ask the right questions and give everyday life structure, conflict, and plot.
The best nonfiction podcasts understand this. Although the stories they tell are true, they are also fabricated. Tape is edited, scripts are written, and purposeful questions are asked. Truth is translated and made more palatable. I can’t say for certain—it’s only a theory, after all—but don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, when Jad and Robert watch Candid Camera they hear a little bit of themselves too?
- This, in and of itself, is suspicious. I have also never seen Candid Camera and, after listening to 38 minutes on the topic, do not feel compelled to watch it. It sounds boring. ^
- This seems like the next logical step for Goldman Gripes. ^
- He should have bugged my barbershop. It is easily one of my five favorite places in DC. ^
- Or, you know, have never seen and don’t really care about. ^
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