On Friday, Nathan Fielder will bring a close to the first season of his mind-boggling, skin-crawling HBO series, The Rehearsal. No matter how you feel about the show, one thing that can’t be denied is that it’s pushing the boundaries of cringe comedy. So in its honor, The Ringer hereby dubs today Cringe Comedy Day. Join us—if you can stop clenching your teeth and covering your eyes—as we celebrate and explore everything the niche genre has to offer.
In 1949, The New Yorker turned its attention to an unusual new series on the still-new medium of television. Created by Allen Funt, Candid Camera featured a series of pranks performed on unsuspecting people who had no idea they were being filmed. But critic Philip Hamburger didn’t like what he saw. He found nothing funny about it, accusing Funt of reducing “the art, the purpose, and the ethics of the ‘documentary’ idea to the level of the obscene.” “For my money,” he continued, “Candid Camera is sadistic, poisonous, anti-human, and sneaky.” That might sound like an overreaction to an episode in which Funt tricked a shopper into bouncing up and down on a mattress and pressured a messenger into delivering a dead fish. But it also sounds like someone who saw, however hazily, the far-reaching implications of what he’d just watched, recognizing that Funt had tapped into forces that would later power reality TV and the comedy of humiliation; forces Funt would discover even he could not always control.
Candid Camera continued to air on and off until Funt’s death in 1999. (Funt had a stroke in 1993 and left the show, after which Candid Camera returned in a variety of forms hosted by, among others, Funt’s son Peter, Dom DeLuise, Suzanne Somers, and, most recently, Mayim Bialik.) Under Funt, its formula remained largely unchanged: Funt would film his subjects in surprising, embarrassing situations, usually pitting their impulse to stand up for themselves against their desire to be polite. When the joke had run its course, they’d be let off the hook, often by Funt revealing himself. (Funt was so recognizable in the 1960s that when he ended up on a plane that was being hijacked to Cuba in 1969 a few passengers thought it was a gag—though the number would grow as Funt told the tale over the years.) The subjects’ response was almost always a mix of embarrassment, relief, and, sometimes at least, anger.
The show attracted some talented contributors over the years—Fannie Flagg, Woody Allen, Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Buster Keaton, who revived some classic routines made nearly unwatchable by Funt’s grainy camera and the cackling audience—and wasn’t without its inspired moments, like an elaborate sight gag involving a car that splits in two. If it’s now difficult to explain why it was so popular for so long, segments of the show—like one in which a bunch of Bostonians angrily react to the prospect of a dance club taking up residence in a vacant house—at least double as valuable time capsules for a vanished era. The attitudes animating the show could be a swirl of contradictions, too, as in a 1963 clip in which airline passengers responded to learning that they’d be traveling on the first plane with a female pilot (played by Flagg). It’s tempting to dismiss the premise itself as sexist, but the first female airline pilots were still 10 years in the future at the time and, after their initial shock, most of the interview subjects seemed pretty cool with the idea.
For the most part, however, Candid Camera exploited the crudest possibilities of cringe comedy. If Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen are the rocket scientists of finding insights in the uncomfortable act of filming ordinary people—with the important distinction that their subjects know they’re being filmed, even if they’re not always fully clued into the context—Funt now looks like a kid playing with a keg of gunpowder just to see what happens. Especially when you consider Funt’s X-rated 1970 film What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, an 85-minute journey to the uncomfortable extremes of the Candid Camera format. (Warning: The Association-inspired light rock theme song will lodge itself into your head for days.)
Funt made Naked Lady in between incarnations of Candid Camera. When the most successful version of the show concluded its seven-year run on CBS in 1967, Funt found himself with time on his hands and an urge to experiment. He decided to see what he could get away with in movies that he could never try on TV. The time seemed to be right for it. “By a very fortunate circumstance Candid Camera went off the air just at the time that the sex permissiveness was beginning to happen,” Funt told the Associated Press in a 1970 profile. “It coincided with the new kind of cinema in which the standard formulas no longer prevailed.”
With that new permissiveness Funt decided to see how unsuspecting ordinary people would respond when unexpectedly confronted with sexual situations. He opens the film with the bluntest version of this idea, the one promised by the title: a series of clips in which office workers, mostly men, react to encountering a fully naked woman (not counting a sun hat) exiting an elevator. They are, predictably, unnerved and confused, as are the objects of gags offering slight variations on the same theme (a nude hitchhiker, a nude professor, etc.). But as much as Funt seems to enjoy seeing what happens when nude women show up in places nude women don’t normally appear, he also recognizes he can’t keep repeating that gag for the length of the film. And that’s when What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? gets both more compelling and uncomfortable in ways even Funt couldn’t have foreseen.
In one sequence—set, like much of the film, to a cutesy song—a tailor caresses the thighs and buttocks of his customers. It’s essentially sexual assualt presented as entertainment. In another queasy-making scene, Funt asks people whether they approve of an interracial couple—the man is played by Richard Roundtree—making out in a bus station. The reactions range from disapproval to shrugs to a man lamenting that his son married a Mexican woman but boasting about their beautiful children. Funt, to his credit, agrees when one of his subjects says, “I think it’s great,” but until that moment it’s not clear who we’re supposed to be siding with. And it’s not clear at all what the intended point is in a chapter headed “A Few Thoughts About Rape,” a collection of short clips of more leering men and nude women bookended by a disturbing scene of a staged assault.
The most telling time-capsule moments occur when Funt decides to play the part of an amateur Masters and Johnson. In one, Funt has a long, frank discussion with a middle-aged Midwestern woman about how much she enjoys sex and what she enjoys about it, including the occasional bit of S&M. It’s shocking because it now sounds so commonplace, the stuff of countless podcasts and stand-up routines. In another scene, a female interviewer dressed like an East Village hippie asks a man whether he’ll have sex with her only to be told, with a bit of shyness, “Well, like, I’m queer. I dig chicks but I only dig chicks when I’ve known them.” In a separate interview segment a few years before the Roe decision, a man laughs and says, “I’ve got a good gynecologist who got me out of the woods last year with an abortion.” It’s a snapshot of long-ago shattered taboos, freedoms gained and freedoms lost.
Not that much of this was evident to viewers in 1970. The film received an X rating at a moment when that wasn’t yet synonymous with pornography, though it certainly signaled that Funt was heading into territory he’d never explored on TV. Reviews largely smirked along with Funt. In the Asbury Park Press, Edward Knoblauch described the scene of the handsy tailor, in his words, “having a field day fitting tight slacks on his young lady customers” as a highlight of a “light, amusing, and entertaining film.” (He saved his objections for a later scene in which a woman was asked to pick out the dirty words from a selection that included choices like “horehound.”) In the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel declared it to be a “fresh look at stale attitudes” and lamented the discussions parents and children might have had if they’d been able to attend together.
What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? wasn’t a runaway hit, but it lingered in drive-in double features throughout the ’70s before becoming a cable staple in the ’80s. (It’s not streaming anywhere, but MGM issued a DVD version in 2011.) Today, it looks like anything but ordinary entertainment—to say nothing of a family film—but it’s worth remembering that, while Deep Throat and porno chic were still a few years away, it arrived amid both a wave of skin films designed to take advantage of loosening restrictions and movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that were trying to make sense of the era’s changing mores. Maybe in his own way, Funt was trying to do the same, even if it now looks like he was using all the wrong tools and applying them recklessly.
In some respects, Naked Lady confirms The New Yorker’s worst suspicions of Candid Camera back in 1948. “In reality,” Hamburger wrote, “[Funt] is demonstrating something that spies have known about since spies began to operate; namely, that most people are fundamentally decent and trusting, and, sad to tell, can readily be deceived. […] [He] succeeds in making them look foolish, or in forcing them to struggle against unfair odds, for the vestige of human dignity.” Funt might have claimed to be seeking insight into human behavior, but he came to his experiments with some preconceived notions. What do you say to a naked lady? Of course, like everyone else, you get flustered and can’t figure out what to say, and there’s a bit of cruelty in taking pleasure in others’ discomfort no matter how universal that discomfort might be. It’s feather-light sadism, but sadism all the same.
Which raises a lingering question: Is cringe humor, especially cringe humor in nonfiction, possible without cruelty, or is cruelty woven into the form’s DNA? There’s a great divide between YouTube pranksters picking on innocent bystanders and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm getting the better of Rudy Giuliani, but both are driven by a desire to humiliate. Fielder deflects some criticism by often making himself the center of his experiments in capitalism and sociology, but even his admirers have to grapple with ethical questions. What is clear is that reality television and comedic documentaries as we know them wouldn’t have looked the same without Funt deciding to make a career of embarrassing others, and finding common humanity in our ability to laugh at others’ discomfort with the understanding that, placed in the same situation, it would be our own.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.