Before There Was Reality TV There Was ‘Real People’

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By Ken Zurski

In April of 1979, NBC  rolled out a new one-hour weekly TV show called “Real People” that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. At first no one was quite sure what to make of “Real People.” Was it a news show or an entertainment show? Quickly they discovered while the program loosely incorporated a “60 Minutes” type format, it was done mostly for laughs.  The struggling NBC network was desperately in need of a hit and they got one in the unlikely “Real People.” The next day people would be talking about what they had seen on the show.

“Real People’ of course stood for, well, real people. The program aired short videotaped segment highlights of real people doing real, but often oddball and hilarious things. In between the segments, mostly unknown hosts at the time, like local LA talk show host Sarah Purcell and comedian Skip Stephenson, would engage in humorous banter about the segments. (John Barbour, Mark Rafferty and Byron Allen rounded out the original cast.)

The show was filled with  fast-cut editing, silly sound effects, and just enough cheesy commentary to get in an out of each segment and commercial breaks.


Comedy variety shows were popular on television, like the hillbilly-themed “Hee–Haw” and the trippy “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” but “Real People” was different. There were no staged skits, not technically at least. The taped segments took up most of the hour, but there were also “in-studio bits” that featured funny newspaper headlines and bizarre photos. Many of these features would later become staples in late-night television programs such as “Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.”

Some of the taped segments were just downright weird. Like the man who could run up a 20-ft brick wall or an elderly woman who could put the tip of her nose in her mouth. Naked skydivers, a beauty pageant for pigs, a married couple who both wanted sex change operations, and a cat that uses the “commode” instead of the liter box were some of the more curious and interesting pieces.

In one episode, two car enthusiasts showed off their “push me-pull me” vehicle that fused together the front of two Packard’s so an engine was on both ends. You get get in the any side and go, they would explain. In a Halloween-themed episode that aired in October of 1980, a medium was featured who tried to reach Elvis Presley

The opening of the show would be a teaser of each segment: “Meet a modern day King Kong,” an excited announcer would describe under jumpy theme music, “who enters the Empire State Building  and goes completely ape!” While on the screen a man in a gorilla suit is seen doing a dance in front of actual visitors to the iconic New York skyscraper. Although the show  was filmed in front of a live studio audience a laugh track helped accentuate the hilarious response.

While the sillier segments highlighted the show, more serious topics were also explored. They included a Canadian man, an amputee, who ran cross-country and called it the Marathon of Hope; and the reunion of WW II American POW’s who were held captive and bunched up their clothing to make an American flag. Several of the men broke down while recalling the story. So did the audience.


“‘Real People’ focuses on weirdos, eccentrics and unusually admirable Americans,”  syndicated TV critic Gary Deeb wrote in November 1979.”Particularity the unsung types who never make the local paper or the 6 o’clock news.”

“Real People” was a really big hit, often topping the Nielsen ratings for the week and leading to several mildly successful imitators like “That’s Incredible” and “Games People Play.” It was a hit, many agreed, because it served as an alternative to the other top-rated shows at the time or “cheescake programs” as Deeb called them. They included “Three’s Company,” “Mork and Mindy” and “Charlies Angel’s.”

“It’s a welcome antidote to the glitter and tackiness that characterize so many TV variety shows,” Deeb wrote.

Deeb also gave credit to the show’s creator, producer and co-host Jon Barbour, calling him “the guardian angel and most eloquent spokesman” of the show.  Going even further, Deeb dubbed Barbour, “The Godfather of Reality TV.”

After the success of “Real People,” several spin-offs,”Speak Up America” and “Real Kids,” were launched but failed to ignite like its predecessor. Even Barbour, who left the show over a creative dispute in 1982, returned with “John Barbour’s World” on cable’s Showtime the following year. The original “Real People” eventually signed off in July of 1984.

But despite the failures of the network spin-offs, the concept did not die. Nearly a decade later, in 1989, when Americans could videotape their own silly segments of pratfalls and embarrassing blunders, “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” debuted on the ABC network.

Although its inception was attributed to a Japanese television show,  the influence of “Real People” is evident. A host or hosts introduce each segment in front of a live audience, a music and laugh track amp up the silliness, and the videos – albeit shorter – are still real people doing really funny things.

Only this time, the audience is encouraged to laugh at them, not with them.

Like “Real People,” AFV as it was called, became an unexpected hit.




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