‘Real People’ TV show helped kick off the reality television trend (1979-1984)

Real People vintage TV show

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The “Real People” TV show debuted on NBC in 1979, and ran in primetime for 5 seasons.

Popular from the start, the show focused on everyday folks — yes, real people — and their stories, which ranged from the heartwarming to the silly to the just plain strange.

Regular hosts included Byron Allen, Fred Willard, Sarah Purcell, Peter Billingsley, Skip Stephenson, Bill Rafferty, John Barbour, Mark Russell — several of whom were best known for their comedic talent.

The show’s in-studio portions were filmed in front of a live studio audience, and in talk show style, sometimes the audience members answered questions or offered jokes.

ET's pregnant sister's name joke from vintage Real People TV show

Find out more about this vintage TV show here — and check out a few video clips that may bring back some memories… or might make you wonder what made it such a hit all those decades ago.

‘Real People’ started something (1980)

From an article by Jerry Buck – Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) May 18, 1980

Los Angeles — It’s hard to imagine “Real People” as a seminal development in the history of television — but that’s the way it looks.

Real People live studio audience - 1980s

“Real People” has turned into a genuine hit for NBC and has spawned a gaggle of imitators.

ABC followed with “That’s Incredible”, which became a hit even faster than the original. The creators of “Real People” came up with “Speak Up America”, and ABC has inked into next fall’s schedule a clone called “Those Incredible Animals.”

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More imitations are in various stages of development, and CBS reportedly is readying its own version.

As nearly everyone knows by now, these programs have become showcases for real but unusual people. Such as the guy who serenades turkeys; the official witch of Salem, Massachusetts; a woman who lives out her food fantasies; a team of geriatric cheerleaders; and a man who walks backwards; and another who rides his bicycle looking where he’s been.

Real People opening title

Not actors, not paid performers, not celebrities, but real folks like the people next door.

Well, almost. Some critics say they’re really sideshows that offer us voyeurism and exhibitionism and exploit a parade of — to quote Newsweek — “weirdos, loonies, cranks, and screwballs.”

The ‘Real People’ TV show offered something unique

“I think there’s a hunger for something new and different,” says George Schlatter, the creative force behind “Real People” and “Speak Up America.”

“I think we’ve been bombarded with so many of the same type of shows, that have gone through the same process of testing, and all come out the same. I think that in ‘Real People’ there is a sense of genuine affection for the people, and they appreciate the fact that these people are just like they are.”

Vintage Real People TV show

Schlatter, who was also largely responsible for “Laugh-In,” the trend-setting show of the 1960s, has little patience for the critics. He says, “I think anybody who can look at ‘Real People’ and say it’s exploitative isn’t looking at the front of his set.”

He says, “If we can make people feel they are important, that they are worthwhile, that they belong in the mainstream, we’re accomplishing something.

“People for a long time felt if they didn’t look like Farrah Fawcett, didn’t look like Burt Reynolds, they weren’t attractive. I think maybe the show can make people feel good about themselves.”

Schlatter says most of it is directed not at the eccentrics, but at “the role models and the heroes like the airmen of the World War II black Air Force, and the ghetto coach who’s devoted 25 years to helping kids.”

Vintage Real People cast on the cover of TV Guide

He points to the fact that at least eight motion pictures or TV series are being made about people first seen on “Real People.” Twin dwarfs who were on the show have been signed to regular roles in the projected ABC series “Foul Play.”

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“That’s Incredible” varies from “Real People” in that it also incorporates a sort of Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not.” It has things like a yogi who twists himself into a tiny box, an escape artist who performs his amazing feats while skydiving, a woman who raises tarantulas, and a man hit seven times by lightning.

The show’s supervising producer, Woody Fraser, whose career up to now has been with talk shows, sees actuality television as an inevitable outgrowth of the talk show. He calls it merely the next “evolutionary step.”

Real People promo in TV guide - 1980

“It’s no secret that the talent pool for talk shows is shrinking,” says Fraser, “while the number of talk shows is growing. There isn’t enough talent coming up. There are just no more Jack Bennys and Totie Fields.

“So what’s the next step? Television is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. After they began to use up the celebrities, the talk shows went for sports and political figures. The next step had to be the people themselves.”

Fraser, who’s produced “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Dick Cavett Show,” and “Good Morning America,” was involved a year or so ago with “America Alive!” That show was a sort of cross between the talk show and “Real People.”

Real People TV show helped kick off the reality television trend (1979-1984)

Real People
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Fred Willard, Sarah Purcell, John Barbour (Actors)
  • Merrill M. Mazuer (Director) - John Barbour (Writer) - George Schlatter (Producer)

“Real People,” like the miniseries, is one of the few new trends to hit television in recent years. But there are roots in the past.

Early radio had such shows as “We, the People” and “Vox Pop.” Television stayed mostly with paid performers, although genuine folks did surface on the game shows, “Candid Camera,” “Hobby Lobby” and “People Are Funny” — but always playing a role determined by the shows’ producers.

Fraser says, “If you take all the talk shows and multiply each one by five days a week, people are just inundated. They’re jaded, surfeited with entertainment people. I think maybe they’re burned out on celebrities.”

Real People cast members - 1980

Now that he has “Real People” on the road to success — this season NBC aired 29 original shows, far more than any series — Schlatter is devoting some time to “Speak Up America,” which, as the title suggests, allows people to speak their mind on selected issues. Two shows were aired in April, and its future depends on the ratings.

“Who says everything on television has to be bland?” asks Schlatter. “I don’t know where it’s written down that you can’t say anything on television unless it’s on PBS.

“You can’t look at the world today and see what’s going on in the world today, and be aware of the fact that people don’t have enough money to drive their car, feed their kids, buy clothes or buy a house, and then say they’re deeply involved in the plot of ‘Happy Days.’ They’re not. They’re starting to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s fantasy.’

“At least in the shows I’m doing we’ve introduced some reality and some intelligence into 8 o’clock television, which since the family hour has been nothing but teddy bears and penguins.”

Real People anti-drug promo: Get high on yourself (1981)

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. This is one of the few shows my mom let us watch. We were pretty young and I loved it. Sometimes the stories were really sweet. I still remember the man who was a popular mall Santa Claus and his crying because he unknowingly gave a diabetic child a candy cane one time. The child was OK but that sweet man was still torn up about it yeas later. I don’t know why that stuck with me. We also liked That’s Incredible but Real People was our favorite.

  2. “Real People” was fun, but there was definitely a “freak show” element to it that was common on “reality” TV shows of the era, like “Donohue.” They subjects were there to be gawked at, if not outrightly mocked. One “Real People” episode I remember was a trip they took to a nudist resort; people were really upset about that, not thinking it was appropriate for a “family” show.

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