Art Linkletter died today at age 97. Over his decades as an entertainer, he had many roles—radio host, TV host, celebrity endorser, comic, anti-drug crusader—but his best-known work came in TV and radio shows based on a simple idea: that ordinary people are tremendously entertaining. In People Are Funny, Linkletter gave out prizes to people who were game enough to complete amusing stunts and challenges. And Linkletter’s House Party, a wide-ranging variety show for CBS radio and TV from 1945 to 1970 (it moved to TV starting in 1952), is remembered above all for its best-known segment: Kids Say the Darndest Things. Above, see a remembrance of the segment hosted by Bill Cosby (who hosted his own Darndest Things show after Linkletter).
On the one hand, Darndest Things was the simplest thing in the world: get some outgoing kids on a stage and capture what came out of their mouths. But there was obviously an understated talent to what Linkletter did, a combination of a soothing interview style and sharp casting. (In this online interview he recalls how he would write to teachers to get them to select students to appear on the show: “I would like to have you pick the ones you’d like to have out of the class for a few blessed hours. So, I got the extroverts, largely.”)
We remember Linkletter and his shows as an example of a more innocent time in pop culture (though he had his own critics at the time). But it’s not a stretch to say that, in his way, Linkletter was one of the fathers of reality TV: or at least a certain stripe of reality TV, the one that—from America’s Funniest Home Videos to The Marriage Ref—is premised in the idea that ordinary life is entertaining. It’s a tough genre to pull off without seeming mean-spirited, and Linkletter did it for so long by making his audience see that he was laughing with, not at, his subjects.
We can argue how well his successors did in the shows that followed after. But Linkletter did a lot to make TV what it is today, by being one of the first to recognize—and make big ratings out of—a simple idea: that people are funny.