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'That's Incredible!' & 'Real People:' The Birth Of Reality TV

Entertainment | August 5, 2019

Left: 'Real People' hosts Bill Rafferty, Byron Allen, John Barbour, Sarah Purcell, and Skip Stephenson. Right: A TV Guide cover featuring 'That's Incredible' hosts John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby, and Fran Tarkenton. Sources: IMDB, Pinterest

Two early-'80s TV shows -- That's Incredible! and Real People -- brought us oddballs and daredevils, and we've never really recovered. Reality TV's voyeuristic fascination with people who were kind of like us, but really different in some way, can be directly traced to these two sideshow-style programs. They were the must-see TV of their day, with weirdos and drama to fuel conversations around watercoolers and jungle gyms. Americans flocked to this prime-time entertainment that wasn't built around high-paid actors; networks loved having a popular show that wasn't built around high-paid actors.

That’s Incredible! (1980-84) and Real People (1978-84) used different approaches, but both pushed the boundaries of what humans are willing to do for TV. Nevertheless, their shenanigans brought hilarity to living rooms all around the country and probably spawned a few ideas for shows we see today. 

'That’s Incredible!'

From Left to Right: The Hair, John Davidson. The Beauty, Cathy Lee Crosby and The Brawn, Fran Tarkenton (gfycat.com)

That’s Incredible! combined Ripley’s Believe It or Not (which also got its own TV series in the wake of these shows' success) and America’s Got Talent before they ever existed. Each week, America watched as people of unusual gifts and sometimes curses strutted their stuff. The performers of That’s Incredible! truly spanned the entire spectrum of human beings. 

The People Of 'That's Incredible!'

Back in the late '70s, Box Man blew minds (youtube.com)

One man allegedly caught a bullet in his teeth, while another man spent hours in a tiny clear box, David Blaine style. That’s Incredible! kept viewers glued to their sets by any means necessary, even if it meant coming with the dangerous or gross.

The show once featured a man with two faces (whose condition the show helped correct), a man with obscenely sweaty palms, and another man who depicted hell after his near-death experience. You really never knew what was coming next. Even a five-year-old Tiger Woods made an appearance, showing off his otherworldly putting skills. 

The Hosts Of 'That's Incredible!'

Future PGA superstar Tiger Woods and former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton (youtube.com)

The hosts of That’s Incredible! also brought something to the table. Former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton gave the show the man’s man seal of approval. Cathy Lee Crosby dazzled audiences with her ever-changing wardrobe and John Davidson showed off his flowing ‘80s mane.

'Real People'

The hit TV show ran for five seasons and spawned a generation of copycats (memorabletv.com)

Real People, on the other hand, resembled a version of America’s Funniest Home Videos if the videos had come to life before a live TV audience. However, the show did provide some weirdness that may have given ideas to That’s Incredible!, which started a year later. For instance, one elderly woman on Real People put her nose in her mouth. There was also a cat who used an actual toilet and two men who built a car that could drive in either direction, no matter which way you got in.  

In Addition To The Zany Stuff, 'Real People' Offered Heartfelt Stories

TORONTO, ON - JULY: Terry Fox in July of 1980. Terry Fox ran across Canada to raise money for cancer research. It was his courage that makes him the only choice for the CBC title of ''Greatest Canadian,'' writes the Star's Leslie Scrivener. (Erin Combs/To

Unlike That’s Incredible!, which really emphasized the extreme, Real People also presented viewers with heartfelt stories that brought out the handkerchiefs. The most famous was that of Terry Fox, a Canadian who was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer which often starts in the knee.

At age 18, Fox had his right leg amputated and underwent a 16-month chemotherapy program. Somewhere along the way, he found a story of an amputee who ran the Boston Marathon.

Inspired, Terry Fox decided to run across Canada to raise awareness for cancer research. Fox ran for 143 days and covered 3,338 miles before he was forced to stop outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario because the cancer had spread to his lungs. Real People followed Fox's run throughout its second season, turning an obscure Canadian story into a spectacle that inspired millions of American viewers. Many years later, ESPN made a documentary detailing his heroic fight. 

Tags: Real People | Reality TV | Terry Fox

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!