I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Behind the Curtain: A History of Bloopers


by Thomas Michalski
Aug. 27, 2013

The odd thing about bloopers and outtakes is that, for the most part, what actually transpires in them, an actor flubbing a line or an errant boom mic drifting into the shot, isn’t usually all that funny, and yet audiences have long laughed at them, to the point where they’ve become the stuff of urban legends, endless corny television specials and, today, the common form of the de rigueur “credit cookie”. They can be hilarious, when truly hilarious performers are involved, but their real appeal lies in peeking behind the curtain, and not always in their comedic value.

Laughing at people for screwing up is, of course, nothing new, (the earliest cave paintings show a group of crudely drawn figures having a hearty chuckle at the expense of one particularly inept hunter) but the advent of radio broadcast announcer’s and interviewee’s inevitable mistakes to a mass audience, sometimes making them into stories unto themselves. Actor and radio personality Harry von Zell became infamous for mispronouncing the then President’s name as “Hoobert Heever”, because people were stupid back then and thought that shit was hilarious. They also called such screw ups “boners”, but that wasn’t funny yet.

“Bloopers” became the accepted term thanks to a series of successful albums entitled Pardon My Blooper!, produced by Kermit Schaefer, who likely borrowed the term from old radio (or perhaps baseball) slang. Beginning in 1959, the records ironically committed some rather glaring errors of their own. Many of radio’s most legendary goofs never made it onto transcription disc or, as in the case of kid show host Uncle Don calling his listeners “little bastards”, never happened at all, so Schaefer recreated them, with little regard for how, or if, they happened in the first place, committing libel in the process.

The early days of television were even more rife with mistakes, as actors, hosts and producers found their way around a new medium live on the air, rolling with the punches as best they could, but as TV moved towards more of a “filmed in front of a live studio audience” mode of production, editing smoothed out a lot of those exciting, unpredictable wrinkles. Outtakes were still scooped of the cutting room floor and cobbled together to pad out a network schedule from time to time, though these specials usually collected the blandest, most boring slips of the tongue.

And that’s where a big part of blooper’s real appeal comes in. Everybody likes to see how their favorite shows are made, but the most entertaining glimpses are the ones the FCC, never mind the networks, would never let you see, the clips where the usual squeaky clean dialogue suddenly veers off into profanity and sexual innuendo. Most looks behind-the-scenes are as produced and polished as the things they’re documenting, but in these clips, probably saved by some cheeky editor, you see the stars as they really are, with all the dirty words and dick jokes one would expect.

Before the internet, even before VHS, these sorts of things had a way of getting around, spurred on by rumors and people’s natural inclination to try and see things others don’t want them to. In fact, the more embarrassing or extreme outtakes are usually the most popular, sometimes bestowing a dubious fame on relative nobodies. Take, for example, short-fused RV sales video pitchman Jack Rebney, who’s quotable, on-camera meltdown turned him into an uneasy celebrity, as chronicled in the fascinating documentary Winnebago Man, and for a few thousand more examples, just search “news anchor fail” on YouTube.

Bloopers have caused bigger problems than libel lawsuits and unwanted internet notoriety, Peter Sellers even blamed the gag reel Hal Ashby tacked onto the otherwise subtle Being There for his losing the 1979 Best Actor Oscar to Dustin Hoffman, but, again, most are harmless to the point of being banal. There is a certain historical interest though, which can sometimes give some insight into how shows and movies were made, as when Kirk and Spock keep walking into space-doors that should futuristically open automatically, but don’t because the stage hands charged with pulling them open miss their cue.

I like watching William Shatner stride confidently into walls as much as the next guy, but I’m laughing at him, not with him. The only times bloopers are actually funny are when the people in them are funny, able to ad lib and play the on-set clown convincingly. It’s why The Carol Burnett Show outtakes are still entertaining, and why Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow’s gag reels are often just as funny as their films. There’s no real humor in watching someone stutter or forget a line, it’s what a quick wit can do with that opportunity.

  1. http://tenwatts.blogspot.com/2008/06/pardon-my-blooper.html

  2. http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/radio/uncledon.asp

  3. http://cinetropolis.net/the-many-faces-of-peter-sellers-part-3-being-there-and-the-many-wives-of-peter-sellers/

 

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/