In 1979, NBC’s Real People was a novelty hit, and don’t think ABC didn’t notice. The network powers-that-be decided that if real people were being covered already, the obvious next area to exploit was, well, all those not-quite-so-real people. The Frenchman who could eat a ten-speed bike, say. Or the guy who caught arrows with bare hands, the yogi who sandwiched himself in between two slabs of nails, the band of martial arts experts who leveled a barn with their collective “Hiiii-Yaaa!” karate chops…the list goes on. Actress Cathy Lee Crosby, actor/game show host John Davidson, and ex-football star Fran Tarkenton made up the host triumvirate for this early entry in the reality television niche that would, in years to come, grow to phenomenon status.
Sometimes, of course, the stunts didn’t go so smoothly. A daredevil named Stan Krumi was badly burned when he ran through a fire tunnel, and there were more than a few bones broken. That’s Incredible! was even awarded the dubious “Most Sadistic Show” award by Time magazine in 1980. In addition to the mishaps, there was a little stunt tomfoolery too—an article in a 1982 TV Guide gleefully exposed stunts that were rigged and stories that were blatantly false. But, as made clear by the triumph of programming like soap operas and professional wrestling, plausibility doesn’t hold a candle to entertainment value—a coda the That’s Incredible! behind-the-scenesters understood perfectly. Just slap an ominous “Do Not Try This Yourself!” caption at the bottom of the screen, then go for all all the shock value and melodrama you can grab.
Depending on the story’s tone, the show’s good-looking hosts were appropriately smiley or wide-eyed and serious, and they tried their best to look the camera in the eye and convey honesty. And interspersed with the wild stunts were the occasionally straightforward and non-fictional accounts of medical wonders and breakthroughs, handicapped people (“handicapable,” according to Crosby) triumphing over setbacks, and the occasional prodigy—Tiger Woods made an appearance in one early 80’s episode as a golf wonder kid. Between these carefully placed true stories, and devices like the oh-so-serious cautionary captions and earnest hosts, That’s Incredible had a slight, ever so slight, pretense of reality—which is all a TV viewer needs.
Four years after the program went off the air, it returned for a swan song season—this time called Incredible Sunday, and hosted by vet John Davidson and newcomer Christina Ferrare. The shocks didn’t seem as shocking, of course, but that’s the rub with reality-based programs that are on the air more than a season or two…the audience’s threshold for shock grows steadily, but the level of things you can show on TV reaches a certain plateau. All that’s left then is camp value, which of course, as evidenced by That’s Incredible! had certain guilty pleasure merits that can’t denied.
USA / ABC / Broadcast 3 March 1980 – 30 April 1984
Cathy Lee Crosby
Christina Ferrare (Incredible Sunday)