The TV show was controversial. Critics claimed that it exploited its subjects. They said it played into hopelessly hackneyed stereotypes. They said it had no redeeming cultural value.
These critics weren't talking about the latest Andy Cohen production or some Real Housewives meets Honey Boo Boo crossover. Instead, they were talking about This is Your Life, first a radio show and then a TV ratings powerhouse in the 1950s.
The proto-reality show was created and hosted by Ralph Edwards, who understood that what viewers craved was a simple premise and easy-to-follow narrative of trial, tribulation, and redemption. Each show starred a different person (sometimes famous, sometimes not), caught off-guard by Edwards. He or she was then whisked to a TV studio and, over 30 minutes, taken through the highs and lows of a life well-lived.
Versions of the show appeared in England and Australia, and Edwards himself hosted revivals in later decades. But the real This is Your Life, the one lambasted by Time magazine, was a live show. It was usually black-and-white, it was unreservedly manipulative—and it was riveting. Here are five episodes that show what all of the fuss was about. And anytime you feel like complaining about Survivor: Lichtenstein or Real World: Hoboken, just remember that This is Your Life was there first.
1. Lou Costello
Most of This is Your Life’s celebrity guests went along with the surprise element of the show in good-natured fashion. Funnyman Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello, rolled with the punches in his 1956 episode. But in hindsight, the show came at a distressing point in Costello's life. His partnership with Abbott would dissolve a year later. And Costello himself died in 1959, just days shy of his 53rd birthday.
But what's especially heartbreaking is the section where Edwards talks about the death of Costello's infant son, Lou Jr., in 1943. It was perhaps the worst part of Costello’s life, and the show ladles on the pathos. Watch Costello’s face at 15:05. He essentially crumples on camera.
2. Buster Keaton
Silent film legend Buster Keaton was known as the Great Stone Face, and not only was his face stony for this episode, but he seems to have been genuinely caught off-guard by Edwards. (Check out his body language at 3:05). This kind of genial awkwardness was part of what audiences loved about the show, though. And it’s possible that Keaton wound up playing a bit of a role as this 1957 installment continued. According to the International Buster Keaton Society, “off screen, Keaton laughed and smiled often, although he had an uncanny knack for knowing when a camera was pointed at him, at which time he would put on the mask of his Great Stone Face persona.”
3. Hanna Bloch Kohner
Comedians and comic actors are all well and good. But how far would This is Your Life go? The answer: pretty damn far. (This example and the next are recounted in a phenomenal This American Life segment.)
First up, we have the story of Holocaust survivor Hanna Bloch Kohner, recounted in a 1953 show. Yes, it was insanely manipulative—note the reunion with her brother, whom she last saw in a concentration camp. Also, she gets a charm bracelet. But this episode was remarkable, too. At the time, few spoke about the Holocaust, especially not survivors, and especially not on national TV.
4. Kiyoshi Tanimoto
If you thought a reality TV show episode about the Holocaust was in bad taste, though, you ain't seen nothing yet. This 1955 episode, featuring Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, retells the bombing of Hiroshima. One of the men who dropped the bomb, Capt. Robert Lewis, is even brought out to shake hands with the reverend, who endured the blast.
According to This American Life, this meeting wasn’t particularly traumatic for Tanimoto (Lewis, who might have been inebriated on set, was another story). The two began writing each other letters. According to Tanimoto’s daughter, Koko Kondo, he would play the episode for visitors. (All of the show’s guests received a complimentary film of their appearances, along with a projector.)
5. H. Park Tucker
But This is Your Life didn't just feature the famous or those involved in epochal news events. Sometimes, it would do a show about a prison chaplain from Atlanta who once got stuck in a mine. It was there, he said, that he pledged to devote his life to serving mankind.
This is Your Life might not have served mankind, but it had a big heart, and a lot of ads for shampoo and bathroom cleanser. It was a reality show that hoped to do good, at least sometimes, and that makes it a special story in its own right.