40 Years Ago: ‘That’s Incredible!’ Airs Insane Pre-‘Jackass’ TV Stunts
Two decades before the irreverent stunts and gross-outs of Jackass hit cable TV, That's Incredible! brought similar thrills and controversy into American households.
Widely seen as being a precursor to modern-day reality television shows, That's Incredible! debuted on the ABC television network on March 3, 1980.
The premise of the show was relatively simple: It sought to intrigue audiences with daring stunts and scientific breakthroughs, as well as tales of unusual and extraordinary people, animals and events. People magazine touted the show as "a hybrid that melds Ripley’s Believe It or Not and The Guinness Book of World Records."
In 2013, That's Incredible!'s appeal was nicely summed up in the sitcom The Goldbergs. "Stupid? Is it stupid that a baby can water-ski?" family patriarch Murray says in response to his wife's critiques of the program. "Is it stupid that someone taught rats to play basketball? That's not stupid, that's incredible!"
Co-hosted by actor and singer John Davidson, actress and former professional tennis player Cathy Lee Crosby and Fran Tarkenton, a former NFL superstar, That's Incredible! ran for five seasons with progressively declining results each year before being taken off the air.
The brainchild of TV producer Alan Landsburg, who had previously explored controversial and paranormal phenomena in 1977's In Search Of ... , That's Incredible! was loosely based on the premise of the NBC show Real People. Created by George Schlatter, the latter program debuted in 1979 and focused on real people - as opposed to celebrities - who had distinctive hobbies or occupations. Real People had become a modest hit for NBC, and ABC wanted a slice of that pie for itself.
"That’s Incredible! capitalized on the success of Real People," Davidson said in a 2011 interview. "I was seen in 40 foreign countries and we were Top 5 for three or four years. Working with Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby was incredible. We had a strong, close relationship. No egos, because we all had different strengths."
According to his book, The Power of Failure: Succeeding in the Age of Innovation, Tarkenton claimed the original pilot of That's Incredible! featured Davidson and Crosby co-hosing alongside Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer. Landsburg felt the trio lacked chemistry onscreen and subsequently turned to Tarkenton, affording him the opportunity to co-host the show without an audition.
Watch Fran Tarkenton and Tiger Woods on 'That's Incredible!'
Among the show's most notable early guests was a five-year-old golfer named Eldrick "Tiger" Woods who, two years earlier, had proven his prowess with golf clubs at tournaments and also was featured in Golf Digest.
Another guest that would find fame after appearing on the show was John Moschitta, Jr., recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records as being one of the world's fastest talkers. Moschitta subsequently parlayed his fame into ads for FedEx and voice roles on The Transformers animated series.
Despite the early success of That's Incredible!, it had also earned its fair share of critics who claimed the show was irresponsibly putting people's lives at risk. A 1980 cover story in People magazine proved to be especially scathing, highlighting a handful of accidents that had occurred on the show.
Watch a Car Crash Stunt on 'That's Incredible!'
In Season One, according to Real People and the Rise of Reality Television, one person tried to catch a .22-caliber bullet with his teeth. The stunt wasn't successful, but the fact it wasn't fatal made it nothing short of a miracle.
During Season Two, novice stuntman Stan Kruml attempted to run through a burning 150-foot tunnel made of burlap-covered chicken wire. Kruml wore a flame-retardant suit, but his gloves caught on fire, burning his hands so badly he spent two years in rehab.
And, in what is arguably the most serious of all accidents on the show, daredevil Gary Wells tried to recreate a motorcycle stunt that injured Evel Knievel in 1967. The stunt failed spectacularly, resulting in Wells slamming into an unpadded concrete wall at 80 mph. Wells suffered a ruptured aorta, in addition to serious injuries to his skull, legs and pelvis.
California attorney Ed Steinbrecher announced plans to file a multimillion-dollar suit against That’s Incredible!’s Alan Landsburg Productions on Kruml's behalf. Calling the show "insane," "suicidal" and "exploitative," Steinbrecher said, “If they had spent as much time checking out Stan as hiring a mail-room clerk, they would have known he couldn’t do it. He had done seven or eight car jumps in his time, but never a fire run. He was totally unqualified. Now his hands are burned to a crisp.”
Not surprisingly, Real People creator George Schlatter was among one of the more prominent dissenters of the show. “We are directly opposed to the kinds of stunts they use, and we were offered all of them,” Schlatter said. “Real People is classic character portrayal. That’s Incredible! is a carnival.”
Landsburg pushed back against critics, arguing many of the show's stunts had gone smoothly and that he felt the bulk of criticism was coming from stuntmen who weren't invited to take part.
“We are paying people reasonably well to go out and do incredible stunts for us - something that has been going on since the beginning of show business,” Landsburg said. “We are responsible in a dangerous field. If an item is just interesting, it doesn’t belong on our show. We have to make people say 'that’s incredible!' after each segment. But to say we are doing this to stir bloodlust is crazy.”
Co-hosts Crosby and Tarkenton also defended the show. “I am proud of this show,” said Crosby. “I think it shows just how great human potential is. Why don’t people talk more about the positive things we’ve done, like stories on the blind girl track athlete or the one-legged football player?”
Tarkenton agreed and felt the criticism was “unjust. We’re doing positive educational things. Teachers are having students watch. People risk their lives every time they get on an airplane. Human triumph means risk. This show celebrates human triumph on all levels.”