I’ve a confession to make: I’m a prankster.
Actually, let’s clarify that a bit: I’m a prankster-by-proxy, a Wizard of Oz behind a shimmering troublemaker’s curtain. I’m not a performer. I’ve never thrown myself into the middle of mischief-making – flanked by a camera, hidden or otherwise – but I have played the part of a general, sending willing soldiers into battle.
I’m behind the scenes. I’ve worked as a television writer … on prank shows.
An odd juxtaposition, some of you might think. After all, what needs writing on a prank show? Isn’t it just a case of sending someone out to hassle the public and getting their indignant reactions on film? Sometimes. But the stuff I’ve worked on – most notably the BBC’s political prank show The Revolution Will Be Televised – is a cut above all that. We don’t just indulge in any old pranks, dahling. We make art.
Sounds kind of pretentious, doesn’t it? So be it. I’m of the belief that a great TV prank – something well thought-out, scripted to tailor every scenario, with a clever satirical point and, yes, a meaning – is as intellectually valid as any Last Week Tonight monologue or 17-minute Bill Maher rant. I think a smart TV prank can genuinely change the way the viewer looks at the world.
Which is why I’m not a fan of stuff like this:
YouTube sensation Jack Jones there, making the public feel uncomfortable for absolutely no reason whatever. Is there any point to what he’s doing? Any funny, clever message he’s trying to put across? Nope. He’s just irritating people – at best confusing them, at worst scaring them. If you’re going to make the public look like fools, shouldn’t you have a damn good justification for doing so?
Sadly, material like young Jack’s is all over YouTube. Even more sadly, it’s popular enough that its nihilistic, aimless ilk is starting to infect old-school television too.
But there are still producers, writers and performers holding the fort for the valiant art of the clever prank. And there are also plenty of classic examples from the past to remind us of how great such pranks can be.
As luck would have it, we’ve got a list of 10 of them handy, representing both my homeland and the US. Shall we take a look?
BRASS EYE – ‘CAKE’
The granddaddy of all daring, satirical pranksters, Chris Morris is a hero to a generation of alt-comedy fans in the UK, and also became a cult phenomenon in the US following the release of his jihadi suicide-bomber comedy (yes, you read that right) Four Lions.
The Cake prank comes from an episode of Morris’s 1996 news satire Brass Eye. A selection of low-rent British celebrities and politicians join forces to unwittingly front an anti-drugs campaign for a completely made-up drug.
What’s the point? Morris shows just how easily celebrities will attach themselves to an obviously ridiculous cause (seriously, just look at how many hints he gives them that this is all bullshit throughout) in the name of PR.
NATHAN FOR YOU – FROZEN YOGURT
Comedian Nathan Fielder’s expertly observed Comedy Central show Nathan For You skewers the world of television business gurus with pitch-perfect verve. Stumbling through the doors of a different business each week, Fielder offers up the misguided wisdom of his consultant character.
Most memorable to date is Fielder’s innovative notion that a frozen yogurt seller would increase their market standing by selling a new flavor. That flavor? Human feces.
What’s the point? In a world in which everyone is seemingly an “expert,” why should we listen to anyone? Fielder’s pranks may seem cruel at first, but they’re pointing out a wider malaise – our habit of blindly following utter mumbo-jumbo if it’s presented credibly enough.
PENN AND TELLER – BANNING WATER
A unique and woefully underappreciated show, Penn And Teller: Bullshit! ran for seven years on Showtime and never ran out of targets to feed its central concept: Each week the two men would take a widely-held “fact” or “consensus” and tear it a new one.
There were lots of smart pranks along the way, including this petition to ban the dangerous chemical Dihydrogen Monoxide, more commonly known as water. Did people fall for it? What do you think?
What’s the point? Just as Nathan Fielder proves that you can wrap up the worst ideas in a veneer of business legitimacy, this Bullshit! stunt shows that the world of science is no different. A bunch of complex-sounding words and a clipboard: bingo. You’ve got authority.
PENN AND TELLER – WATER RESTAURANT
Say what you like about this feature, guys – in terms of a ‘Penn and Teller TV prank featuring water’ tally count, we’re way ahead of the competition.
This is another H2O-themed prank from Bullshit!, yet with a totally different slant. The sneaky magic-types set up a “water restaurant” in a trendy part of California and watch as hipsters sample various different types of “pure” water from around the world. The twist? It’s all tap water, sprayed from a nearby hosepipe.
What’s the point? The other Bullshit! water prank was all about deferring to someone else’s social status; this one is about flaunting your own. With the tantalizing possibility of looking intelligent and refined, what level of nonsense will people believe just for the gift of a few extra Social Proof points?
WONDERSHOWZEN – BEAT KIDS
Another underappreciated masterpiece comes in the form of MTV 2’s mid-noughties WonderShowzen, a frenzied satire on Sesame Street-style children’s programming that fused live-action sketches, puppetry, animation and, of course, pranks.
WonderShowzen’s regular “Beat Kids” section saw kindergarten-aged reporters sent out to ask members of the public some – obviously scripted – questions. The targets would often be gathered together under a certain theme. In this clip it’s the bigwigs of Wall Street, and the question is a simple one: “Who did you exploit today?”
What’s the point? We’ve already seen how a figure of fake authority can put people’s guard down. “Beat Kids” proved that an innocent-looking kid reporter could elicit the most honest of responses. Can you imagine half these answers being given to a “proper” reporter?
ALI G – NUMEROUS INTERVIEWS
Like the aforementioned Chris Morris, Sacha Baron Cohen – chameleon behind Ali G, Borat, and Bruno – is a master of pranks with a point. Initially starting as a late night fixture on the UK’s Channel 4, hapless “urban” wannabe Ali G soon became a national favorite, scoring a movie and hopping across the Atlantic for his finest work: the six-part Ali G in Da USA, which saw Ali examine a different facet of American culture each week. In the above clip he takes on the world of business. Keep an eye out for everyone’s favorite headline-grabber Donald Trump getting pranked, back when presidential ambitions were just a glint in his bangs.
What’s the point? If WonderShowzen showed us that the public will change their tone to suit a harmless youngster, Ali G showed us that more seasoned interview subjects – politicians, celebrities, high-profile figures – will do exactly the same when faced with an idiot manchild. And there’s also a more prescient point being made: Ali’s depiction of himself as the voice of “da youth” goes forever unchallenged. Looks like a lot of establishment figures don’t hold young people in high regard. Who woulda thunk it?
BRUNO – THE HOTTEST BABY PHOTO SHOOT
Another character from Sacha Baron Cohen, and arguably his most savagely satirical. Bruno is a sociopathic, self-obsessed fashion expert straight out of the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. While his 2009 movie showcase Bruno is slightly hit-and-miss – some of the pranks involved do lapse into the sort of pointless sneering we rallied against earlier – the Hottest Baby Photo Shoot arguably represents Baron Cohen at his skewering, angry best.
There’s a woman here who would give her baby liposuction. A baby. Liposuction.
What’s the point? Direct and uncomplicated really, and all the more hard-hitting for it. In a world increasingly obsessed with shallowness and pseudo-celebrity (something that has only snowballed in the seven, social-media-addicted years between now and the film’s release) Bruno shows us that nothing is off the table on the road to fame. Hey, we never said these pranks had to be uplifting.
TRIGGER HAPPY TV – GIANT CELL PHONE
“Hold on a second,” some of you are no doubt saying right now. “This prank is the epitome of needlessly hassling the public, surely? This is exactly the kind of stuff you said you hated. You’re a disgrace. A hypocrite. Kill yourself.”
OK. Two points. Number one: Jesus, calm down, it’s only a list. Number two: Dom Joly’s giant cell phone prank from 1990s Brit hit Trigger Happy TV is actually a masterclass in smart social observation. It might be impossible to imagine now, but in the late ’90s cell phones were not the natural-as-breathing part of life that they are today – and Joly captured the tone of the era perfectly. Has the prank aged especially well? Maybe not – if you tried it today, it just wouldn’t work. But the point still stands.
What’s the point? Pointing out uncomfortable social trends – in this case, the loudmouth asshole on the cell phone – is an essential part of comedy. It’s taking on a universal issue that we all recognize, and laugh at.
CANDID CAMERA – FEMALE PILOT
Here’s an interesting one: what if the original intent of a prank didn’t matter? What if something started out as a sexist joke but – in the intervening years – has actually become a revealing comment on society, or how society has changed?
Candid Camera’s infamous “female pilot” scene is one such prank. Male airline passengers are introduced to their female pilot and their shocked reactions are a revelation. While the message back in the 1960s was probably the same one you can find on the more unsavory parts of Reddit (“LOL LOL a woman pilot, women can’t do anything right!!!!111”), watching this clip in 2016 creates a very different reaction.
What’s the point? Initially intended as a boys-only laugh-in, the stunt now reveals something very interesting: the level of unspoken sexism that once permeated society, and how – while progress has been made – it still does to this day. Would many men still have the same reaction now if presented with a female pilot? Probably, yes.
DENNIS PENNIS – CELEBRITY INTERVIEWS
Let’s close off on another British classic. Look, merry olde Englande is my stomping ground, okay? I’ve got to show some support for the home team.
Dennis Pennis was a fevered late-90s comic creation from the mind of actor Paul Kaye, most recently seen as Thoros of Myr in Game Of Thrones. Surprisingly, Thrones levels of violence never erupted during his time as Pennis, the world’s rudest red carpet correspondent. Taking on the elite of Hollywood, Pennis made several high-profile enemies and – during one Cannes festival – Kevin Costner even personally rang Tom Hanks to warn him of the “red-haired lunatic” wandering about.
What’s the point? Kaye brilliantly tears apart the notion of mindless celebrity worship with these stunts. Watch the face of each interview subject – the moment they realize that they’re not dealing with some average, ass-kissing showbiz journalist but a prankster who genuinely doesn’t give a shit. It’s like their pampered world has been destroyed. And maybe that’s something that should happen more often, no?
Christopher Davies is a journalist and television writer based in London. Find him on Twitter at @chrisjdavies.