In the dodged bullet of the year, Netflix announced they were scrapping an upcoming prank show starring—wait for it—comedians Bryan Callen and Chris D’Elia, both of whom have been accused of sexual assault. Disastrous casting aside, the lowest form of comedy are pranks. As we look into what we do and don’t need in a post-COVID world, surely we can let the terrible genre of prank comedy die along with business formal dress codes and millionaire celebrities getting nude for votes.
What is a prank but just a lie? Whether it’s pretending to do something unpleasant or pretending to be someone you’re not, it is completely indistinguishable between farce and fact to the pankee (sometimes done to elicit terror rather than amuse like on Scare Tactics).
Unlike stand-up, roasts, improv, sitcoms, and movies, pranks do not acquire the audience’s consent first. Their targets, the live audience, are not allowed in on the joke until after the big reveal. Once the prankster announces their true intentions, then and only then is it funny. Elsewhere in the comedy world, that’s on par with a comedian having to explain why their joke is funny, and if you have to do that you’ve failed. Even the third party observers, watching from our TVs, only know it’s a prank if told ahead of time, otherwise there’s no distinction between what we are watching and an actual traffic stop or Subway security camera footage.
Along with being corny as hell, the themes that pop up ever so frequently on these shows are rightly problematic in a way I can’t imagine flying in 2020 and beyond. With a budget to burn, these Hollywood productions masquerade actors as police officers, doctors, and taxi drivers. Nothing could be more tone-deaf than convincing someone they’re going to be arrested for a crime they didn’t commit or having someone remove their clothes for a fake medical inspection, yet both have seen air time.
Whether impersonating people with authority or just being their random wacky selves, the power-dynamics between prankster and prankee on these shows are heavy skewed as they tend to target working class people who are often… at work! A good code to live by is to leave people the hell alone while they’re working. Don’t record them for a video, and don’t ask them for ridiculous requests you know they can’t fill. Basically, don’t hold people hostage for your own entertainment, especially when those people are making minimum wage.
So many of these pranks are inflicted on those in low-wage positions like fast food and retail, places where workers are regularly subjected to the rages of entitled asshole customers. Even when the pranksters get to cosplay as employees, the pranks are then often at the expense of working class people just trying to get a quick meal, or run an errand, or blow off steam during their free time. I can’t imagine being at the whim of some deepcut cable network no one’s heard of when i’m trying to get a shitty breakfast sandwich in the morning.
Thankfully, the current landscape seems to be more annoyed than entertained by this type of intrusive comedy. There was the “comedian” who pranked MTA riders by spilling a giant tub of milk and cereal on the subway in May, then there were the TikTok brothers who made their masked-up Olive Garden server waste a block of parm by refusing to say stop when topping off their meal that sparked a wave of negative feedback online. Not only are these dumbasses messing with essential workers who are forced to work during a deadly pandemic, but they’re wasting food during an era where food shortages and unemployment are prevalent. It’s about as tone deaf as millionaires instagramming from private islands while us poors’ useless passports collect dust.
Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo’s show, Prank Encounters (clever!), drew controversy last year for similar reasons when Netflix first described the show’s premise as Matarazzo pranking people by luring them with the promise of an imaginary job. People were rightfully not very tickled by the idea of taking advantage of those seeking employment by dangling the prospect of work under their nose just for a “gotcha” moment. Netflix proceeded to clarify that participants were told they were being hired for a one-day gig and that everyone was paid for their time. While they didn’t technically fail to deliver on a promise, the show still hired people under false pretenses, likely attracting those most in need of real work, which has been the premise of actual horror movies.
The lack of consent with pranks is what makes them uniquely bad projects. “Oh, but they all have to sign releases in order for their footage to be used,” yes, but after such adrenaline and mindfuckery, are these people even in the right mindset to make that decision? They know they can convince people to overlook their trauma for an ounce of fame. But more so, what about the people who don’t sign?
One show sitting on a pile of footage that the public will never see is MTV’s admittedly iconic Punk’d. Punk’d was unique and more palatable in that it messed with rich celebrities instead of the everyman. It’s the ultimate punching up to make Justin Timberlake think his assets are being seized by the IRS or Zach Braff find his Porsche was vandalized. The problem though is not with the target but with the lie. These pranks were elaborate as hell and way darker than screwing up a sandwich order. Some segments had to be heavily edited as their provoked targets reacted in unpredictable and dangerous ways. In one infamous moment, Braff allegedly punched the young actor who pretended to tag his car. Not only were Punk’d staff put in harm’s way, but they sometimes had to act quickly to stop a target from potentially hurting themselves. It’s like that I Think You Should Leave sketch, only instead of a whoopie cushion it’s a fake hit-and-run and a hospital visit is an actual possibility. Not only are the risks completely unnecessary, it’s a total surprise that this is an entire genre. To quote Tim Robinson, what is the joke?!
As much as everyone gets a pat on the back for being a good sport about it, it’s perfectly reasonable not to be (again, don’t bother me on my lunch break). This isn’t like volunteering for a magic show where everyone is game for some playful humiliation (again, unless you’re TIm Robinson). When someone tells you have to get an injection in your stomach instead of your arm or that your house has been seized by the government, I don’t know how you can easily laugh that off other than the fact you have to because cameras are rolling. The way the game is structured, you inexplicably become the asshole who can’t take a joke even when that joke is the government took your dogs. Who the hell jokes about that! I’m sorry, but as corny as Justin Timberlake is he was right to cry and was the one who should have started swinging on people.
When creating comedy in any form, it’s important to ask yourself “who is this funny for?” Could you actually be causing harm for no reason? There’s also the matter of compensation. Your content depends on the prankee being down. While Prank Encounters cut some checks, shows like Impractical Jokers rely on mostly free content to fill out an episode. While that might help your budget, it’s ethically, uh, a dick move.
The state of TV right now is shakey. Nobody is safe as shows like GLOW are being retroactively cancelled and entire platforms like Quibi, who was set to revive Punk’d with Chance the Rapper [It actually came out! Only, yknow, on Quibi, so nobody knew about it.—Ed.], have shut down entirely (in this case, predictably). As we slog through this endless pandemic, it’s looking like the industry will pivot to genres that are better equipped for social distancing (animated) or have low overhead (reality). But for the love of god, lean on the former.
I get it, pranks are a cheap laugh literally and figuratively, but I’m sorry, bud, I think you should have to actually write a joke. Again, moral quagmires aside, this shit’s just corny. They’re nothing more than overwrought variations of “got your nose!” At the end of the day, if you have to beg people after that fact to let you make your funny show, it probably shouldn’t exist. After all, there’s nothing worse than entering a room not knowing live comedy is about to start.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.