Hidden camera pranks entered the zeitgeist back in 1948, courtesy of Allen Funt’s then-groundbreaking television program Candid Camera. The premise was simple yet universal: trick everyday folks with lighthearted gags, film their reactions, then watch the laughter wash over them when the hoax is revealed. Although comedy aficionados aren’t typically invested in the “televised pranks as humor” model (more on this later), the formula has endured for a solid three generations.
The past decade has given way to a new era of hidden camera shows. Harmless and occasionally charming pranks still make the rounds, but – as with any beleaguered format – the ante has been upped to maintain footing in this fractured media landscape. The biggest change: any attempt at comedy is often replaced by full-blown schadenfreude.
Best known to the under-40 set is Punk’d, the on-again off-again celebrity “gotcha” show (recently on again over at BET). Although predictably obnoxious, the antics pulled are of the “We painted Pharrell’s Lexus pink while he was scarfing back lobster ceviche at Nobu” variety. Our celebrity winds up confused, and possibly annoyed, only to guffaw along with the crew when presented with the big ol’ reveal.
Punk’d is far from the only game in town, and it’s downright genteel compared to much of its competition. These are the productions that inflict genuine suffering upon innocent people under the guise of “comedy.”
For over 15 years, Canada’s Just For Laughs Gags has been the world leader in hidden camera shows, its “dialogue-free hijinks + wacky music” model seamlessly infiltrating dozens of countries. While most pranks fall into the “obvious but innocuous” category, others are surprisingly mean-spirited and dark. Some kooky trivia for you: Just For Laughs Gags loves killing kids! In front of unsuspecting bystanders! In the aptly-titled “Kid Falls In Hole,” a rotating series of good Samaritans agrees to watch a six-year-old boy while his mother visits the port-a-john. (Side note: Just For Laughs Gags is obsessed with port-a-johns.) They then watch helplessly as the child jumps into what seems to be a puddle, only to disappear down a watery sinkhole, presumably drowning. Even to those in on the “joke” (a.k.a. we, the viewers), the visual is jarring.
Those seeking a companion piece to “Kid Falls In Hole” need look no further than “Statue Crushes Crying Baby.” The gist: various passers-by witness a giant boulder crush what appears to be an infant in a stroller.
Notice the unsettling disconnect between the canned laughter and the horrified onlookers believing a baby has just died in a gruesome manner. Another disconnect being the breezy, upbeat musical underscoring, on hand to remind you this is, in fact, a comedy show. Worth keeping in mind that only those who agree to sign personal release forms end up on Just For Laughs Gags. The myriad other folks too distressed to laugh at the reveal don’t tend to make the cut. (Nor are they compensated for the disquieting experience.)
Death is often a constant in these productions, particularly when tethered to supernatural elements. In this clip from NBC’s 2009 primetime prank show Howie Do It, A man named Fred Kuhr takes a not-so-dignified job delivering singing telegrams in an adult-sized bunny outfit. For the first assignment, he’s sent to croon for a fellow named Jerry Franks. Joke’s on the bunny man though, because it’s a funeral and Jerry is the stiff inside the coffin. Kuhr is quickly ushered to the front, where the faux minister pressures him to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Desperately wanting to keep his new job, Kuhr obliges, only to be greeted by tormented sobbing from the dead man’s widow. Cut to the Howie Do It audience, laughing manically at the heartbreak and humiliation on Kuhr’s face. As if to ensure every last negative emotion makes its way through Kuhr’s soul, the corpse then shoots up from his casket and delivers a terrifying “Thank you!” Kuhr admits that although he wasn’t personally offended by the put-on, the shock nearly gave him a heart attack. Someone in lesser health wouldn’t have fared nearly as well.
Shock and embarrassment aside, there’s a second level of malice at play here. “I was told Toronto’s only remaining singing telegram company was hiring,” Kuhr says, explaining the show’s recruitment process. “Was I interested? As an underemployed actor, yes of course I was interested.” What ensued: after the pranking, Kuhr was advised his new job didn’t actually exist, but he could still pocket $300 by signing the release form allowing Howie Do It to use the funeral footage. Like many in his situation, he took the money, figuring some form of token remuneration was preferable to none. Hey, what’s more funny than a man losing his job, right?
Aside from canceling Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Syfy isn’t typically known for its cruelty. Yet the network’s long-running extreme hidden camera show Scare Tactics (2003–2013) regularly pushed the limits of basic decency. Easily two or more times per episode, unwitting targets were made to believe they were about to die – usually in a heinous fashion. One early installment features Dennis, a friendly, soft-spoken Korean man who recently immigrated to the US. Still learning English, his survival has depended on low-paying blue-collar work. As with Kuhr, his much-needed new job – overnight groundskeeper at a local cemetery – turns out to be a sham. On Dennis’ inaugural shift, a body emerges from one of the yet-to-be-interred caskets and assaults him – a scarring and brutal scenario regardless of one’s belief in the occult. As Dennis attempts to keep the attacker at bay with a series of kicks, he’s – eventually – given the news, “You’re on Scare Tactics.” (A nonsensical combination of words to any newly-landed immigrant.)
As Dennis struggles to recover from the harrowing ordeal, his not-actually-a-boss jokingly asks, “Do you do judo or jujutsu or something?” To toss a little extra casual racism into the mix, we cut back to host Shannen Doherty in studio, who smugly adds, “How about that Dennis, breaking out a little of the Crouching Tiger.” (He’s Korean, not Chinese, but close enough, right Shan?) Given the callous tone of the show, a more apt closing line might well have been, “By the way, Dennis: It’s back to the unemployment line, you broke, gullible foreigner. Ain’t life a crazy roller coaster?”
Here’s a fun fact about the human brain: It’s not particularly shit-hot at glossing over severe trauma, even after the event is later recontextualized as “harmless.” Which means nightmares, panic attacks, and other PTSD-related symptoms can easily take root, despite some toothy host having popped out to say, “Just kidding!” Two pranks that aggressively disregard this paradigm come courtesy of ¡Qué Locura! – a South American hidden camera show about as subtle as its name. (Translation: “What Insanity!”)
First up is a video compilation of people trapped in an elevator. The lights flicker, then black out. For the average person, this is already a nightmarish ordeal. When the lights switch back on, a dead-looking young girl (clutching a creepy doll, naturally) appears, as if out of nowhere. She unleashes a blood-curdling scream, the lights cut to black, then switch back on. The girl is gone. The victims are devastated, fearing for their lives and their grip on reality. Some are left a quivering mess on the floor. Lather, rinse, repeat. (In a variation on this theme, elevator riders are methodically attacked by a man emerging from a coffin.)
The potential for psychological trauma is only part of what makes this “gag” irresponsible. Anyone legitimately fearing for their life (and again, they all were) could have easily snapped this kid’s neck, with producers having zero time to intervene. Before being removed for copyright violations, the “Dead Girl With Doll” clip racked up 98 million views on YouTube. (The above video is an alternate link.) 25,000 people had given it a “thumbs down,” a figure that pales in comparison to the 307,000 who opted for “thumbs up.” Although this ratio paints a garish picture of society’s take on abuse, perhaps more alarming is the fact over 97 million people weren’t affected enough to voice their disapproval with a simple click of the “dislike” icon.
Which brings us to the insidious ¡Qué Locura! ”Ghost Bride” prank. Many women are on high alert when walking alone in underground parking lots – particularly at night. The target of this clip finds herself in such a situation, and things get hella sociopathic hella fast. Upon entering her car and closing the door, she’s accosted by a shrieking, hooded figure in the back seat. Panic-stricken, the woman escapes the vehicle and screams for help. She’s in hysterics, inconsolable, hyperventilating, barely capable of standing upright. A male parking attendant (in on the gag, of course) attempts to calm her down. It’s all in your imagination. Look, see? I just opened the car door and there’s nothing, silly girl. The woman then points frantically to the demonic figure racing away behind him, but – surprise surprise – it’s gone by the time he decides to turn around. Once again, the attendant goes the gaslighting route, suggesting she’s just “seeing things.”
To give viewers more bang for their buck, producers run this prank three different times with three separate victims. (Perhaps more: these were the only clips that made it to air.) And yes, in each instance the person being terrorized is a young, attractive female, because hey, ratings, you know?
With little support from the parking attendant, each woman eventually gets in her car to leave, only to be stopped – and aggressively pursued – by the disfigured, dead-eyed ghoul, who’s soon joined by two accomplices. One crashes her car while attempting to flee. Just as the assailants close in to presumably end their victims’ lives, the host and camera crew present themselves. Cue silly, upbeat music. The women, all physically and mentally tormented to their breaking point, somehow never get around to smiling for the camera once the “joke” is revealed.
Here’s one of the many YouTube comments praising this clip (four times as many likes as dislikes, by the way):
lol i cant stop laughing. this isn’t even that cruel compared to japanese pranks. they once put a pill in this womans drink to make her sleep, then they took her to a church, and just as she was waking up they shoved her in a coffin and locked it shut. there was a go pro inside showing the horror and screaming on her face, they finally got her out about an hour later. now that was funny.
In our disconnected online culture, empathy is often the exception, not the rule. Although the video the commenter describes isn’t readily accessible, a similar enactment plays out in this French TV commercial for Cuisinella, where real-life pedestrians are shot sniper-style with red paintballs, carted off into an ambulance, made to believe they’re gravely injured, and then locked inside a coffin as they wail in terror.
These pranks – and the viewers who support them – follow the belief that physical and psychological assault on people (particularly women) is both funny and socially acceptable so long as perpetrators are presented in an exaggerated manner (e.g. ghouls, vampires, aliens, zombies, demons). The rationale being, “Hey, those things don’t exist, so it’s ridiculous for anyone to be afraid, right?” Because as we know, folks decked out in colorful costumes are incapable of committing heinous crimes. Just ask John Wayne Gacy.
The above clips are far from outliers. Some are culled from television, others crafted specifically for YouTube, with many far worse than what’s been linked to here. For a significant faction of the population, it’s easy to forget these aren’t amusement park House of Horrors-style scenarios, where those involved are willing participants, eager to face what comes their way. These maneuvers occur without consent, often at the expense of those with pre-existing issues exacerbated by acute distress.
In fact, prank shows that adopt this approach shouldn’t be categorized as comedy at all. This is not meant as judgment, but rather as practical evaluation. All comedy subsists, in one form or another, on the element of surprise. (Surprising the viewer or listener, that is, not an unsuspecting victim.) Yet these “gags” consistently follow the same rigid formula:
1) Present a set of circumstances designed to severely impact a subject in a negative manner. 2) Execute this set-up. 3) The subject experiences suffering, reacts predictably.
Viewers, fully aware of the process by step 1, do not experience surprise at step 2. Which implies any laughter at step 3 doesn’t stem from comedy (i.e. the unexpected punchline), but from the enjoyment of witnessing the subject endure misery. This most certainly ain’t humor, and classifying it as such only contributes to further acceptance.
Some perspective: Remember the Australian radio hosts who lost their jobs and were roundly vilified after their prank caused a woman to commit suicide? All they did was call a maternity ward and pretend to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. It was kinda dumb, and not particularly funny, but certainly “harmless” by prank standards. Except it wasn’t harmless at all. Which affirms the larger point: It’s nearly impossible to assess whether a prank can dangerously trigger one of its victims. That said, cause and effect suggests the more traumatic the experience, the greater the hazard. Sadly, there’s little chance of these risk-taking stunts being curbed until further tragedies give way to public outrage.
Here’s a rule of thumb: If a so-called hidden camera “comedy prank” involves terrifying somebody into believing they’ve lost their sanity, witnessed somebody die, or are about to die themselves, it’s not comedy – it’s sadism in sheep’s clothing. Suggesting otherwise is turning a blind eye to one’s own shaky moral compass. It’s also kind of a dick move.