When We Become the Punchline
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Don Rickles was in the middle of his act at a Miami Beach nightclub in the 1950s when the legendary (and legendarily thin-skinned) Frank Sinatra entered the room. “Make yourself comfortable, Frank,” Rickles called from the stage. “Hit somebody.”
Lucky for Rickles, Sinatra laughed and the comic survived to insult more audiences. Because, well, of course he did. If you went to a Don Rickles comedy show, you knew what you were signing up for: A night of faux-mean comedy that might include jokes at your expense. You let down your guard and allowed yourself to become part of the show, all in the name of fun.
So making the audience the punchline isn’t exactly novel. But there is a new version of this brand of comedy that has gained popularity over the past fifteen years or so -- one where the “crowd work” takes place on the street, in the place where you work, or even in your home. And the difference with shows like Impractical Jokers, Prank Encounters, and Billy on the Street is that you have no idea that you -- yes, you! -- are about to become the butt of the joke.
Smile, You’re on Candid Camera
Hidden-camera shows with a gotcha! element aren’t new. In the 1960s, Candid Camera recorded reactions to all kinds of silliness.
Then as now, the comedy was in how ordinary people react to unexpected situations. But malfunctioning typewriters and brittle bowling pins were designed to be surprising, not humiliating.
Contrast Allen Funt’s gentle laughs with some of the more obnoxious bits foisted on an unsuspecting public (including a surprising number of little kids) by the Staten Island doofuses on Impractical Jokers:
– Whipping a chicken finger in a guy’s face
How Far Would You Go For Funny?
Skip ahead to the comments section if you want to see readers telling us to
grow a pair get a sense of humor. But then consider if professional funny people should set some limits on how far they’re willing to go for a giggle.
Take Prank Encounters, a Netflix prank show with Stranger Things’ Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) starring in the Ashton Kutcher Punk’d role. (What’s up with the apostrophe in Punk’d anyway? It doesn’t even save a keystroke. Whatever. Moving on.)
In an episode called Teddy Scare, two unsuspecting reality show-wannabes (so yes, at one point they signed up to be on a TV show but they don’t realize they’re on one now) find themselves a) learning that a little girl lost her sister via a murderous teddy bear and b) believe they’re actually witnessing a walking toy bear throw an actual human person to their death from a second-story balcony. Holy smokes! Isn’t that a little … terrifying?
This and other scare-pranks have created some blowback for Matarazzo, who has taken to his private Instagram account to ensure his fans that “everybody was compensated." Sure, but are his victims sleeping at night?
Even the Impractical Jokers admit that anything-for-a-laugh can go too far. In a Reddit AMA, Sal Vulcano talks about a bit that was filmed but never aired.
“We had the ‘genius’ idea of going to a children's park and baby talk to kids and then shift that and baby talk to adults,” he says. “We quickly realized we were creepily walking around a baby park and ogling children. The cops were called. That won't see the light of day.”
Whew. OK. So there are limits. Let’s hope cops showing up aren’t the only way the lines are drawn.
There are no shortage of critics who find this kind of comedy in bad taste. Bleeding Cool blasted a new revival of Punk’d for confusing comedy with cruelty. But “bad taste” is a moving target and not everyone will agree on where to draw the line.
Whether you think a particular comedy dupe is hilarious or heinous, the reality is that the pranks have real-life consequences, both for the comics and their targets.
Pretty Stupid and Quite Embarrassed
Take, for example, Jasmine, the young woman who dates “Corey” (actually Nathan Fielder in a mask) on an episode (“The Hero”) of Nathan For You. In a Reddit thread, she reveals that she thought she was on an MTV dating show. She confesses she’d never even heard of Nathan for You.
“I felt pretty stupid and quite embarrassed when I realized what the show actually was when it aired,” she wrote.
Nathan For You’s Michael Koman insists that malice isn’t the intention. “We’re all people with consciences,” he says. “There’s an illusion when you’re looking at it on television that Nathan’s doing more to put somebody in an uncomfortable position, but there’s also the reality that they’re on the set of a television show and there’s cameras right there.”
Well, sure. Jasmine, for example, definitely knew she was being filmed for TV. But Koman’s argument is disingenuous -- the young woman believed she was going to be on a different show on a different network. Maybe there’s no cruel intent, but no matter how you slice it, Nathan’s foils are being lied to.
Most of the time on Impractical Jokers, “people are pretty cool when they find out it's a show,” says Vulcano. “The few who get mad we try to convince otherwise, or they get blurred, or cut from the show. On the rare occasion if the person was gold, we try and throw them a few bucks to coerce them.”
That’s right, folks -- the targets of the Impractical Jokers don’t ordinarily get paid.
“The people who are are just usually like, ‘This guy is crazy.’ That’s the reaction we want. We don’t want to make people mad,” Joker Joe Gatto told South Jersey Magazine. “That’s not what our show is.”
But people get mad nonetheless. Take Giovanna Santoni-Waldinger, a woman who was eating with co-workers at City Kitchen in Times Square when Impractical Jokers turned on the cameras. Santoni-Waldinger wasn’t interested in being part of the joke and refused to sign the show’s waiver. That didn’t stop the show from airing with her face “clearly recognizable” (at least according to her) -- she filed a lawsuit in the Manhattan Supreme Court.
“I just want justice,” Santoni-Waldinger told the New York Post after a highlight clip with her face intact appeared on YouTube. “I saw what they did and it’s not right.”
That’s what at least some of the unsuspecting stars of Sascha Baron Cohen’s Borat thought as well. According to a report in The Guardian, the ‘stars’ were paid a couple of hundred bucks to appear in exchange for signing last-minute release forms that were unusually long and deliberately misleading.
Borat gave feminist artist Linda Stein a hard time in the film, but only after Stein had a pre-interview with “Chelsea Barnard,” a false name used by a production assistant. “Barnard” told Stein that she was filming a documentary for fake company One America, with funding coming from Belarus television. Stein agreed to sign the release, but can’t believe that what she signed really was legal. Someone using a false name convincing her under a false premise to sign a document that was purposely misleading?
"While I'm no legal expert,” Stein says, “I can't believe that you can agree to be defrauded."
Well, maybe you can, says entertainment lawyer Aaron Moss. "Even if a participant was lied to, a court may find that the person should have read the contract and that if they didn't, it's essentially their own fault."
Does that mean pranksters with signed disclosures can get off scot-free? “I’m continually amazed by how little people react to things,” says Impractical Jokers’ James “Murr” Murray. “I thought we would get punched far more than we do.”
Oh yeah! They can get punched!
“I’ve been slapped and sometimes people get angry,” says Billy Eichner, host of Billy On the Street, a game show where Eichner confronts unwitting pedestrians and screams pop-culture questions in their face.
He better not get up in Nicki Minaj’s grill, who took exception to Eichner’s tactics after catching an online clip of the host shrieking in someone’s face. She took to Instagram to scream back:
Like pls somebody find this guy. he woulda got punched right in his neck as soon as he woulda shoved the mic in my face that aggressively
The Impractical Jokers aren’t immune. “[Punching or worse almost) happened one time when Q had to catch a guy in a net,” said Vulcano in his AMA. “The guy was gonna try and kill him.”
Or the time Murr almost got pummeled by asking a huge guy to try on a bra (after practically climbing over the dude several times to grab clothes). This bit had to set the Impractical Jokers record for security rushing in to stave off potential violence.
The reality is, some people can’t take a joke. Especially one they never asked to be part of. Comedy shows can keep pushing the prank boundary in the pursuit of comedy, but sooner or later, someone is going to get a knuckle sandwich instead of a laugh. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope we can keep the punch out of punchlines.
Top image: TruTV