I’m not sure what the first prank was, but, I’d bet, since it was the first ever prank without anything to base it off of, it probably involved someone dying. Either someone got infuriated at the prank being pulled on him or her and became overly vengeful, or the prank involved unexpected tripping and falling a distance not suitable for human survival.
From that moment in history, as theoretical as it may be, to now, pranks have become much more complex, layered, and, most importantly, less hurtful/victimizing. The late Andy Kaufman still serves as an example of trailblazing of pranking with his Mighty Mouse bit or his song “I Trusted You” or his infamous reading of The Great Gatsby where the humor is derived from watching Andy confound an audience that was expecting a more traditional comedy act.
Saying he was ahead of his time is almost rote now, but, thankfully, comedy at large appears to have caught up in a way where Kaufman can be appreciated by a whole new generation (there’s even a whole comedy competition dedicated to him in the spirit of his comedy).
Jackass, Bam Margera, Punk’d and many other MTV shows/personalities for a while seemed to be what people’s first thought would be at the mention of “prank.” Such notoriety was gained from basically exhibiting people in cases of absurd pain and extreme awkwardness without very much cleverness or consideration for the victim. There are plenty of celebrities that grinned through their being pissed off while having to stand next to Ashton Kutcher and admit that they just got Punk’d.
There are a whole class of pranksters in 2013 that aren’t just having someone walking into a beehive, or making it seem like someone is moving all their stuff out of their house right as they come home, or any number of things that happened on those aforementioned shows. There are a handful of comedians that prank to bring joy, as comedian/prankster extraordinaire Kurt Braunohler says, “…by inserting stupidity and absurdity into strangers’ lives.” As such, one can consider what they do as almost a deconstruction of the prank, subverting the idea of it just being defined as a mischievous act. It would be high concept performance art, except for the fact that it’s pretty damn funny.
Improv Everywhere is in many ways like Fight Club‘s Project Mayhem, if Project Mayhem didn’t destroy any property, fight anyone, tamper with anyone’s food, etc. Since 2001, Improv Everywhere founder and ringleader Charlie Todd has set up ridiculous public displays such as having a bunch of “agents” of Improv Everywhere dress in blue polos and khakis while walking around a Best Buy or the annual “No Pants Subway Ride”, in which people and agents alike ride the subway with no pants. All of these pranks are large scale, largely harmless and innocuous to strangers and passers by, and has sent Improv Everywhere into viral status on the Internet. The most uncomfortable thing that they’ve done to date, though still very funny, was probably to set up a booth in Aspen, CO to meet a black guy (as there are so few black people in the general population in Aspen).
Kurt Braunohler, considering how great his exploits are in his wonderful large scale pranks, should be commissioned by art museums/festivals. Much like painters and their periods, Braunohler has done everything from buying greeting cards and then changing the message inside, then putting them back on the display where he bought them, all the way to getting a Kickstarter to fund a plane to write in the sky, “How Do I Land?” (as pictured at the top of this article). All of these “prank installations” are fixed and involve people just running into something incredibly, but beautifully, ludicrous. In my experience, specifically, being witness to the skywriting joke as well as a prank stop sign Kurt had made that says, “No, YOU Stop,” there’s no feeling of being hoodwinked or a sense of “gotcha” from either party involved.
The Walsh Brothers, a brotherly comedy duo responsible for bringing planking to the U.S. as well as starring in their own “anti-prank” web series The Great and Secret Comedy Show at CC:Studios, try to create absurd moments much like Braunohler, in a more live and present way. For instance, they have gotten a ghillie suit used by snipers to hide in foliage, tried to “hide” while clearly visible against a wall or something, and then fail at scaring people. This is probably one of the better examples throughout here of the deconstruction of the concept of a prank that still ends up being hilarious, but which also doesn’t go over anyone’s head.
Nathan Fielder utilized the platform of his Comedy Central series Nathan For You to prank as much of America as he could (maybe that has to do with him being Canadian?). While convincing businesses how they could improve their services with very unconventional ideas (i.e., poop flavored frozen yogurt), Fielder, in my opinion, probably pulled off some of his best and biggest pranks online. He convinced fans, or really anyone willing, to text something mysterious to a loved one along the lines of ending a relationship or that they were going to buy drugs, then wait a few hours to respond/explain that this was a prank, then left a number to call to assure everyone that this was a prank, which turned out to be just a voicemail claiming that none of this was a prank. While some probably experienced the discomfort of being in the prank, they did unwittingly go for Fielder’s bait on the first level of the prank, providing a pretty good laugh to the whole of the Internet. “Prank inception,” perhaps?
The last set of pranksters to be highlighted here will be Brendon Walsh and Randy Liedtke. There are plenty more to discuss, but what’s featured here is a pretty good cross section of to what high level comedians have taken their public tomfoolery. Together, they host the Bone Zone podcast along with another hilarious prankster comedian, Davey Johnson, and all love pulling conceptually traditional pranks, having done so for much of their comedy careers, but with a much more innovative touch. Some of you might have seen Liedtke’s name come up recently for the elaborate Twitter hoax he pulled on fellow comedian Kyle Kinane by creating a fake Pace Foods Twitter account to take Kinane down a rabbit hole of a supposedly automated corporate Twitter account. Brendon has been known to post a fake sign on the fence of an open lot promising that the trendy grocery store chain Whole Foods was finally coming to the trendy neighborhood of Silverlake in Los Angeles and see people, in so many words, “lose their shit.” This might seem in the spirit of something that you might have seen on Punk’d, but it’s so much more sophisticated then having an actor play a parking enforcement officer, which is why, for the most part, people appreciate the artistry of Walsh and Liedtke’s hijinks, even the people being had in the prank.
So, in short, many of these pranks have evolved into, as suggested previously, something beautiful in all their incongruity. It’s an exciting time for the prank, and we can all only wait to be amazed by what someone will pull off next just using Photoshop, social media, and a really balanced sense of humor.
Please mention some of your favorite pranks/pranksters that push this comedy niche forward in the comments below.