Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When Does a Prank Cross the Line?

Last month Nathan Fielder of Comedy Central's Nathan For You stirred up a little controversy online when he urged his younger Twitter followers to “accidentally” send a text to their parents that appeared to be part of a drug deal, and then post the parent’s reaction online. You can imagine how calmly the punked parents responded to that stunt. Last week Fielder upped the ante with a similar but even more disturbing prank.

Fielder tweeted: “Experiment: text the person ur dating “I haven't been fully honest with you” then dont reply to them for 1 hr (& tweet pic of thr response)” – in other words, toy with your loved one’s emotions and share their ensuing hysteria with the world. This “experiment” had an even uglier impact than the previous one.

As you would expect, many of the prank’s victims freaked out, fearing that the relationship was over or that their partner was cheating. One victim wondered if the texter was secretly married. Another wrote back, “I just hope you used a condom and didn’t put me at risk.” Another, after the prank was revealed, disturbingly texted, “I was afraid you were gonna tell me you were out getting an abortion.” One young man who pranked his partner replied to Fielder, “thought it’d be funny but now I completely regret it. Two years down the drain.” Well, if your idea of fun was pulling this on someone you were that serious about, then you deserved to lose her. Another prankster texted, “I felt so bad but I couldn’t stop laughing what is wrong with me???” Good question.

The male and female pair of Huffpost Live online hosts who reported on the prank claimed to find it hilarious, although the guy’s giggling appears forced. Still, he called it “amazing” and “the funniest thing ever.”

When I was a kid, there was a popular show called Candid Camera, hosted by Allen Funt, which actually began on TV in 1948 and ran in one incarnation or another for many decades. It was the precursor to the more recent MTV series Punked. In it, a random ordinary person was set up as the unwitting object of an extended prank for the TV audience’s amusement. At the peak of the target’s exasperation/confusion/outrage and/or panic, Funt would appear, point to the hidden camera, and say, “Smile – you’re on Candid Camera!” The victim would manage a good-natured smile – mostly, it seemed, out of enormous relief.

There is a theory that all comedy is based on laughing at another’s misfortune. Watching any TV sitcom episode or Hollywood rom-com might make one think that there’s something to that. But pranks are a step beyond that. From Funt to Fielder, at the core of pranks is a mean-spiritedness, a perverse urge to manipulate someone emotionally – to make him or her angry, sad, terrified, worried, etc. – for the entertainment of the prankster and his like-minded voyeurs. The ultimate revelation that it was all just in good fun is little, if any, consolation to the person who has just been put through a ringer.

Believe me, I am easily amused, but I never saw the humor in Candid Camera or Punked, and I don’t see it in Fielder’s “experiments.” I don’t enjoy watching people get jerked around, even “harmlessly” and briefly. People who do enjoy it would say, “Mark, lighten up, it’s just a joke.” Except that a prank isn’t funny to the victim of it, who at best is merely relieved when it’s over.

That having been said, even I concede that some pranks are more lighthearted and innocuous than others. So when does a prank officially cross the line into meanness? I would say when you set up a situation which you know has the potential to cause someone emotional pain (and physical pain, for that matter) or cause undue stress, or strike a vulnerable nerve – even if only temporarily. Where that line is may be different for each individual, but with pranks like the ones Nathan Fielder’s been pushing, you can be sure you’re crossing it.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/5/13)