Ethics in comedy

When does a prank go too far?

Ethics in comedy: When does a prank go too far?

Everybody loves a good prank, as the continuing success of shows such as Jackass testifies. I think that we as human beings never grow out of the delight of having one over on each other. There is a very fine line between humorous teasing and mean spiritedness and when caught up in the moment, this line becomes blurred. The meanest prank that I ever pulled was waking my little sister up on April Fools Day and telling her that it was snowing. Of course, she screamed with excitement, jumped out of bed and ran to fling open her bedroom curtains. It wasn’t snowing so much as a flake and was instead just that dismal drizzly greyness that you can’t even describe as weather as such. Kind of like the whole world is made of wet, disappointing concrete. A nicer sibling might have shown some mercy but I doubled over with laughter, delighted at the revelation that I could lie with such a completely straight face. But I like to think I’m fairly angelic compared to some. Last month, The Daily Mail printed a story about a man who left a velvet ring box lying around for his pregnant girlfriend. When she opened the box, she found it to be empty apart from a note that read “lol jk”.     

The reason that these types of pranks are particularly mean is that they follow a specific form of pranking which involves offering something that the person particularly wants, then revealing it to be a sham, kind of like a particularly nasty Wizard of Oz. Worse than taking their hearts desire away from them, it was only ever a mirage in the first place. Anyone who has ever caught five minutes of the x factor will understand the reverse of this theatrical device whereby Simon Cowell will dangle the hopeful contestant for a moment with a trick sentence like “I didn’t like your performance (long pause interspersed with pantomime boos) I loved your performance (cue standing ovation from the audience and tears of relief from the Contestant)”.    

More so than just mean spiritedness however, pranking carries with its very real ethical and moral implications. You don’t always know the mental state of a person who you are pranking and how they might take it. Furthermore, you are using their trust in you to get a few cheap laughs. This is even more true when pranking is used as a comic device within the entertainment industry. I was horrified when I heard about a recent prank on a Cambodian television programme. Thirteen year old Singer Autumn Allen was told by Television Presenters that she was about to be reunited with her mother, who she hadn’t seen since she was six years old. Autumn’s emotions in anticipation of the meeting were evident. However, this turned out to be the premise for a very mean spirited prank where Autumn’s “mother” turned out to be a local male Comedian in drag. The Network has since formally apologised but the fact remains that this wasn’t just a throwaway mistake. This prank would have taken time, planning and the consideration of various television executives. How on earth was it allowed to get so far?    

People across the world have expressed outright anger at this speechlessly horrible prank. The young age of Autumn and the sensitive subject matter of her long lost mother resonated with a lot of people. However, this is not the first time that a media outlet has made terrible decisions regarding pranking. The way in which we discussed ethics in pranking changed forever in 2008, in what is now known as Sachsgate. This was now the infamous prank phone calls made to Andrew Sachs by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross during The Russell Brand Show broadcast on BBC Radio 2. During these phone calls, the pair told the elderly Sachs that Brand had had sex with his Granddaughter Georgina Baillie, using explicit and offensive language. Baillie later stated that the incident had damaged the relationship between herself and her Grandfather and could have very easily damaged the rest of her life.

In 2012, Nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who attended the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their first pregnancy, tragically committed suicide after a misguided prank call from Australian radio program Hot30 Countdown left her feeling publicly humiliated. She had suffered from depression for many years and being thrust into the limelight in such a cruel way was too much for her to bear. This of course could not have been known by the two Radio Presenters who conducted the prank, however the possibility of this should have been taken into consideration. It is very difficult to be certain of the mental or emotional state of another person, and how they might react to a situation that others might find amusing. The case of Jacintha Saldanha led to a worldwide discussion of the ethics of prank calls which had previously been traditional medium of comic content on mainstream radio shows.

A person should not be exploited for a cheap joke and to bump up ratings figures. Therefore, clear boundaries need to be drawn up to protect the dignity and emotional welfare of those at the end of a prank call. Autumn Allen took the nasty prank very graciously and displayed a maturity well beyond that of the much older TV Presenters. She made an effort to laugh along with the joke and afterwards accepted the formal apology made by the network. However, how do we really know how Autumn felt and how she has been affected in the aftermath? How do we know that her trust in others hasn’t been weakened in the long term and the hurt of not knowing her mother made that little bit more painful? The answer is that we simply don’t know.                    


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