Secrets of the Prank Format Revealed
With the return of “Revenge Prank” on MTV, and Netflix and other streamers exploring the genre, Gary Carpenter considers what makes a prank format work - or not!
1. Choose your Victims Carefully
In Netflix’s recent “Prank Encounters”, two unsuspecting job-seekers get gig work that lands them in the middle of a horror or supernatural movie-trope scenario.
The production came under fire for exploiting the unemployed. The press were reassured that participants were reimbursed for the work they would have done (if it weren’t a trick). But it makes the point that the success of a prank for viewers is closely tied to the profile of the victims.
Tim Van Aelst conceived Belgian prank format “Benidorm Bastards” while reading an article about how big advertisers were no longer interested in people over 55. It got him thinking how old people in prank shows were usually the victims. So why not switch it round? In his format, the protagonists are senior citizens who disturb younger members of the public with swearing, irresponsible use of mobility vehicles and other anti-social behaviour. As well as being a local hit, the format has sold around the world, under various titles including “Off Their Rockers”.
At the other end of scale, ”Rank the Prank” enables kids to prank adults, while “Punk’d” (revived in 2020 on the ill-fated Quibi with Chance the Rapper) usually pranked celebrities, thus avoiding any ‘real’ victims.
2. Cruel isn’t Cool
A key challenge of any Prank show is to decide how far to go.
I worked on a hidden camera show called “Swag”. The concept was to tempt members of the public into committing crimes - e.g. stealing a motorbike we’d left the keys in, or goods from inside an unattended delivery van. The pay-off? The bike was rigged to cover the ‘criminal’ in foam, the sides of the van fell away revealing them captured in a cage.
It lasted two seasons, but the entrapment element of the pranks somehow crossed a line, making viewers complicit in a kind of vigilante TV. Also, the public turned out to be far more law abiding than expected - it could take hours before anybody took the bait! There’s a similar flavour to “Revenge Prank” (MTV.) Punk’d meets The Jeremy Kyle Show with pranks built around tabloid themes: baby mommas, cheating partners and so on.
The broader point here is that, in general, positive formats last longer - and sell further - than negative ones. Once the thrill of a cruel premise wears off, a bad taste in the mouth remains.
3. Who You Callin’ Stupid?
That was the title of a hidden camera series for Discovery/TLC, exec-ed by TFP’s Justin Scroggie, which set out to explore what makes people do stupid things.
Even though there were plenty of victims, the potential meanness of the pranks was off-set by demonstrating how certain factors - an authority figure supported by ‘planted’ actors, a series of rapid actions leaving you no time to think - could lead perfectly intelligent people to fall for a stunt.
In other words, it’s the prank that’s clever, not the victim who’s stupid.
4. But what about Season 2?
I worked on one of TV’s most elaborate hoaxes, “Space Cadets” for Channel 4 in the UK. Broadcast over 10 nights, it set out to convince 12 contestants they were taking the first tourist flight into lower earth orbit. With a budget of £5 million, an old air force base was converted into a ‘Russian’ Space Training camp, complete with ‘space shuttle’ and ‘launch pad’, and the show played out Big Brother-style, with diary room and other reality elements.
Space Cadets was commissioned to be Event Television: From Day 1 it was intended to be an unrepeatable project. However, it is all too easy for a format to evolve into a one-hit wonder.
For example, in “My New Best Friend” members of the public could win £10,000 if they lasted a weekend with an obnoxious character (performed by comedian Marc Wootton) and convinced their friends and family he was their new best friend. Paradoxically, its success was the reason the format was short-lived and didn’t travel: Wootton became easily recognised, yet the show depended too much on his talent for it to be made without him.
Which leads me to:
5. If you can’t change the Cast, it isn’t a Format.
So said Dick de Rijk, creator of one of the most successful TV formats, “Deal or No Deal”.
Many prank shows have been built around a ‘troupe’ of players who are seen to conceive and then carry out the prank. BBC’s “Three Non Blondes” involved a trio of female comedians playing comic characters who interact with the unsuspecting public, whilst the long-running “Impractical Jokers” (TruTV) features improv comedy troupe The Tenderloins. Their rapport is perfect, not least because they were all at college together and brought the show to TV as a team.
But personality-led prank shows can also suffer from The Top Gear Problem. If the pranksters are big characters and have a great chemistry between them, how do you reproduce the magic?
Several international versions of ‘Impractical Jokers’ were made, though none really managed to match the original. By contrast, the genius of “Benidorm Bastards” was that old people were already ‘invisible’, so no one remembers the cast!
6. Remember, it’s a comedy!
At its heart, a hidden camera show is comedy, and thus one of the few genres that can appeal to all ages and demographics.
Like the best comedy, a great prank show should hold three sets of people - the protagonist, the victim, and the viewer - in a fine balance, teasing them all while harming none. It can be endlessly renewed and recast and so travel the world, as long as you bear in mind the points above.
Here at The Format People we have extensive experience in prank shows, so feel free to get in touch for a consultation about yours.
Gary Carpenter is a consultant with The Format People, with 20+ years experience in TV, animation and online media. He has written and developed entertainment programming for all audiences and ages.
P.S. The YouTube video at the top of this blog is a still - did I prank you?