“Jackass” and the rise and fall of online prank content
Twenty-two years after “Jackass” debuted on MTV, the group that popularized the prank is back on screen with “Jackass Forever.”
But in the years since Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius and other members of the original “Jackass” crew last came into the limelight, social acceptance of the stuffing has changed, especially online.
Like the films before it, the absurd antics of “Jackass Forever” are meant to make the viewer laugh at the apparent suffering of the cast. As one Hollywood Reporter review put it, “Either you find the humiliation, degradation, and physical violence hilarious, or you don’t.”
And these days, a lot of people don’t. While reviews for the latest film are overwhelmingly positive, content fatigue around the online prank genre is growing.
The “Jackass” franchise laid the foundation for the prank culture that has long dominated YouTube and Vine. Some creators, like the Natural Born Pranksters (YouTubers Dennis Roady, Roman Atwood and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy) have been so successful that their prank content has been developed into a movie, backed by Lionsgate and Studio71. Others, like Logan Paul, built a following on shocking prank videos before pursuing other genres of content.
Although the pranks featured on the “Jackass” show and movies are less harmful than those in many viral prank videos, the style of content is increasingly being shunned as social consciousness evolves online.
Activist and notorious prankster Abbie Hoffman described “bad” pranks as “gratuitously vindictive” like fraternity hazing rituals, and “neutral” ones as “surreal and sweet on the victim”. A “good prank” was satirical, as in 1967 when Hoffman and other activists allegedly disrupted trading on the New York Stock Exchange by throwing money at stock traders, who began rushing to get the tickets.
The line between “bad” pranks and “good” pranks has blurred in recent years. But one thing has become clear: unnecessarily cruel videos, which fall into the category of “bad” pranks, are nowhere near as plentiful as they once were.
Why? Academics theorize that there is a limit to what we find funny.
Cynthia Gendrich, an acting professor at Wake Forest College who teaches a seminar on laughter and sociology, said it’s “interesting that these extreme pranks are decreasing.”
“My students, like most people, drew the line at people with physical pain,” she told NBC News in an email. “Many theorists point to that moment when our hearts [or] empathy involves being the moment when we can’t laugh.
The era of “It’s just a prank, mate” is over
Until a few years ago, prank channels filled YouTube’s trending videos. Many on the platform posted relatively innocuous videos of creators pranking themselves, their families, and the public.
But several wildly successful creators have received millions of views on videos involving meaner pranks – at the cost of hurting their loved ones. After inflicting emotional anguish over the prank, it was common for the creator to casually reveal the “joke” at the end of the video: “It’s just a prank bro.”
In November 2015, YouTuber Sam Pepper uploaded a video in which he kidnapped another creator and made him watch his friend being “murdered”. Pepper, who has previously been charged with sexual assault and harassment after posting a video that appeared to pinch women from behind with a fake hand, claimed its content was “a social experiment”.
Two years later, family vlogging channel DaddyOFive received backlash for posting videos chastising their tearful children and calling the verbal abuse “just a prank”. Michael and Heather Martins, who ran the channel, lost custody of two of the five children in 2017. After a court ordered the Martins to stop posting content on their channel, they created a second channel called FamilyOFive, which YouTube banned in 2018. The family continues to post on YouTube under The Martin Family.
Pepper and the Martin family did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
YouTube finally banned dangerous pranks in 2019, updating its policies to prohibit “pranks with a perceived danger of serious injury” and “pranks that make victims believe they are in serious physical danger.”
And while online pranks continue, extreme stunts posted by creators like Sam Pepper or DaddyOFive are increasingly rare. Those still published, such as when YouTuber Marcus Dobre faked his death by suicide to “prank” his twin brother Lucas last month, are widely criticized.
The pranks going viral now, compared to those popular on YouTube and Vine five years ago, aren’t so blatantly heartless.
What makes a joke “good”?
Jonathan Wynn, a sociology professor specializing in urban culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is working on a paper with his graduate students to determine the threshold between prank and bullying. He describes pranks as “deliberate violations of social norms” that “test one’s abilities to read social interactions”.
“Part of the spark of a prank is that you’ve tricked someone into thinking something is the normal daily routine, but that’s somehow turned upside down,” Wynn said. at NBC News. “These are times when the everyday is turned upside down, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so great.”
Part of the spark of a prank is that you’ve tricked someone into thinking something is the normal daily routine, but that’s somehow turned upside down.”
-Jonathan Wynn, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
A key part of drawing the line between a good prank and ordinary hazing is to examine the power dynamic between the prankster and the subject of the prank. If the prankster inherently has more social power and privilege over the topic, such as a parent pranking a child or a group of cisgender students “joking” a trans student, then that’s “enough to raise serious concerns,” Wynn said. A good farce takes place on an equal footing. Hazing rituals – sociologists call them “degradation ceremonies” – that strip a subject of their identity, such as forcing someone to shave their head, are not fair pranks.
Internet culture may move away from this style of prank as people become more aware of power structures in society. As social movements like the Me Too movement or the Black Lives Matter protests further educate online communities about real-life power dynamics, the appetite for vulgar prank videos has waned.
Online pranks aren’t extinct, though – the genre is changing.
Reid Hailey, who runs the Instagram meme account shitheadsteve and is CEO of the Doing Things Media brand, said pranks are always fun when they show real reactions.
“I think pranks are okay as long as the person being pranked isn’t physically hurt or bullied,” Hailey told NBC News. “An example of a good prank: horn in the backswing of a golf swing. We have found that these types of content related to light pranks are always popular among the public.
Now the internet is less tolerant of cruel and heinous pranks.
Earlier this week, TikTok creator Fred Beyer posted a video “viciously screaming” in a public restroom, only to be confronted and ultimately kicked out by an employee. The video has 1.2 million likes, but commenters berated Beyer.
“Why bother a company? It’s not funny,” one commenter said. Another commented: “There’s no way anyone will find this funny.”
Online prank is still thriving online, as long as there is a limit to the discomfort inflicted on the topic of prank. In a viral prank circulating on TikTok, women apply pressure nail extensions to their toes and ask distracted loved ones to rub their feet, horrifying them with claw-like nails. In another prank that went viral throughout 2020, TikTok users bit uncooked pasta as an unsuspecting subject massaged his neck and back, producing a jarring cracking sound to scare the topic.
“It’s funny for the viewer and for the two people involved,” Gendrich said, comparing the second type of online prank to the screaming video. “It does not diminish the person who is trapped. The poor guy working the place in the video has no real power, and as far as we know has done nothing wrong, but is being “punished”. Why is this supposed to be funny?
She added that in the second type of joke video, the viewer is aware of the joke and the subject quickly realizes that it is a joke.
“The girl owns the prank at the end of video 2, while the howler in video 1 is actually cowardly owning her own behavior,” Gendrich continued. “Which just makes him look like a privileged idiot.”
Pranks as political theater
The pranks that really flourish online today are those that stalk political establishments as a form of social activism. Like the guerrilla theater that Abbie Hoffman performed on the stock market in 1967, online communities are protesting digitally with “good” pranks.
At the height of the 2020 presidential campaign, TikTok users trolled former President Donald Trump into booking tickets to his rally in Tulsa scheduled for June 19, only to never show up. More than 800,000 people have booked tickets to a 19,000-seat stadium, according to campaign manager Brad Parscale. The Tulsa Fire Department estimated that about 6,200 people were actually present. Trump was “furious” at the “disappointing” crowd, NBC News later reported.
“In an absurd way, making jokes to them is exceptional political theater and really powerful social action.
sociologist jonathan wynn
In the same month, as mass protests over the death of George Floyd unfolded across the country, law enforcement ‘snitch’ lines were flooded with videos of police brutality against protesters, vulgar memes and videos of K-pop stars known as fancams.
TikTok and Twitter users also protested Texas’ restrictive anti-abortion laws last year by bombarding an anonymous advice site, intended to report abortion providers and anyone who has had an abortion, with porn. Shrek.
“It’s a form of political action,” Wynn said. “In an absurd way, making jokes to them is exceptional political theater and really powerful social action. You can certainly flood a mundane reading hotline, like a chapter of “Moby Dick”, but…we wouldn’t know, maybe if it weren’t so spectacular. And again, it’s a split foot. So if it was the other way around, it couldn’t be done.
“Jackass Forever” will probably be well received by an audience always amused by profane and burlesque humor. But that kind of prank is fleeting online, giving way to a more neutral – and maybe even good – era of pranks.