From the family of quintessential pranksters comes an opinion piece about the royal prank heard round the word. Peter Funt, the son of Candid Camera's Allen Funt, says the difference today is that everything is magnified and made permanent in the digital environment.
By Peter Funt
The New York Times Syndicate
I’ve pranked several thousand people, although I never favored that term. Much of my career was spent doing hidden-camera stunts on “Candid Camera,” following a path charted for decades by my father, Allen Funt. We always worried about what might go wrong, particularly involving the physical and emotional health of unsuspecting subjects. Our gags were relatively tame, and we sought to find greater social meaning in each sequence. Our track record was pretty good. Still, we had our share of critics.
Tens of millions heard, or heard about, the telephone gag conducted last week by two Australian radio hosts, who called a hospital in London pretending to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Despite their admittedly awful attempts at British accents, they were transferred to a nurse caring for the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, who was hospitalized with severe morning sickness.
The joke seemed harmless, until a few days later when news came that the nurse who took the call, Jacintha Saldanha, was dead, a possible suicide.
This tragic turn will undoubtedly prompt debate about practical joking in the digital age, when everything is magnified by the potential for viral distribution.
The practical joking itself – usually on video – has intensified in both volume and crudeness. This is in part a result of desensitizing among viewers, for whom the barrage of clips becomes so overwhelming that it’s easy to lose track of the inherent risks involved. People in flash videos are sometimes thought of almost as avatars or digital creations, rather than actual human beings, whose feelings and health are always potentially in jeopardy.
The facts are still not fully clear in the case of the nurse’s death, but it seems that once again the medium is more to blame than the message. A phone prank confined to those directly involved in the call is not likely to cause much stress. Even a radio broadcast heard only in Australia would not seem too damaging for a “victim” in Britain. But a viral prank that flashes around the globe on radio, TV, the Internet and newspapers can make even a silly joke seem to carry the weight of the world.
The very morning that the news came from London, NBC’s “Today” show was replaying for the umpteenth time a clip from Brazil in which people in an elevator were frightened by the unexpected appearance of a ghostly figure – actually a prankster who entered through a secret door. The video, which has established a record for views worldwide, has no shred of comedic content beyond the screams, tears and shocked expressions of those caught unawares. If ever a prank posed health risks for its victims, this would seem to be it. But the NBC hosts hooted with laughter.
In my view, the Australian DJs did nothing wrong other than attempt a sophomoric gag that had an awful, but unpredictable, consequence. Yet everything is magnified and made permanent in the digital environment.
Pranksters must always be accountable for their actions, but in the digital age the burden of responsibility also lies with those who use the echo chamber to amplify things to the point of distortion and stress. Unless we’re careful, the joke is on us.
New York Times News Service