Why do people think this is funny?

I am not a fan of practical jokes in general because they tend to have an underlying mean streak that finds humor in unsettling, upsetting, or even frightening the targeted person. Perhaps among close friends practical jokes are marginally acceptable though if I had a friend who was a regular practical joker, they would not be my friend for long. I like to take people at face value and having to always second-guess the actions of someone else would get old very soon.

Practical jokes played on major public figures or corporations can have some justification if the intent is not any of the above but to make an important point. But it is inexcusable for these practical jokes to be done against strangers who are just ordinary people. In the past I have railed against people who play pranks that take advantage of the kindness of strangers, such as pretending to have an accident and then having an accomplice secretly record the concerned reaction and assistance offered by bystanders. This is disgusting behavior and I fail to see any humor in it.

I came across another variation, this time targeting shop assistants, where people try on valuable merchandise such as jewelry and then run towards the front of the store, causing the assistant to chase after them. Then near the exit the ‘thief’ stops and examines another item of merchandise, causing the assistant to look foolish and act as if nothing had happened, for fear of not offending the customer by having thought them to be a crook. Of course, an accomplice records the whole thing and posts it on the internet. This article describes this practice but I am not going to link to the video itself to avoid giving the poster the traffic they seek.

Why is embarrassing a total stranger who was just doing their job considered funny? To my mind, all it shows is meanness.


  1. says

    From 1984, O’Brien explains:

    ‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

    Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

    ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?

  2. lorn says

    Suffering, exactly.
    And the boss suffers so his boss knows he, more often than not a he, has control, And on up the chain to the top.

    Where the leader both makes himself suffer to demonstrate control to himself and lives in fear of someone taking his money, power, and/or control away.

    Before discounting the self-imposed suffering think about how many people on top resent having to suffer to get where they are, and how they use that as an excuse to justify making others suffer. Hazing and initiation. Rigorous training and paying your dues.

    As a reference point consider the many papers on baboon societies where leader rule by intimidation and bullying but, as a natural consequence, are riddled with health destroying fear and anxiety. The entire social system seemingly optimized to maximize suffering. Contrast with the bonobo system, optimized for cooperation and pleasure. Contemplate in the light that humans can, if we are willing to exert the resources, structure the society any way we want.

  3. lanir says

    I personally like being surprised by people I care about. If it shocks me that’s perfectly fine. But for any humor and enjoyment to come out of it, there has to be an immediate opportunity for all involved to laugh with each other rather than at each other. Usually this is more like teasing than practical jokes, although I guess you could do this once in awhile. But to do it with the end result I described would take a rather clever person.

    To put it another way, unless you’re just being an ass, I think a joke where you seem to act against someone should showcase the trust you have in each other and reward both parties with humor. This is hard to do. I think just acting like a jerk to random people and calling it a joke is disingenuous. The “joke” is nothing but a fabrication, an excuse.

  4. says

    Unfortunately YouTube and people’s desire to have their videos go viral have taken “prank” videos to more and more extreme and distasteful directions. The word has lost all meaning. There was (and may still be a thing) where kids are “pranking” their parents by spending a lot of their parents’ money on Fortnight and recording it -- https://kotaku.com/kids-on-youtube-keep-making-videos-about-scamming-fortn-1826274326 -- apparently theft is a prank now.

    Then there is the SWATting “prank” that has gotten people killed.

  5. mnb0 says

    Generally speaking I totally agree, especially on the candid camera aspect, but I also know of one exception. Dutch comedian Theo Maassen pretended to be a beggar and when two cityguards tried to stop him the result was hilarious, exactly because the bombastic guard was on the receiving end.
    Of course such a prank requires courage and strong nerves. Fortunately YouTube has a sample with English subtitles.



    @2: the reputation of the verbal guard is harmed.

  6. bargearse says

    Australian Comedy group The Chaser (who can be very funny) did a particularly poorly thought out variation of this. One of them would enter various stores and attempt to purchase something while wearing a stocking over their head and face, the result was abject terror on the part of multiple shop clerks. I always thought that if they tried something like that in someplace with more firearms like the US the end result would be tragic.

    A practical joke I did find funny was one that was played on me and flatmate many years ago. While young and drunk we thought it would be funny to go to a friend’s house and raise the rear wheels of his car just enough so they weren’t touching the ground. Not knowing said friend had watched us the whole time we went home to sleep off our big night. I awoke the next day to find all the furniture from the lounge room set up in the front yard in the exact configuration it had occupied when inside and my flatmate sitting on the couch contemplating the fun of moving it all back. It was then we realised we were overmatched.

  7. Matt G says

    My waterfront director at Boy Scout camp 30 years ago was the victim of a couple of clever pranks. We slept in canvas tents pitched over an 8 foot square wooden platform which came as 2 4x8′ pieces. The first prank was to bring the raft in from the end of the swimming area, move the guy’s tent and possessions aboard, and moving the raft back to its usual place. The second was to do the same thing, but in the rafters of the dining hall! Good times! He pretended to be upset, but he was a lonely guy and I knew him well enough to know that he loved the attention.

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