The art of pranking: From The Chaser to Balls of Steel
The Chaser was responsible for some fine political mischief.
Most notoriously, its prankster cast exposed the absurdity of overly conspicuous (yet underly effective) security when their fake motorcade breached the restricted zone in the heart of fortress Sydney during the 2007 APEC summit.
One of the show’s cast, Craig Reucassel, is now hosting an Australian remake of the UK stunt show Balls of Steel. Screening on the Comedy Channel, it features a series of characters who compete to out-prank unwitting members of the public.
Nude Girl strips while taking tennis lessons, the Bunny Boiler cracks onto men in front of their girlfriends and a bloke called Neg (shipped in from the UK edition) engages in urban sports such as throwing hot chips on people so they get Hitchcocked by seagulls.
If it sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. And the fact that the show bills itself as stupid does not make it any less stupid.
Balls of Steel does, however, do one thing very well. It shows how not to perform the prank – and, by extension, how not to perform the hoax (the prank’s more devious older sibling).
A brief look backwards reveals that pranks have a long history, and that a quality hoax is a thing of terrible beauty.
In 1938 in the US, Orson Welles spooked alien-phobic members of the public when he gravely announced a Martian invasion on prime time radio. (As it turned out, he was simply narrating The War of the Worlds.)
Six years later in Australia, publisher Max Harris and his modernist magazine Angry Penguins were hoaxed by James McAuley and Harold Stewart who submitted patently absurd poetry as the fictitious poet Ern Malley. (Anyone for a “deft pentacle”?).
More recently, the Republican governor of Wisconsin joked about Democrat-crushing with a phone caller he thought was one of his billionaire backers. (It was actually the editor of a website called The Beast).
Literature is also home to some uncomfortably stunning pranks. In addition to children’s classics such as The Emperor’s New Clothes, there’s Terry Southern’s cult 1959 novel The Magic Christian in which an eccentric billionaire called Guy Grand devotes himself to “making it hot for people”.
Grand buys newspaper empires and randomly replaces words in the copy with French; enters a puma into the Best of Breeds at a dog show; markets a deodorant containing a delayed action stench bomb; and inserts subliminal amputee erotica into a sensitive art house film.
The highlight of his vast comic CV, however, is the time he pays two world championship boxers to throw a title fight in a flamboyantly effeminate manner.
“The Champ and the challenger capered out from their corners with a saucy mincing step,” Southern writes. “[D]uring the first cagey exchange – which on the part of each was like nothing so much as a young girl striking at a wasp with her left hand… [they] uttered little cries of surprise and disdain.
“Then Texas Powell took the fight to the Champ, closed haughtily, and engaged him with a pesky windmill flurry which soon had the Champ covering up frantically.”
The latter eventually drops to the canvas in a sobbing tantrum crying “I can’t stand it” while the head-tossing victor eyes the ref in a saucy fashion. A number of fight fans find the spectacle so abhorrent, they black out.
Similar – though non-fictional – vapours have been experienced by many cultural studies scholars in the continuing aftermath of what has become known the Sokal affair.
In 1996, New York physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a parody essay to an academic journal specialising in postmodern cultural studies.
It suggested quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct, and accused natural scientists of clinging to the dogma that there existed an external world, knowledge about which could be unearthed through “objective” procedures prescribed by “the (so-called) scientific method”.
Sokal says he submitted the article because he’d been wondering whether his failure to make sense of postmodern terms reflected a decline in the academic rigour of the humanities or simply his own inadequacies.
“So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment,” he explained later.
“Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies… publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”
The answer, embarrassingly enough, turned out to be yes. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in a special Science Wars edition in the Spring/Summer edition of Social Text in 1996.
As all academic hell broke loose, Sokal made the wry observation that anyone who really believed the laws of physics were mere social conventions might like to try transgressing them from the windows of his 21st floor apartment.
It seems a reasonable invitation. Less reasonable, however, is the tacit conceit (and unresolvable paradox) at the heart of even the most brilliantly executed hoax: namely, that lying is required to tell the truth.
Sokal’s hoax was beautiful because of its revelations: it raised important questions about postmodern theory, academic publishing, interdisciplinarianism and the evacuation of meaning which can result from any mis- or over-use of jargon.
But it was terrible because of its deceit: the physicist used his CV to trick the editors of Social Text into thinking his essay was written in good faith.
“All of us were distressed at the deceptive means by which Sokal chose to make his point,” the three editors of the journal said afterwards. “This breach of ethics is a serious matter in any scholarly community, and has damaging consequences when it occurs in science publishing.”
While the trio were obviously defensive at being duped by the sophisticate’s equivalent of camera candid, the points they raise about the propriety of hoaxes are important ones.
If the beauty of a hoax is ever to have any hope of transcending its terror, the illegitimacies of its methods must be redeemed by the loftiness of its purpose. In other words, the end must justify the means.
For my money, Balls of Steel fails this test because its methods are low, and its big reveal is that most humans prefer not to be ridiculed and exploited.
So, people are discombobulated when their partners get hit on, when strangers unexpectedly disrobe or when they are beaked by hungry seabirds. Who would have guessed?
Given this show’s emphasis on the humiliation of its targets (rather than the temerity of its cast), my view is that what we’re actually witnessing here are not balls of steel but livers of lily.
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