5 Onscreen Pranks That Worked and 5 That Didn’t

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Photo Source: “Impractical Jokers” Courtesy TBS

Plato once said, “Even the Gods love jokes.” And while the philosopher was hardly known for his wacky pranks, he was right. 

But there’s a fine line between humor and humiliation, and there are several ways to keep your “fools” funny and not foolhardy. You have to set the scene, know your target (and your target’s sense of humor), get your timing right, and think about how much it might hurt if they actually slip on that banana peel. Learn from the best (and the worst) with these examples.


Think outside of the box.

“Impractical Jokers”
There are many memorable pranks from this comedic franchise, but here are two that were fearless. 

1. Sal, Murr, and Q make Joe use the bathroom and ask for toilet paper—in front of a packed coffee shop. 

2. Joe, dressed in a bikini, washes an unsuspecting person’s car. 

Make it a true surprise.

“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”
In 1983, late-night king Johnny Carson arranged to have a convincing Margaret Thatcher look-alike confront Joan Rivers about the comedian’s fairly brutal jokes about the royal family. (Thatcher was the U.K. prime minister at the time.) Rivers was completely fooled and entertained, making for a comedic moment we still remember over 40 years later. Rule of thumb: Catching someone off guard is a great ingredient in any prank. 

Choose the right bit for the right people.

Saturday Night Live” 
In a 1992 “Coffee Talk” sketch, Linda Richman (Mike Myers), her best friend Liz Rosenberg (Madonna), and Liz’s mother (Roseanne Barr) were kvelling over Barbra Streisand, their favorite celebrity. All of a sudden, Streisand appeared, which resulted in one of the most spontaneous—and funny—moments in “SNL” history. The trio’s reaction and Streisand’s clear enjoyment made this surprise like buttah.

Pick an unexpected location for the best response.

“Candid Camera”
The laugh-out-loud moments were endless on “Candid Camera,” on the original series and its later incarnations. One memorable moment showed motorists at the DMV being very surprised when host Peter Funt handed out the worst license plates imaginable. The looks on the drivers’ faces were unforgettable and showed that the DMV, often a hellish place where people are feeling vulnerable and annoyed, was the perfect place to play a joke.


Go big or go home.

The MTV stalwart defined itself by crazy and dangerous stunts and pranks. This segment featuring Bad Grandpa, aka Irving Zisman (played by Johnny Knoxville), certainly delivered on that promise. Bad Grandpa, a far cry from a sweet elderly man, did everything from using his “grandson” to pick up women to cussing in front of a bunch of horrified onlookers. The pranks were outrageous and cringe, a combination that can work well if played right.


Choose your target unwisely.

“Candid Camera”
There has always been a lot of love for the decades-long children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But when the 1998 reboot of “Candid Camera” tried to prank the kind and gentle Fred Rogers, his typically affable, nice guy response fell flat. It was an important reminder not to mess with a beloved star.

Include polarizing pranksters.

Did you know that O.J. Simpson hosted a 2006 TV special on which he played pranks on unsuspecting victims? Are you surprised no one was interested? Likability is a key ingredient for pranksters—something that was completely absent here.

Get anyone hurt.

“The Joe Schmo Show”
On Season 1 of the 2003 hoax reality series, Kristen Wiig (pre-“SNL”) appeared on nine episodes as Dr. Pat, aka the “quack marriage counselor,” and she suffered a real head injury during an onscreen sumo wrestling competition. Fortunately, she managed to return to work the next day, but there is no humor in seeing anyone harmed.

Forget to consider the potential outcomes. 

You never know how a prank will land, so be prepared for all reactions. On a 2005 episode of MTV’s hit show, a 12-year-old actor was hired to vandalize “Scrubs” star Zach Braff’s new car with spray paint while the actor was shopping in a liquor store. Ultimately, Braff caught the kid and began punching him in the stomach and screaming obscenities. Braff, of course, regretted his actions (which were edited out), but this reaction was clearly neither anticipated nor pleasant.

@kirbrovi Never forget when Zach Braff beat up Coconut Head #CoconutHead #ZachBraff #Punkd #GrahamNorton ♬ original sound - KirBroVi

Be mean-spirited. 

“Ramez in Control”
This Egyptian reality show was not aired in the United States, but its  cruelty is notable. Paris Hilton was tricked into believing she was about to die in a plane crash as part of a disturbing prank, and it’s upsetting to watch. There were stories afterward that claimed that Hilton was in on the joke, but either way, this one pushed the envelope too far.