Thanks, but no pranks

Simon Lipson regrets ever doing wind-up comedy

Nobody could fail to be moved by the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, the victim of a prank call by a couple of Australian radio presenters last week. Of course we don't yet know the full circumstances surrounding her apparent suicide, and those jumping to the lazy conclusion that it was directly and solely triggered by the call need to hold their fire and ire. I think most of us would agree that, even if there was a causal link, it couldn't possibly have been anticipated. Whatever your take on pranking, causing serious harm to the victim is rarely, if ever, the intention.

This story chimed with me because, about 18 months ago, my agent at the time put me up for a new TV prank show. I'd been a stand-up and impressionist for years, with plenty of TV and radio credits, but I'd only rarely strayed into improv, possibly the most crucial technical skill required of any prankster. I went for the job to demonstrate willingness to my agent with whom I had a slightly difficult relationship. It was not a job I was interested in, or thought I was right for.

I find prank shows unfunny and pointless, but I accept that they are popular and have a place in the entertainment firmament. I have, in the past, pranked a number of famous people for a Radio 5 Live show, something I did under sufferance and which caused alarm and anger among some of the victims. One well-known sports pundit, suddenly realising he'd been recorded the previous day, lost his temper when he appeared on the live show on which we were going to play the tape. He threatened to sue everyone and go straight to the Director-General. We didn't play it. I'm no fan of his, but I had some sympathy with the man. Had we played it, people might have seen him in a different light.

Anyway, back to the TV show. I went up for an audition and did better than I'd expected. For whatever reason, I was on song, ad libbing and reacting amusingly to the tasks the producers set me. I was called back a few days later, one of only two. I was clearly in the running but I already knew I wouldn't take the gig despite the fact that it paid ridiculously well. I'm naturally shy, don't like talking to strangers and hate embarrassing myself and others. I told my agent that it wasn't for me but she felt that, at the very least, it might do me some good to impress the production company.

The second audition involved going into the West End in the teeming piss and trying some pranks for real. A camera crew set up in a pub across the street and the producer picked out my victims. My job was to persuade each of them that I was ever so grateful for their help in giving me directions, then hug them, praise them, befriend them and take a picture of the pair of us.

I was shaking long before my first 'mark' was pointed out. Reader, I did my best, but it was horrific. A prankster has to go in cold, focused and oblivious to shame. All I felt was pity for my victims and embarrassment for myself. After the second one, the rain got too heavy, giving me a chance to call my wife and tell her I wanted out there and then. She persuaded me to go on with it solely on the grounds of professionalism. So I did, hating every moment, praying that each victim would be the last. It seemed to go on for ages, but was probably over inside half an hour.

I tried to rationalise that, though ghastly, if I were offered the job it would give me terrific exposure, allow me to demonstrate my skills with accents, characters and even improv and offer me a platform for further and better TV work. My agent – understandably - reiterated how lucrative it could be. But I knew nothing could make me take it

Luckily, I wasn't offered the job; doubtless my discomfort was evident when they reviewed the video. Or perhaps they realised I was just shit at it.

I should stress that I'm not taking the moral high ground here. Other comics have, and will, continue do this kind of work quite happily, but for me it's anathema. I'm not built for it. It makes me uncomfortable and, having seen its effect at first hand, it makes the victims squirm too.

My guess is that most of those who give their consent for their embarrassment to be aired do so because it might be their first and only brush with TV. I can only say that it might seem glamorous and exciting at the time, but no one remembers the victim, only the fleeting fool they've become for national consumption.

Published: 13 Dec 2012

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