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Pranks - Can a Prank Call Result in Tragedy?

Updated on February 11, 2013

King of the Radio Pranksters

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Prank calls and phony interviews by TV or radio personalities have a long lineage. The idea is simple. The caller places a call or interviews an unsuspecting person and we the audience get let in on a joke, and the joke is on the unsuspecting interviewee or call receiver. The result is usually funny because the comedic elements are all in place. We know what the interviewer is up to and we know that the target is unaware. it can be good clean fun, and often is. The laws vary across the world but where a victim's permission is required to air the prank, little harm can be done.

Peter Funt Describes the Show His Father Started

Candid Camera - A TV Show Based on Pranks

Candid Camera was and remains the icon of TV prank shows. The show was created by producer Alan Funt as a radio show in 1947 and switched to a TV format in 1948. Funt suffered a stroke in 1993 and the show continued with his son Peter as producer and host. The last show was broadcast in 2004. The idea behind the show was to confront unsuspecting people with an odd situation, and then spring the truth on them by the host saying: "Smile, you're on Candid Camera." It was all in good fun and its 57 years on television proves its popularity.

Stern Impersonates Letterman

Howard Stern - The Shock Jock Relishes Pranks

Radio personality Howard Stern prides himself by shocking the audience and often does so with prank calls. Good taste was never a consideration for Stern, but rather it was something to be avoided. A few years ago he made numerous phone calls to McDonalds stores warning them to stock up on extra food because a "big fat woman" (Elizabeth Taylor) was coming to town. Pranks are a primary driver of the Howard Stern phenomenon.

David Letterman - Late Night Prankster

Late night talk show host David Letterman is a lover of pranks and the prank call. Whether calling local stores to place crazy orders or playing pranks on his guests, Letterman is a master of the prank. In the video to the right, Letterman portrays an order taker at Taco Bell to hilarious results.

Famous people are often the targets for pranks. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth spent over 15 minutes talking to a person she thought was the Prime Minister of Canada, when she was actually talking to a Canadian radio show host and impressionist. Fidel Castro spent time on the phone with a Miami radio personality who he was duped into believing was Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Fidel was not pleased. The only defense to a good impressionist is a careful call screening protocol. But they do get through, often with humorous results.

Can a Prank go Wrong? - The Sad Suicide of Jacintha Saldanha

In what has become the most reported story about a prank in history, a person is alleged to have committed suicide as a result of being duped by a radio show prank call. Michael Christian and his female co-host Mel Greig. Greig, imitating Queen Elizabeth, called the hospital where her daughter-in-law Princess Kate Middleton was being treated for complications of pregnancy. The phone was answered by nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who handed the call off to the Princess's private nurse. The private nurse provided information on Kate Middleton's condition, believing the caller to be the Queen. Nurse Saldanah's body was found hanged three days later. She was 46 years old. The exact time of death has yet to be determined. Although she left a suicide note for her family it has not been determined if she mentioned the prank in the note. According to her husband and children they had no idea that she had been involved in the prank call. The worldwide media launched a conclusory avalanche of stories that blamed the suicide on the prank call. Christian and Greig have been suspended from their duties at the radio station. They both have gone public with expressions of sadness and sympathy for Nurse Saldanah's family.

Pranks can be clumsy, inappropriate and cruel. Does this prank fit that bill? What do we know and what don't we know? What we know are the simple facts. The deejays made a prank call and it worked. A few days later one of the victims of the crank call committed suicide. That's what we know. What we don't know is a history of the poor woman's mental health, which will eventually come out. We don't have any evidence that the call pushed her over the edge. Could the prank call have been totally irrelevant to the suicide? Even if the poor woman was so distraught over being duped, and we may never know this, could her upset been foreseeable? It was a tragedy, as is almost every suicide. But was the tragedy caused by what appears to be a harmless prank?

We live in a world of blame. When a sad event occurs we want answers. We modern humans are becoming hard wired to find a villain, a cause, somebody we can pin it on. Sigmund Freud, nodding to the limits of psychoanalysis, is reputed to have once said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy.

Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran

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    • Johny Edu profile image

      Johny Edu 3 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      I think that people shall be more careful when placing a prank call...when I want to keep it safe I am using automated / pre-recorded prank calls on https://myphonerobot.com where nothing could go that wrong...

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Yes, Stern does bend the envelope from funny to tasteless quite easily.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Some of these pranks are in extremely poor taste. Such as the case when low-life Howard Stern found humor in contacting a major nes station during the Columbine tragedy.

      Although some are well thought out and harmless as well as great fun, individuals such as Howard Stern have taken advantage of far too many tragedies for them to continue in good faith. This was one reason he was banned and is now on Sirius radio.

      The prank call to Kate Middleton seems harmless and I often wonder, as you have stated - what the poor ladies state of mind was at the time.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comment Emma.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. As we learn more about this I will update my Hub if necessary, but I am still at a loss to see how this harmless prank could have foreseeably led to a death.

    • Emma Harvey profile image

      Emma Harvey 4 years ago from Berkshire, UK

      Great topic, especially at this time of tragedy. I guess some pranks work and some go a little too far.

      Voting up.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice job Russ! You mentioned a tragedy for sure but still, there is so much we don't know about that situation. We all grew up with pranks and never saw the possibility of danger in them. These are changing times indeed my friend.