Everybody knows the extent to which hidden camera prank shows exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jackass exploded onto the scene just as the new millennium did, and it wasn’t long before their controversial and outrageous pranks (though, usually conducted on each other rather than the public) grew a huge amount of notoriety and brought both fame and fortune to these daring stuntmen and creators who were using cheap digital camcorders and often simply hanging out with their friends and having fun. Needless to say, the idea of hanging out with friends and having fun whilst becoming the biggest stars in the world was appealing to many, and so it wasn’t long before a new trend was ushered in and everybody was trying to create the next big thing in prank shows. There was very quickly a huge amount of TV shows of groups of friends doing pranks on each other and on the public, and whilst none caught on quite like Jackass did, the appeal to audiences for this new type of show was evident in the numbers.
The transition to movies was an obvious one to make. In 2002, Jackass made their first feature length film – a collection of pranks and other mishaps that gradually snowballed into progressively crazier pranks until a big finale. Due to the ridiculously low budget and its contrast with the excessive scale of some of these pranks, the first Jackass movie proved incredibly lucrative and audiences loved it. Jackass would go on to become a trilogy, inspiring many other voices to start working on their own versions of similar shows and movies.
The most notable of all of these may be Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant Borat (2006), a film that mixed Cohen’s political ventures with his comic characters (he was long famous by 2006, largely due to Ali G., making Cohen’s seamless transformation into the quirky resident of Kazakhstan all the more impressive). Borat was also very low budget, and therefore extremely lucrative as the controversy created by these hidden camera prank films was massive.
Unfortunately, after this there seemed to be a rough drought. Borat’s follow up, the highly anticipated Bruno, flopped, seemingly due to Cohen’s choice to focus on a gay character. Audiences just didn’t react in the same way, claiming that the film went too far or that it simply wasn’t entertaining. This may be due to the fact that audiences felt that they had seen it all with Borat, but Bruno is a very different film in many ways, so it’s hard to say exactly – but many were offended by Cohen’s choice to focus on a gay character in such a mocking film. Between the failure of Bruno and the controversy created by the infamous Bumfights trilogy, another lo-fi group of friends who took to the streets and paid homeless people to do whatever they were told, including sometimes being set on fire and being forced into fighting one another, culminating in a court case that saw many of the members go to prison (and inspired other groups, such as the 311 Boys, to commit acts in the name of ‘pranks’ that saw them end up in prison on attempted murder charges… yikes), the death of hidden camera and lo-fi comedy seemed to fizzle out just as quickly as it had burst onto the scene, proving itself to be nothing more than a fad.
That is, however, until more recently. Jackass’ producers came together in 2013 and created Bad Grandpa, an outrageous but never truly offensive rebranding that was a huge success because of the way that it merged the hidden camera pranks with an overarching narrative that was just as entertaining as the pranks themselves. Adult Swim’s Impractical Jokers also played a huge part in bringing the idea of hidden camera pranks back by making them less outright extreme and offensive and focusing on making them into a game that only really had ‘negative’ impacts on one another. Prank shows were back, and because of this shift in focus from making fools of the public and often working illegally towards simply having fun with the producers of the show just as it started with Jackass, playing more innocent pranks than before, they were causing much less controversy but still pulling in plenty of viewers.
Eric Andre, also largely of Adult Swim fame, has clearly been taking notes, and just this year Adult Swim has seen two movies released that use the format. The Impractical Jokers movie tried to effectively play out as an extended episode of their TV show with a small narrative placed in-between the pranks to flesh out the runtime a little and add to the general warmth of the film, but Eric Andre’s Bad Trip added a little more sophisticated edge, with a deeper narrative (as well as one that made the pranks a direct part of the narrative, as opposed to a side story), making maybe the best hidden camera prank film to date thanks to the sheer audacity of the pranks (one involving a Gorilla is extreme to say the least, but the way it is handled makes it incredibly funny) but also thanks to the story that holds it all together at the centre. Andre’s consistent trait for making use of plenty of surrealism works perfectly when contrasted with the very real look that comes from the use of lower quality digital cameras during the pranks, and the real reactions of people to these surreal and clearly oddball situations only adds to the comedy of the pranks themselves.
By mixing the surreal and the real as this film does, it becomes something of a satire on how people will believe most anything they see. And luckily for the film, many of the reactions make points about how we live now by themselves, such as during many of the more outrageous pranks when most people simply pull out their phones and get to recording various tragedies under the guise of going viral, or when people are more than happy to agree to do something and soon switch just as soon as the person who told them what to do leaves. Director Kitao Sakurai seemed to know exactly when and where to place his camera to get the right laughs as well as the right reactions.
The film’s narrative also has a strong point to make regarding films themselves and how they effect the audience’s view of reality (I’ve said it before regarding other films, but – Baudrillard would be proud). The narrative at the centre revolves around the adventure of Eric Andre leaving his repetitive life with his friend in pursuit of his high school crush Maria, and as much as his surrealist sensibilities lend themselves to this idea as a whole and push the audience into blindly following and going along with it, it is the way that other people in the film react that solidify this as a pretty remarkable point made about the effects of films and how they cultivate viewers to believe in certain things. For example, when Eric Andre speaks to an old man on a bench and describes his feelings, the man tells him to ditch his job and his entire current life in pursuit of a woman who he has only met once in a decade, clearly following a cliche and unrealistic film set up, but nonetheless the advice all centres around forgiving these impossibilities in the name of naiveté for love.
Andre’s performance is just masterful, too, as it sees him juggle the task of convincing these real people of his emotions and his story whilst also having to play everything up in the name of keeping the entertainment going. Tiffany Haddish gives a surprisingly good turn as Trina, a prison escapee chasing after Andre and Bud (LilRel Howery) after finding out that they’ve stolen her car to go on their escapade.
Overall, it is mostly Andre’s chosen focus on crime and on emotion in his pranks that really makes this film stand out as a grade above what has preceded it, with the pranks often functioning as a facade for Andre’s more sociopolitical gags that have a range of focuses, all somehow gathered together from the genuine reactions of random people. Bad Trip marks an exciting shift in the hidden camera film, and the genre seems to have landed back in full force thanks to these Adult Swim stars.
Oh, and it’s REALLY funny, too.