Most people call it “teasing” or “practical jokes” — I call it “antagonism” or, in some cases, “emotional abuse.” I’ve been called “too sensitive” and “uptight” for my stance on pranks, and told I need to relax or “lighten up.” But I stand by my opinion on this. I really, totally, unapologetically hate pranks that depend on a person feeling intensely distressed in order for the “joke” to work.
So, whether it’s Ashton Kutcher’s early 2000s MTV show, “Punk’d,” elaborate April Fools’ jokes, those prank phone call segments radio stations still play sometimes, or just teasing someone about a personality trait you find funny — I hate all of it.
I can remember as a young teen sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s car and listening as the local radio station DJ would call some poor unsuspecting guy and pose as, for example, the doctor’s office calling to let him know his wife was pregnant — even though he, her husband, had gotten a vasectomy — leading the guy to believe his wife had cheated on him. Or they’d pretend they were the manager at a local strip club and were wanting to know why his underage daughter hadn’t shown up for her shift at work the night before.
Without fail, the DJ would stay with the joke long enough that the person they’d called would become enraged, often literally panting with fury or even outright screaming and cursing into the phone. Sometimes the person would even start crying.
Every time I heard one of these calls, my heart rate would go up in sympathy. Am I the only one who doesn’t think this is funny? I’d wonder. All I felt was empathy for the victim of the prank. Even when the prank was meant to teach the person a lesson — for example, the man had been irrationally suspicious of his wife or obsessively protective of his teenage daughter — I still felt awful for the person.
In the end, they’d often laugh with relief once the DJ finally revealed to them it was all a joke, don’t worry bro, LOL, your wife isn’t actually pregnant with another man’s baby, haha so funny. But oftentimes they’d just hang up, obviously furious they’d been played for a fool.
I didn’t watch many Punk’d episodes because they gave me the same icky feeling. And though I’m not opposed to lighthearted April Fools’ jokes, I don’t like the ones that depend on someone’s humiliation or misery in order to get a laugh.
I even hate the casual teasing that people sometimes engage in where you try to “trick” someone into believing something awful even for a few minutes, and you keep pushing them and pushing them even as they voice their incredulity, and only once you’ve finally convinced them of the lie and they’ve given in, you laugh and tell them it was a “joke” the whole time. Their pet escaped and can’t be found; their usually high-achieving kid got three Fs on their report card; they’re being audited by the IRS. LOL, just kidding!
Sorry, why are any of these funny?
I hate this. I hate the idea of embarrassing someone or making someone frustrated or angry or sad for laughs. I even hate criticizing someone and then telling them it’s a joke. Antagonizing someone until they snap at you or become angry and then telling them they need to “lighten up” is not teasing — it’s gaslighting.
Despite all this, and despite the various instances in my life when I’ve been labeled as “no fun” or “uptight” because I have zero interest in participating in making a sport of other people’s discomfort, I actually don’t consider myself a spoilsport at all. My partner gently and affectionately teases me and I never take offense. My kids and I will sometimes tell each other something unpleasant to get a reaction but immediately laugh and say “kidding!” — before the other person is in real distress. For example, my son was hovering between a B and an A for one of his classes and really trying to get an A. When his school sent me the final grade alert via email, I told my son he’d gotten a B, but the moment his face started to register the lie, I immediately said I was joking and told him how proud I was of his hard work. He plays similar small pranks on me.
None of us get upset about our harmless pranks because we know the difference between affectionate teasing and mean-spirited barbs. We know the difference between antagonizing someone just to get a rise out of them and just playing around. We read each other’s moods and know when it’s not a good time to tease. We know when to back off.
And, to be fair, I do recognize that some people have an unspoken or even explicit contract within their family or social circles that when it comes to pranks, all’s fair, you’d better be constantly watching your back, and everyone is in on it and in agreement that this is fun. In this case — because consent — have at it. Prank away. Fuck with each other’s cortisol levels to your collective hearts’ content. None of my business.
For me though, if you try to prank me knowing full well I don’t like pranks, I will not take it well. I promise neither of us will enjoy the experience. You may even get cut out of my life. Consent matters, and making someone feel bad in order to entertain yourself is a shitty thing to do, full stop. If that makes me an uptight stick in the mud, make a sign about it and tape it to my back when I’m not looking. Just don’t expect me to continue talking to you afterward.
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