The Strange Phenomenon of Just For Laughs’ Canadian Prank Series
Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.
The thing about those ESPN 30 for 30s is every one is pretty much the best one. Ask anyone to name their one favorite, and instead of answering decisively, they’ll rattle off five or six and insist that they just can’t choose. But there is one that I found especially interesting: June 17, 1994.
June 17, 1994 is the film (by The Kid Stays in the Picture director Brett Morgan) put together completely of existing TV footage from the day O.J. Simpson was arrested. So you have baseball announcers calling a game while they look at the O.J. news in the background and talk about it, etc. I thought this was such a cool concept for a film because you could basically do it about any news story with a profile high enough to breach the sports world — or the network news world, or the shock jock radio world (imagine a supercut of every drive time morning radio show reacting to 9/11), or even this would-be Kanye concert reconstructed using cell phone footage.
There’s even a movie somewhat like this, Mike D’s 2006 concert documentary Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!, which kind of tries to force this same idea. But what if there was some event that is big enough that people would find it interesting and media savvy enough that attendees would be voluntarily documenting it enough to gather an actual narrative? Something like SxSW or, in the case of comedy, the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival? Would there be enough existing footage of any one show there that you can put together a kind of concert film of it?
But as so often happens online, while I was searching for this answer I found a much better one I didn’t even know I wanted: the crazy French Canadian prank show Just For Laughs: Gags created by the very French sounding Pierre Girard and Jacques Chevalier.
I will not claim to know much about French Canadian culture broadly speaking, but it is obviously some variation of Canadian culture. Bruce McCall had this to say about Canadian humor in a 2013 Vanity Fair Article:
Canada’s history lacks the violent frontier mythology that continues to fuel the folk hoax of rugged individualism so central to the American identity. Rather, Canadian society was carefully devised to run on the oiled ball bearings of amity and cooperation, ensuring a near-Scandinavian calm.
And as for the French, I know one thing about French comedy: they love Jerry Lewis. What does that mean? I don’t know. They like guys who make noises and are kind of mean underneath I guess? Who knows.
But when we mix in that French ingredient to the standard laid-back Canadian temperament, you get this:
Note that the first prank here is two prank cops pulling drivers over to show them the funny tricks they can do with their guns, including dropping the gun and shooting someone. The official website explains:
This crazy Quebec-based troupe uses the city as its stage, and its inhabitants, or victims, as characters! People are caught in a twisted yet funny web of comedic deception. This updated Candid Camera is a tad more risque and a little kookier with its practical jokes. The little snippets last only a few minutes, and some look more painful than others.
Risque indeed. Here is a whole video of “Boob Pranks”:
There are also compilation videos grouped as “Grocery store pranks,” “Wild animal pranks,” “Jesus pranks,” “elevator pranks,” “Homeless people pranks,” etc. All the primary colors of prank videos.
Conveniently, there is no dialogue in any of their videos, only a light piano score and laugh track. Chaplin scholars will know that this allows the pranks to be universal, as choosing a single language for your character to speak necessarily limits his appeal to some group. Indeed, the first time Chaplin’s voice was heard on film it was this song from Modern Times, sung in gibberish:
Apparently people liked it. The whole trick of Chaplin was that he managed to keep his universal appeal intact long enough to make The Great Dictator and before it tapered off as dialogue became standard in movies.
Is that universal appeal still intact in this case of choosing to not use dialogue? Well no, not entirely, but it’s still definitely worth watching. I mean like anything, a lot of these pranks are really funny, a lot of them totally miss, some are just kinda blah. But what is interesting to me is that they are all so firmly rooted in this culture that is entirely alien to me (and you probably), but just as enthusiastic about being silly. Too enthusiastic possibly. So even when these do work, you get a kind of an uncanny “broken clock right twice a day” feeling.
As Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” But would we think its lion jokes are funny? The dead baby jokes about how it eats its cubs when there’s not enough food? What if it was making a really funny face when it told it?
Also: to all comedians packing your bags to move to Canada, make a note that here may be a good employment opportunity.