The Soapbox: Can We Just Agree That Prank Calls Are The Worst?

There are many conversations to be had about the tragic death of Jacintha Saldanha, the King Edward VII nurse who took her own life last week, after she learned the “Queen” and “Prince Charles” that she patched through to Kate Middleton’s private ward were actually Australian radio DJs with the show 2DayFM. The pair, named Michael Christian and Mel Greig, gave an interview on the Australian show, “Today Tonight,” on which they explained that they never expected to make it all the way to Kate’s private nurse, who then told these DJs confidential medical information about the duchess’s condition. (She had been hospitalized with hyperemesis gravidarum, an acute form of morning sickness.) By their own description, the call was intended to be ridiculous: they spoke in posh British accents and barked like there were corgis in the background.  “The call itself was not malicious,” Christian said. “From start to finish, there was no harm intended.”

“The accents were terrible,” Greig explained. “You know it was designed to be stupid. We were never meant to get that far from the little corgis barking in the background – we obviously wanted it to be a joke.” Added Christian, “I suppose, you know, the joke was always on us, not anyone else. It wasn’t about trying to fool someone. I mean we just assumed that with the voices that we put on, you know, we were going to get told off and that was the gag – on us.”

The pre-recorded segment was first vetted by producers and lawyers before it aired. Although the royal family had not complained about the breach of security, Saldanha apparently could not live with herself. She allegedly took her own life in a London park on Friday morning. She is survived by her husband and two teenaged children; by all accounts, she was an excellent nurse.

We could talk about suicide prevention, warning signs for mental anguish, medical privacy, intrusion into celebs’ personal lives. I’m sure plenty of other conversations are being had on other blogs. But what I want to talk is the cruelty of radio show prank calls.

My own response to listening to radio show prank calls — sometimes on Top 40 radio while driving to work, or most often, waking up to it on an ex-boyfriend’s alarm clock — has mostly been to say, “Ugh, turn this off.” (I’ve never seen the show “Crank Yankers,” but I assume from what I know about it that it’s kinda the same schtick. I have seen a lot of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work in “Borat” and similar movies and some episodes of that stupid show on MTV, “Punk’d,” and all my criticisms apply to those programs as well.)  Pranks are junk food for your brain and your funny bone, time that I wish was being spent hearing about the news rather than being entertained by doofishness. But that’s not even my complaint: elaborate prank calls are squeamishly uncomfortable for the listener and the prank-ee alike. Pretty much all of them are intended to make the prank-ee freaked out, angry and upset because their house burned down, a bulldozer crushed their car, their husband left them for the babysitter, or their teen daughter is pregnant. You know, FUNNY STUFF! The more hysterical and bleep-ed the prank-ee gets, the “funnier” the call is supposed to be.

I’ve often wondered whether there are actors on the other end of the line. Working in the media, I figure that some people who appear on stuff like “Jerry Springer”-esque talk shows are actually paid actors because the people are simply so ridiculous that they couldn’t be real. I’ve heard snippets here and there of radio show prank calls that are real, as well as ones that are fake. It doesn’t really matter, though, whether they’re real or not. Either way, they’re conditioning the public to believe that it’s funny to be make other people upset, that anything you do to rile someone up is okay just as long as it’s a “joke” meant to be entertainment for others. I also find it telling that Greig and Christian were adamant that “no harm was intended” either to the nurse who killed herself or to the royal couple whose privacy was breached. While I do believe they are gutted and apologetic, it shows an obliviousness to accountability on their part that they seemed to have no idea they could cause harm with their behavior.

Some “jokes” are cruel. Some “jokes” have victims. There’s a juvenile streak in some humor that plays to baser impulses; causing shame in others makes you feel a little bit better by going Nah nah nah nah nah nah at someone else’s misfortune. The key word in that last sentence is juvenile: emotionally manipulating people — by, say, convincing them their car has been totalled — is the kind of immaturity you see from 7th graders bullying kids at the other lunch table. It’s not something grown-ass adults should be doing to other grown-ass adults. Being cruel to other people makes us all less trustful of each other and claiming we didn’t mean to cause harm with a “joke” is a refusal to take accountability for our actions. To me, the very fact that these kinds of prank calls exist is a sign the world today is struggling for empathy.

Look, I’m not anti-humor or even anti-teasing. Trust me, I am the youngest of five kids — I am used to being teased. But there are ways to tease people without stepping over the line. Plenty of comics have done bits where they interact with the public and try to get a reaction, whether by annoying them or making them laugh. I’m thinking of Triumph The Insult Dog, “Wonder Showzen,” and Billy Eichner (Billy On The Street). With all comics, especially the ones with puppets, it is really clear to the person being teased that it is all a joke and they sign legal releases to grant producers the right to put their face on TV. More importantly, no boundaries of trust are crossed and none of the subjects are being victimized by emotional manipulation. It’s obnoxious and “funny” (which I assume Greig and Christian intended to be), but there are no victims.

This tragedy could hopefully have been avoided if our culture were different. The Australian radio network has made a fantastic first step in canceling the 2DayFM show, banning all shows from making future prank calls, and demanding a review of policies. It’s a good start. Of course, these Australian DJs had no way of knowing they would be put through to Kate Middleton’s actual nurse and told confidential medical information. I believe them when they said they assumed they’d get hung up on (as I’m certain they often are). And the DJs certainly had no way of knowing that their actions, reckless as they were, might trigger a guilt-ridden, emotionally delicate bystander to kill herself. That avoidable tragedy is not their direct fault and as good as it may feel to excoriate these DJs, it does not help people who are at risk for suicide to heap the blame entirely upon them. I also agree to an extent that when Michael Christian and Mel Greig prank-called the duchess’s hospital, they were just “doing their jobs” — because their job is to do something repulsive. Like it or not, radio DJs (and bloggers and actors, etc.) are in the entertainment business. They were trying to get laughs, but not trying cause an internationally-watched tragedy. We as listeners and consumers of media need to tell other DJs and prankers we don’t want this to be part of their jobs anymore. We need to say to other radio stations, “Look, prank calls make their victims feel terrible and cross a boundary of trust. This is wrong. Find something else to do, please?”

There are tons … and I mean tons … of stand-up comics who would love that time to practice their act. Heck, they could even read the news. Or play music. I don’t care what they do instead. No one is forcing radio stations to do these pranks; radio stations do these pranks because they think “the people want it.”

It’s time to change the culture. It’s time we tell them we don’t.

[Guardian UK]

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