The ups and downs of pranks: from Kate Middleton's nurse to a viral videos in Brazil

As the grim news about Jacintha Saldanha nurse emerged last week, our writer was one of many who reflected on the legitimate limits of comedy that targets others

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The Independent Online

“We’ll race you to the bottom”, my brother and sister said to my father and I after a weekly visit to the old age home in which my grandpa was living, 15 years ago. And so, as we waited patiently for the lift, my siblings raced to the bottom of the stairs.

“BOO”, my siblings screamed, as the lift touched-down, one on either side of the doors. Their faces, a picture of sheer delight quickly fell, however, when the elderly frail woman propped up by two walking sticks and who, unbeknown to them, had joined us in our descent, jumped out of her skin. She screamed, they cried, I laughed and my father grovelled to the poor woman and the staff at the reception desk who looked on in horror as the events unfolded.

Innocence gone wrong

This has been one of my family’s most re-told stories, always bringing a laugh to both we, the stars of the tale and those who we decide to share it with. This is a true account of an innocent prank gone wrong. But no matter how many times we tell the story and no matter how many laughs we get out of it, we always ponder just how much more wrong it could have gone. Because let’s face it, at least my father was still able to apologise to the 90-something woman who was already no picture of health.

The story has of course become especially relevant over the last few weeks, as viral elevator pranks seem to be taking the world by storm, courtesy of a Brazilian TV show. An impressive-looking office building complete with an accommodating receptionist are the recent stars of this meme, which has seen both a ghostly girl climb out into the lift and scream at the unassuming victims and a ‘corpse’ fall out of a coffin while the lift is in transit, before wildly grasping the air near the quivering wrecks who have unknowingly been set up. 

It would be dishonest of me to claim that I did not enjoy watching these videos. I do, and always have thoroughly enjoyed being in on a practical joke. But in a week where another seemingly innocent prank, this time in the form of a call to the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for acute morning sickness, is still suffering a horrendous amount of fall-out, I think it’s time we start looking for the line.

There is, clearly, a huge dichotomy between pranking someone you know and targeting perfect strangers repeatedly. And no matter how much we may think we know the Royal Family, when all is said and done, the Duchess of Cambridge is as good as a perfect stranger to us when it comes to deciding who it is appropriate to play a practical joke on. Not to mention the sheer inappropriateness of digging around in another woman’s womb before she has even reached her first trimester.

The effects of the prank call are still reverberating worldwide, with one involved nurse committing suicide and the Australian DJ’s who masterminded the whole thing originally in hiding - though now interviewed - as friends and family fear for their psychological health. So again, I ask, where do we draw the line?

What's appropriate?

When I first had the idea for this piece, what I like to call The Royal Flush had not even happened yet. And so, I was going to argue that I suppose we will just continue to laugh until we no longer have a reason not to. We can laugh fondly at the prank which probably affected my brother and sister more than the old lady because thankfully nothing too serious happened. We can roll around on the floor at the innocent people who step foot into the lift-of-horrors and are faced with creepy girls and back-from-the-dead corpses, because aside from fears and tears, nobody died.

But now The Royal Flush has happened, and we have more than one reason not to laugh anymore, where does that leave us with what is, and is not, deemed appropriate?

Seeing as the elaborate elevator pranks that were meant to terrify had little effect other than intended and the seemingly innocent prank call which was merely a rouse to gain proximity to the Duchess of Cambridge has resulted in one suicide and two mentally unstable radio presenters, it would seem that it is not the nature of the prank but the people you are pranking that needs to be taken into serious consideration.

I would like to think that the Brazilian TV show would not have been so quick to deliberately pull the prank on an elderly person who entered their lift. Nor, would I imagine, that any media body of any kind would ever attempt to gain sensitive medical information from a high-profile celebrity in this way again.

Until tomorrow morning.