Entertainment

The cost of cringe: Does Just for Laughs: Gags go too far?

You’re walking down a quiet city street, minding your own business. In front of you is a woman wearing headphones, a shop-window mannequin is tucked under one of her arms. The mannequin’s head suddenly falls off and lands on the sidewalk, bouncing by your feet.

You move to pick it up, but as you reach down, a couple construction workers hustle by, blocking your view. When you resume your attempt, the head makes eye contact with you, opens its mouth and lets out a terrifying scream. You realize that it is actually a living, breathing human head protruding from the sidewalk.

This is what life is like for victims of the popular prank television show Just for Laughs: Gags.

If you’re like me, you’ve never actually intentionally watched Gags. It’s only ever appeared somewhere — late at night on your television or on a screen in a public place; its silent stock-footage style of cinematography radiating a kind of dreamlike, unfinished quality. And if you’re like me, you’ve always felt like there was something wrong with the show, but you have also never been able to put your finger on exactly what.

Anyone who’s glanced at a television sometime over the last 20 years has probably seen Gags. It’s been broadcast in more than 100 countries around the world, on BBC1 in the U.K., Nickelodeon in Germany and MTV in Finland. It’s produced by the same company behind Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, which The Guardian calls “possibly the most important comedy show on the planet.”

But according to Andy Nulman, who founded the English half of the festival, Just for Laughs probably wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for Just for Laughs: Gags. “There were times when Gags was the saviour of the company. The money it made allowed the rest of the company (to survive).”

Nulman seems reluctant to talk about Just for Laughs. He left the company in 2015 and recently started consulting for rival event Festival du rire de Montréal, which launched after the founder of the French half of Just for Laughs, Gilbert Rozon, was accused by 20 women of sexual assault and harassment. “I’ll be honest,” Nulman says “The less I’m quoted, the better.”

Nonetheless, he is eager to talk about Gags. “The start of Gags is a great story. Pierre Girard is the godfather of the show, it’s his baby. Pierre was running Just for Laughs TV at the time, which produced a French-language prank show called Surprise Sur Prise. It was a worldwide hit, and it made the company a fortune.”

Nulman says that when Surprise Sur Prise was cancelled in 1999, Girard pitched another prank show to Just for Laughs. The company initially refused, telling him they wanted to get out of the pranks business altogether. Undeterred, Girard started work on the new show in secret. “To do it that way, he had to be really low budget, to take some money out of the budget here and there,” says Nulman.

According to union rules at the time, actors had to be paid a minimum of $1,500 if they spoke two words on set, so Girard designed the pranks to make sense without dialogue (or words of any kind) as a means of keeping costs low. A big hit at the time was Mr. Bean, and this was maybe 1/20 the cost of Mr. Bean. And Pierre just had a (ton) of gags.”

The decision to go the Mr. Bean route unintentionally made the show catnip to international networks. Just three years after it debuted on Quebec television in 2000, Gags was in 70 countries. In 2006, it became the first Canadian-produced comedy series to air on primetime on a major U.S. network (ABC). At one point, Gags earned the company more than $20 million in a single year.

Gags was so consistently profitable that soon networks around the world were trying to cash in on the format themselves, to little success. “They’ve tried (to replicate it), in France, England, Germany and other countries. They all think that it’s easy to do, but it’s so difficult to pull off well,” Girard told the Montreal Gazette. “We’ve reached a point where we can’t start with new (writers). We have a certain mindset and formula.”

I don’t quite understand how hard it can be to write a wordless prank, so I ask Girard whether I could pitch some ideas to his team in-person in Montreal.

“Good idea!” he says.

To prepare for my big show-business break, I watch hundreds of their “gags” on YouTube. It immediately dawns on me that all of them have a similar structure: In the first few seconds, an innocent bystander is lured onto the shoot, usually through some appeal to their inclination toward being a Good Samaritan. A cast member does something surprising to elicit some kind of response from the victim (like a yelp or a full-on scream). Finally, the producer of the segment comes out, puts their arm around the victim and reveals that they caught everything on camera. This usually prompts a kind of nervous, relieved laughter.

Most of the practical jokes don’t really have a punchline. The infamous “Head in The Toilet Prank,” for example, is just a screaming head in a toilet. As I watch, I begin sorting the gags into subcategories: Screaming Faces, Dumb Cops, Blind People and even a weird form of Family-Friendly Sexual Harassment.

There are also so many of these pranks online (4,247 videos on YouTube at time of publication). Whenever I think I’ve come up with a good idea for a gag, I find its carbon copy on Gags’ YouTube channel. It seems like the show has already created every non-verbal prank that could possibly exist. After trying and failing to come up with a single unique pitch in three days, I understand the challenges of creating these schemes. To avoid coming to the pitch meeting completely empty-handed, I buy a bunch of ready-to-go gags from a joke shop instead.

When Girard, Gags co-creator Jacques Chevalier and I sit down inside the main boardroom at Gags HQ — a sizeable industrial building in the Delorimier neighbourhood of Montreal — they don’t seem impressed with my purchases. After pulling out a “goofy golf ball” — “It won’t roll straight!” the packaging exclaims — to a tepid response, I attempt to save face by asking them instead what kind of gag they would design around it.

“We would drill a hole in it, and put some explosives. And when people hit it, it would explode,” Chevalier suggests. “But we never use existing stuff,” he says before I can take out the next item, a water-squirting camera. “We create our own props. If it’s on the market, it’s not useful for us to use because then everyone can use it. We try to be more creative.”

I believe him. Before the interview, Chevalier and Girard had walked me through a several thousand square-foot workshop that looked like the prop department for a major motion picture.

I reach into my bag for one last gag.

“Ah, the fart machine!” Girard exclaims.

“We built our empire on this,” says Chevalier as Girard queues up one of their most popular gags on a nearby TV: Two paramedics and a victim helping a farting pregnant woman up from a bench. Frustrated, I stuff the remote-controlled speaker that only plays fart noises back into my bag.

“There’s been a big evolution (in the way we do gags) from the beginning to now. First it was: Action, reaction. ‘Boo!’ ‘Ahh!’” Girard explains.

“Our storytelling is stronger now,” says Chevalier. Meanwhile on screen, victims look on in horror at the farting pregnant woman. “That’s the way we’ve continued to evolve.”

As the Just for Laughs: Gags guys claw at the limits of visual, silent, primetime-friendly comedy, their younger peers on YouTube have charged fiercely ahead, unconstrained by the rules of television. Take “pranksters” Jake and Logan Paul, who have captured enormous audiences by torturing live rats with tasers, setting mattresses on fire for no reason, faking their own arrests and deaths multiple times, and doing literally anything else they can to elicit some kind of reaction from anyone who might watch.

In 2017, Logan drew international condemnation after filming himself laughing near a corpse in Tokyo’s famous suicide forest. Despite a temporary cut in YouTube revenue, he earned $14.5-million on the platform in 2018, while Jake made $21.5 million.

I think the Paul brothers are the worst things to have ever crawled out of our computer screens, and they’re gaining on shows like Gags. At publication, the duo have a combined 10.2-billion total views on their YouTube channel, while Gags — which had a two-decade head start and is searchable on English, French, Spanish and Arabic YouTube — has 14.5 billion.

Girard and Chevalier have never heard of the Paul brothers, but one thing they bring up over and over again is their desire to transcend the kind of simple provocation you see elsewhere on YouTube. “This is a family show, a relaxing show,” says Chevalier. “Usually we go on the funny side — surprising, but not heavy. That’s the DNA of the show.”

As tame as their show might come across, I can’t square what Girard and Chevalier are telling me with what I see at the end of almost every single gag: Uncomfortable-looking victims — at times, screaming — whose reaction shots are indistinguishable from the ones you find on any other YouTube prank video.

That is, until Girard and Chevalier begin talking about gags they hadn’t broadcast. “We have to sometimes be really far from our (own) tastes. There was a gag that we wanted to do: Somebody in a bathrobe (holding) a toaster walking in the Old Port beside the water,” says Girard.

My reaction to the premise — “Oh no. Oh my god.” — seems to rein in Girard. “But we cannot do that,” he explains. “If you believe that this person will (commit) suicide, it’s not funny.”

This keeps happening: The Gags guys bring up something they find humorous, and I just look at them silently. It seems like we are on a completely different comedic wavelength.

At one point, Girard brings up a gag the show did in 2014, which involved a man testing out a baby carrier on a trampoline. An 83-year-old woman noticed that the carrier had a baby in it, so she tried to get the man to stop, but the man just kept bouncing higher and higher until the fake baby flew out of the carrier, it’s skull rattling off the floor.

“I tried to stop him from jumping, but nothing worked,” she told the Toronto Sun. “We see so much horror, abused children around the world. I didn’t find it funny at all.”

“We missed this one. We’ve missed some in the last 20 years,” Girard admits.

But what exactly have they missed? Gags involving dropped or thrown babies is its own subgenre on the show. How was this gag any worse than the “Bike Rider Drops Baby Gag,” “Dad Throws His Baby Through the Window” or “Baby Falls Out of Carry Cot Prank”?

When I show them a video from March 2017 of Logan Paul faking his own death by artificial shotgun blast in front of a bunch of children, Girard chuckles, but then stiffens. “We will never do something like that — to children. Never, unacceptable. I will never do that to children.”

“But it’s okay for the web,” adds Chevalier. “If I did gags only for the web, I would do other kinds of gags. More absurd, more weird, more heavy.” Chevalier expresses a desire to create an edgier, web-friendly prank show multiple times during our conversation. “I’d like to create a new show, more for younger people. Less broadcast, less mainstream.”

“Did you see Roman Atwood’s L’homme canon?” Girard asks me, since we were now swapping YouTube videos. He queues up the grand finale prank from Atwood’s 2016 film Natural Born Pranksters, which depicts an Evel Knievel-type character climbing into a cannon in front of an audience — a typical “human cannonball” situation.

When the cannon goes off, it spurts a red mist, suggesting that the explosion has shredded the stuntman’s body into little pieces. Horrified gasps rise from the audience. The cannon then tips over, and out of it rolls what can only be described as a bundle of red guts, with no legs and half an arm. As the people in the audience begin screaming and running away, the arm starts pulling the body forward, toward the stuntman’s original target.

Girard and Chevalier are howling as we watch this. Maybe the chasm between this family-friendly, 20-year-old prank show and the rest of YouTube isn’t so wide after all.

As I sit with the Gags guys watching a skinless, headless, limbless man drag himself across the ground, I begin to understand what it must feel like to be the victim of a Just for Laughs gag. It’s the same feeling you might have if a screaming face was to suddenly appear inside your toilet, or if a mannequin head on the ground in front of you started breathing, or a cop pulled you over and started sleeping on the hood of your car.

These situations appear cartoonish and dreamlike at a remove, but experienced in the moment, they’re terrifying. What Just for Laughs: Gags has managed to do — format, language and broadcasting constraints be damned — is hide an incredibly scary show inside a seemingly innocuous one.

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