Pranks are typically cruel affairs designed to play a trick on unsuspecting victims and make them feel ashamed or uncomfortable. The early 2000s saw a rise in the popularity of practical jokes, given the advent of more accessible mobile video technology.
Arguably the cruellest of all ‘pranks’ – though the term is stretched in this instance, given its utter barbarity – came in the shape of ‘happy slapping’, a contradicting term given to vulgar instances of attacking random members of the public and recording it on a mobile phone. Sometimes these ‘jokes’ had, on occasion, tragically led to serious crimes, including manslaughter.
The rise in mobile technology also led to the birth of ‘hidden camera’ TV shows in the 21st Century, such as Punk’d, Balls of Steel and the painfully unfunny Impractical Jokers. TV shows such as these made members of the public the victims of pranks to elevate the supposed ingenuity of the devising pranksters. Hell, even Rio Ferdinand found once himself in the unlikely guise of a TV prankster, playing jokes on his Manchester United and England national team colleagues. Some of those comic instances found great success, particularly on Balls of Steel, and in others, undoubtedly less so.
Yet there is one particular hidden camera show that I would argue sits comfortably above the rest. Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV aired initially on Channel 4 between 2000 and 2003 and was revived in a new series between 2016 and 2017. The reason for Happy Trigger TV’s unique brilliance was that cruelty – the supposed main ingredient in any prank worth its salt – was not at the show’s forefront.
That’s not to say that Joly did not put unsuspecting members of the British public in downright embarrassing scenarios; he did and at great length. But rather, the real person who was the butt of the joke was Joly himself; he was the one who acted in ways that ought to bring embarrassment and shame. In Trigger Happy, Joly managed to subvert the very nature of pranks, turning the joke on himself and providing scope for audiences to reflect on the nature of contemporary social conventions and paradigms.
Take, for instance, the ‘classic’ Trigger Happy skit at the beginning of each episode, in which Joly picks up a comedically oversized mobile phone in a quiet setting such as a library, a fancy restaurant, or the cinema, and answers, “HELLO!?” as loud as he possibly can. Here, it is Joly who is the object of derision, though clearly, he is also turning a cynical eye to those who startingly converse on the phone at a wholly unnecessary and oblivious volume.
Elsewhere, Joly toys with the oft-ridiculed conventions of British politeness. For instance, he often dresses up as a police officer and tells a range of old-aged members of the public that he has received reports of “someone of their description” engaging in anti-social behaviour, such as setting off fireworks in the park or graffitiing public property. All this is delivered in a style so deadpan and so utterly polite that his ‘victims’ have no choice but to comply with Joly’s courteous attitude.
There are, admittedly, moments bordering on the cruel, particularly when Joly embarrasses himself by actually shouting at his subjects and behaving so inappropriately that it occasionally borders on the problematic. Yet these moments are few and far between sections of the show that explore the tragedy, the outlandishness, and the mundanity of life in the early 2000s.
This is exemplified when Joly absurdly portrays gangs of furry animals engaging in nefarious and illicit activities, where ultimately, the joke is at no one’s expense. Equally bizarre is the not-very-covert covert operative who attempts to swap briefcases with members of the British populace, offering a secret code phrase to announce his arrival, such as, “I hear the weather in Leningrad is good this time of year,” in a half-attempted Russian accent, before realising he has the wrong person and rushing off.
The tragedy of modern life is explored in characters such as the caricature artist in Trafalgar Square, who is ‘tortured’ by his art and cannot paint his subjects. Joly also employs Chris Morris-style interviews with celebrities, including Peter Stringfellow, Alice Cooper and Irvine Welsh, only to then act with a disregard for professionalism by reacting to things taking place around the interview location with unnecessary amounts of anger or upset, often getting into fights or storming off in tears.
Yet, there are moments of striking beauty and kindness within Trigger Happy too. When Joly enters a shop under the guise of a mentally unwell and disturbed man, the cashier receives a call telling her someone has escaped from a nearby psychiatric hospital. She then patiently entertains the man until someone can collect him in a display of utterly heart-warming gentleness.
Music also plays a vital role in the show. Tracks curated by Joly himself play through most of each episode, and the selections are crucial in exacerbating the lamentable vicissitudes and absurdity that unfolds in each scene. For instance, the Russian secret agent performs to an overdubbed spooky sounding track by Faithless entitled, ‘Drifting Away’, whilst characters who hurriedly flee the situations they find themselves in often do so to good-natured, fun-sounding tracks such as ‘All You Good Good People’ by Embrace. The exclusion of a laugh track on the show, replaced by Joly’s often sombre musical choices, helped to elevate the tragic and incongruous moments of life within the world of Trigger Happy.
There are so many wonderful ‘practical jokes’ in Trigger Happy that I wish I could mention them all. Some personal favourites include the ridiculously high-cultured Slipknot fan, the Swiss tourist practicing his English using beyond-use phrases, and the man listening to anger management tapes on headphones so ridiculously loud that those around him can hear everything that he can. “Silent people are not the enemy,” the tape reads. “This [library] is no place for mindless aggression. Getting too much? Then leave now. Leave the building now.”
Prank shows have often been dismissed outright as they are often perceived as crass and, ultimately, just a bit of daft fun, often with good reason. Yet, in Trigger Happy TV, Dom Joly ingeniously showed that the many facets of human life could be examined and celebrated using the format. If you have not yet managed to experience the joys and tragedies of Trigger Happy, then I implore that you do so at your next convenient opportunity.
Check out a compilation of the best moments of the show’s first series below.