This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
Rewriting a viral past
Last week’s newsletter about YouTube “prank” culture was weighty and reflective, but it also made me realize that maybe we’re reaching a critical mass with them; maybe “prank” content is coming to an end. As people start recognizing the importance of consent, we start to devalue things like...pranking loved ones...for clout and paychecks.
I received many thoughtful emails about the topic, so thank you to all of you. But one of them stuck out because it was from someone who had a perspective that I did not speak to as much but that is central to this ongoing conversation: the creators themselves. Kevin Nalty, who’s now the VP of strategy for a digital healthcare agency, was an early YouTuber who became famous for pulling pranks, sometimes with his family — or on them. Between 2007 and 2008, his pranks like fake farting in public and recording reactions to those mid-aughts jump-scare videos (ugh, I’m so glad that we’ve also overcome that cultural moment) gained tens of millions of views — which is especially remarkable given the time.
He told me that in 2008, as he was experimenting with doing YouTube full-time, he would often involve his young kids, who were between the ages of 2 and 6 then. Today, in 2021, he speaks candidly about how much they were aware of their father’s career ambitions, and how much they were a part of them.
Many of Nalty’s most viral pranks don’t involve his children, but the ones that do are heavily featured throughout his channel.
“They often didn’t understand what they were doing, but I’d feed them lines and edit it so it appeared continuous,” he said. “Sometimes I would prank them, and sometimes I’d have them prank others. I almost always conceived, shot, and edited my videos by myself.”
In one video from 2008 titled “8 Household PRANKS!,” Nalty demonstrates and films different kinds of pranks he pulls on his family. It was watched over 2.2 million times. Although his pranks are mostly silly, and he said that he tried to be mindful back then of when a prank was appropriate or not, he’s even more conscious about that today, 12 years later.
“I always struggled with the line not to cross but sometimes got into a gray area where I felt like it wasn’t right,” he said. “The ‘rules’ seem somewhat intuitive now, but in … 2006–2007 it was like the early days of TV or radio.”
Nalty said that while his videos can appear harmless or fun on YouTube, he was dealing with a level of “psychological effort” or dissonance at the time.
“I had one of the most-viewed YouTube channels … [but] it may be helpful to know that, at least for me, pranks took a lot of psychological effort,” he said. “You act like you’re fearless and confident, but I’m pretty self-conscious and sensitive. So I have to override that and not worry too much as I go about it.”
“I had some unwritten rules like not using the footage of someone who appeared angry. Most of the time they’d laugh once they realized the situation wasn’t real,” he said.
Over the years, he said, he’s deleted a few prank videos or made videos private after people who were featured in them reached out to say they weren’t happy with how they were portrayed. In one, he pranked someone by having a friend pretend to be a hitchhiker who had just been released from prison. He said the victim later told him that they were “embarrassed” by their “nervous” and insensitive reaction to the prank, so Nalty hid the video.
“My pranks usually feature me as the idiot and other people perplexed by my antics. I don’t like the kind that are cruel or deceptive, and my favorite part is letting the ‘prank victim’ in on the joke and seeing their relief and laughter,” he said.
But because consent can be ever-changing for the victim, especially with a thorny dynamic like pranking, Nalty said he’s “fine taking down a video if someone is bothered.”
Today, he’s recalibrating his litmus test not only with prank videos but with humor in general.
“If it comes from a place of deception or even sarcasm, it’s likely not going to land well,” he said. “It may get some views, but it erodes your relationship with viewers and makes you feel sneaky and mean.”
He’s had second thoughts about a prank he pulled on his then-wife in 2009, when he put a frog under her bed. The video was licensed by MTV and featured on its show Pranked. “We were both happy when MTV licensed the clip, yet it’s still a bit mean to scare someone like that.
“Done well, you’re giving the victim a fun story to share. Done poorly, someone gets hurt and there’s no amount of views that justifies it. As I said before, sometimes I step on a toe, and I try to make it right.”
In some ways, YouTube prank videos feel extremely outdated, and I hold some confidence that they’ll become universally unfunny one day. And that hopefully isn’t a loss for creators and viewers but a gaining of perspective for all of us.
Comedy is an expansive universe; it can be cheap and unscrupulous, or it can be really smart and transformative. And I hope a rehashing of this recently old (and cringe) part of internet culture makes us really reflect on how we want to shape internet content in the future.
There’s been a lot of dialogue online about cancel culture lately — some constructive, some in mockery — but it all feels kind of misguided. (Except for the memes...those are hilarious.) Questioning a pop culture norm is not “canceling” it; it’s reassessing and adjusting. Like Nalty, things are ever-evolving, and it’s good practice to keep checking in with yourself and, well, with society. He is not a hero for his reflections, or for deleting videos that he doesn’t feel good about anymore. He’s doing his part. And I hope he’ll keep reflecting, even on our conversations today.
Now here is a good Internet Content that made me laugh, so loud, out loud this week.
Until next time,