Not all prank shows are created equal. First you have the kind where the joke is on unsuspecting members of the public – classic shows like Candid Camera, or somewhat less classic series like Balls of Steel. Sometimes you get a series where the pranks are trying to take down the high-profile and powerful, which is the kind of thing that shot The Chaser and Ali G to fame.
And then you have the kind of series where the pranksters are trying to embarrass and humiliate their mates – Jackass, the golden age of Hamish & Andy, and now The Inspired Unemployed with their new series, (Impractical) Jokers.
The Inspired Unemployed are four twenty-something mates – Jack Steele, Liam Moore, Dom Littrich and Matt ‘Falcon’ Ford – on a mission to humiliate each other. Ford and Steele are the ones behind their popular Instagram page and they’re big on TikTok as well, but here all four are on an equal footing and nobody’s getting off lightly.
The first half-hour episode features two set-ups. In the first, each member takes a turn pretending to be a receptionist in a small office stuffed with hidden cameras, where they’re ordered by the other three via headset to do various stupid things in front of a waiting member of the public (who thinks they’re there for market research).
Jack has to act out an over-the-phone break-up that involves claiming the woman in the waiting room is his new girlfriend; Dom stuffs 75 marshmallows into his mouth; Liam talks about the menace of 5G while wearing a tinfoil hat. While the others are pissing themselves in a back room, occasionally the one actually doing the embarrassing acts is so mortified they refuse to keep going. That earns them a thumbs down, and whoever has the most thumbs down by episode’s end must do a solo punishment… but we’ll get to that.
Pranks are almost always a bit cringe, but by keeping the suffering within the group – the public are just there as an audience making things worse for the pranksters – this gets laughs without cranking up the embarrassment. Well, it’s embarrassing for the guys, but they knew what they were getting into. The aim here is to escalate the bad ideas, not humiliate innocent bystanders; watching an office worker blowing up a balloon until it bursts is more of a WTF moment than anything else.
Likewise in the second scenario, in which the team are wellness gurus talking absolute drivel but who will get a thumbs down if they don’t get people to agree to come back for a second session. Good luck when you’re forced to talk about ‘anal gazing’ (though the class that ends with an orgy invite turns out to be surprisingly popular).
There’s a lot of similarity here with Ten’s other Wednesday night comedy big gun, the revived Thank God You’re Here. Both shows have figured out a way to make a comedy staple – theatre sports-style improv in TGYH’s case, pranks for (Impractical) Jokers – more of a sure thing by removing a lot of the risk. Both shows have formats that have largely eliminated random factors; they’re always going to be funny, but they’re never going to deliver something that goes completely off the rails.
If there’s a flat note in the first episode, it’s the final punishment. After collecting the most thumbs down, Jack has to give a terrible speech at a real wedding, where the bride and groom (but none of the guests) are in on the joke. Because it’s a punishment, it’s basically just a collection of things you really shouldn’t say; references to a too-sexy bucks night, telling the bride to make sure she folds the grooms clothes and so on. Safe to say it doesn’t go down well.
It feels slightly off, if only because it’d work just as well if everyone there was in on it; it’s embarrassing because of what Jack has to read out, not because of how they react. That said, when he gets to one particularly unpleasant anecdote involving a car, it is pretty funny when someone in the crowd gives a horrified shout of ‘that’s my car’.
Well played, Inspired Unemployed.
The Inspired Unemployed: (Impractical) Jokers airs weekly on Ten Wednesdays at 8.30pm, with the entire series available to stream on Paramount+