The YouTubers in Natural Born Pranksters want to be the boys from Jackass so bad. They even go as far as roping in Jackass’ professional pooper Dave England to participate in a faux-art prank – Dave provides the “paint”. However, unlike the Jackass crew, the jokers in Natural Born Pranksters (Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady, and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy) misunderstand the construction of comedy.
There’s a difference between foolish confusion and fearful bewilderment. The Jackass franchise studies in the former, and their set-ups (usually involving the unsuspecting public) are outrageous but lighthearted. Strangers outside the production are usually only used for reaction shots – they’re essentially fleshy standees. It wasn’t until Bad Grandpa when their approach changed to advance a loose narrative. In Natural Born Pranksters, the leading trio heavily involve their “mark” into the joke and unprofessionally depend on them to make the prank succeed. It also doesn’t help that most of the material ends in apparent albeit falsified crime. Then again, this seems to be the viral stars’ wheelhouse. Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, for instance, was arrested in 2012 for a joke involving him posing as a hitman planting a bomb. In Natural Born Pranksters, the film boasts this fact, and the prankster even recycles that same thug character. This should tell you a lot about the oblivious, narcissism at large in Natural Born Pranksters.
The rule about comedy being subjective certainly applies with Natural Born Pranksters (all of these men have a huge following on YouTube), but when so much of the comedic material has been improperly structured, rehearsed and explained, there’s hardly a clean landing worth anticipating. Part of the problem could also be Atwood co-directing the film – he’s unable to witness the staging of a ruse. His filmmaking partner-in-crime Ben Pluimer, despite being an Primetime Emmy-nominated director, often rushes the explanation of a set-up and cuts the punchline short.
I admit to chuckling out of awkward disbelief at some of the audacity I was witnessing (“exciting” massage encounters, a messy music video, and a chef measuring up dogs to use in his recipes in front of customers were my favourite bits), but most of Natural Born Pranksters made me cringe and squirm for all the wrong reasons. Worst of all, I felt bad for the people who were being pranked. Some of the more unfortunate sketches features a violent drug run, a rehashed bit involving a fake drive-by shooting, and a lame running gag where the boys play incompetent cops.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie