We are all on Candid Camera now — or at least it can seem like it. Prank comedy is everywhere, from Jimmy Kimmel's many hoaxes to joke Twitter accounts and online stunts that go viral. Yet overkill won't end this comedic genre. The appeal of pranks is so ingrained that smart comics will always find a new way to exploit it.
For an example, look no further than to a couple of Comedy Central shows, Nathan for You and Drunk History, which started their second seasons on Tuesday. These shows, about young dudes pulling pranks, follow in the tradition of Insomniac With Dave Attell, in which the comic told jokes and caroused in a different city every episode, and the prank-call virtuosos Jerky Boys.
But replacing the blustery machismo of their predecessors, the new stars and creators, Nathan Fielder (from Nathan for You) and Derek Waters (from Drunk History), are soft-spoken, deadpan and nerdy.
Fielder, a Canadian comic, is short, preppy and has the slightly off features of a devil child. On the show, which earned a cult following its first year, he poses as a business consultant, approaching mechanics, say, or illustrators with ideas for increasing profits. In the second episode, Fielder convinces a man who runs a Hollywood souvenir shop that he can outshine competitors by setting up a fake movie shoot out front and telling gawkers they can be extras. Once the shop owner agrees to this fraud, Fielder, who acts as the director, orders the extras to buy something — right before he says "Action!"
Part of what makes Fielder's show work is that his scenes don't come off as overdetermined. They unfold unpredictably. The heart of the series is his portrait of himself as a lonely, lovelorn, twee fool. Fielder seems melancholy and even pathetic, looking desperately for connection.
Drunk History is ruthlessly simple: People get drunk, then explain a historical event to Waters, who has actors re-enact their words verbatim. In between, there are shots of Waters drinking at bars and talking to young inebriated people. It's a mix of frat party, karaoke night and bull session with an unemployed history graduate.
On the surface, Drunk History can look like a prank as well, a dumb joke rooted in the perennial fun of laughing at drunks. But the slick execution elevates it. For one thing, Waters is savvy about picking his scenes, favoring the kind of secret histories that are catnip for history buffs. Amid burping and puking, the narrators, who are less famous than the actors, tell the story of, say, the African-American woman who refused to move to the back of a bus before Rosa Parks and the teenage girl who warned that the British were coming before Paul Revere did.
Such scenes, based in real research, occasionally make our official history seem like a joke, or at least a story that omits as much as it reveals. But Drunk History also features remarkably game and funny performances by the likes of Lisa Bonet (as Rosa Parks) and Johnny Knoxville (as Johnny Cash). They are occasionally hammy but generally find the sweet spot between committed performance and goofy knowingness. (Any show that gives Laura Dern an opportunity to bark like a dog while going undercover in an insane asylum is worth watching.)