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Old 17th Jul 2009, 01:37 AM   #1
david
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Lightbulb Jokers to the left, jokers to the right

It's become the dominant form of cinematic satire, but have prank movies lost a moral edge as they've become big business? Ryan Gilbey talks to the pranksters themselves

Prankster cinema - that combination of documentary, performance art, slapstick and satire - is scarcely out of its infancy, yet it commands our attention right now like no other genre. Why? Three little words: Sacha Baron Cohen. But while the staging of provocative stunts in public settings might be a new game in cinema, it's worth reflecting on how the rules have changed during the two decades in which it has broken free of its televisual origins. Beginning with Michael Moore's mouldbreaking 1987 documentary Roger & Me, in which the everyman campaigner took General Motors publicly to task for blighting his Michigan hometown with mass redundancies, the genre has become the default option for anyone with an axe to grind or a campaign to wage. Strange, though, that the face of prankster cinema has changed from a schlub in a baseball cap to a preening gay Austrian in pinstripe hotpants.

The roots of prank-based entertainment lie in television, with Candid Camera, which has been spying on unremarkable Americans in bizarre situations on and off since 1948. The show's creator, Allen Funt, shifted the format to film in the risqué 1970 movie What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, full of members of the public encountering actors in advanced states of undress. Neither hilarity nor commercial success ensued. But if cinema wasn't yet ready to embrace pranksterdom, TV survived on the concept for years. Among the descendants of the Candid Camera format you will find the medium at its satirical height (Brass Eye), and at its lowest ebb (Game for a Laugh, Beadle's About). Sometimes it could get even worse than that, typically whenever Dom Joly and his oversized cellphone were involved.

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