The Reality of Being in a YouTube Prank Family

Open YouTube on any given day and you’re likely to be confronted by bad ideas, people going crazy, and pranks. “STEALING A WOMAN'S BABY IN FRONT OF MY FIANCE PRANK!! *HE GOES CRAZY*”. “Wearing My PERIOD BL🍩🍩D As A FACE MASK To See My Fiance's Reaction! *HE GOES CRAZY*”. “PIERCING MY ENTIRE FACE & SURPRISING MY FIANCEÉ! *BAD IDEA*”. You get the idea. Pranks are YouTube’s lifeblood. But whenever I see another thumbnail shrieking about a “cheating on my girlfriend” prank, I can’t help but wonder what the relationship is like away from the cameras. What’s it like to be in a prank relationship? Is it total hell?

Kristen and Reafe are YouTube prank veterans. They have over a million subscribers, and their videos regularly clock up hundreds of thousands of views. They also happen to be the minds behind the videos mentioned above – which, yes, are all real, but no, the period blood was not. And, despite all the claims of “going crazy”, judging from their content, they seem like a loved-up couple just having a laugh. But does being a professional “prank couple” take a toll? Surely, they must always be on edge, waiting for the next elaborate set-up?

According to Kristen and Reafe, they feel nothing of the sort. “Planning and executing pranks are fun,” they tell VICE. “Devising pranks is where we get creative. It gives us an opportunity to think outside the box and to continue to learn about each other – what makes us tick, laugh, get scared.” Both agree that the execution is the best part. “Seeing an idea come to life while the other person has no idea what’s really happening – it’s usually difficult to keep a straight face because of how funny it is!”

Some of Kristen and Reafe’s pranks on each other might look wild and stress-inducing from the outside, but there is some method to the madness. Take the word of Helen Jambunathan, from the consumer insights agency Canvas8. “Couples prank videos are allowing young people a way to navigate interpersonal intimacy through play,” Jambunathan says. “Especially in new relationships, pranking is a way to have fun while learning more about each other – it shifts the mode of interaction to reveal something new.” This is exactly what Kristen and Reafe profess about their professional prank relationship: “Pranking each other keeps our relationship fun and exciting,” Kristen says. And, they do say couples who laugh together last together, after all.

According to Jambunathan, pranking may have another important bonding function, too. “Like other forms of social play, pranking is about testing and establishing boundaries,” she says, “and bending the rules in order to understand exactly what they are. This is why 'backlash to prank' and 'prank gone wrong' videos often go viral too,” Jambunathan adds. “Outside of often being funny in their own right, they can help people understand how far is too far and help them resolve the tension of pranking in the first place”. In Kirsten and Reafe’s case, there are some definite limits – though, perhaps to keep their audience guessing, they won’t disclose what these are: “We made a pact never to cross any boundaries” is all they say. Presumably, “being convinced I’m eating human meat” wasn’t on the list, as Kristen has pulled that trick on Reafe – and also on his mom.

In a saturated prank-o-sphere, the most successful creators often go to great lengths to invent shocking new pranks that their audiences haven't seen before. But another secret to success comes from integrating old classics of the genre. “Couples prank videos are popular because they offer people a classic contrast of tropes: the 'troll' vs the ‘long-suffering victim’,” Jambunathan says. These have “huge potential for virality,” she adds, because the tropes are recognisable and relatable. Though, these tropes also rely on stereotypes. “Among straight couples, many prank videos are a commentary on gender stereotypes,” Jambunathan says. Though, she suggests many supposed sendups of these stereotypes also ironically end up reinforcing them. “Think of the 'scaring my girlfriend' genre, and the longstanding digital tradition of male trolling,” she says.

“If we had to choose one type our audience loves the most, it would be scare pranks,” Kristen and Reafe tell VICE. “There’s nothing better than a jump scare and to be able to grapple with the darkest parts of humanity in a safe environment,” the couple say. “Take for instance, our possessed prank where Kristen jumped onto the counter in a sort of scary rage and Reafe responded by picking up a pot to fight back.” This video certainly seems to prove Jambunathan’s belief that this genre has “huge potential for virality” – as Kirsten and Reafe point out, “this video has over 1.5 million views.

It’s not hard to see how view counts can lead to a feedback loop, with YouTubers only creating content they think will perform well. “We engage with our audience and continue to create content around what they enjoy most and what makes them the happiest,” Kristen and Reafe say. Which, you know, makes sense, especially when clicks equal pay cheques. “Uploading our lives on social media allows us to make a great living,” the couple says. “It’s the biggest blessing to be able to make great money by being our most authentic selves: a funny, loving couple that wants to share our love story with the world.”

But is there not a darker edge to all of this too? Surely YouTube’s highly lucrative prank culture must sometimes lead to pressure to constantly up the ante? Bending boundaries might be part of the point of pranks, but when it pays to keep pushing the boat out, how does anyone know where to draw the line?

Adam B has over 3.5 million subscribers on YouTube. If Kristen and Reafe’s pranks are wild in a kind of gross-out “I can’t believe she did that” way, Adam’s pranks are both more elaborate and emotionally driven. Take the time he and his boyfriend Dominic pranked their parents by eloping to Las Vegas and pretending to get married. “Our parents watched the whole thing via Facetime, believing we were becoming a ‘committed couple’,” Adam tells VICE. “It wasn't until we got home that we said the famous words ‘PRANKED YA!’”

Often, they involve his boyfriend Dominic. “We're constantly living on the edge, wondering who will strike next,” Adam tells VICE. “It's like a never-ending game of cat and mouse.” Just the other week, for instance, Adam surprised Dominic with his first-ever business class upgrade. It wasn’t a prank, just a genuine treat. “He refused to check in for the flight out of fear of getting escorted to economy,” Adam says. But, despite the constant threat of public humiliation, the couple seem happy. “It can be a rollercoaster in our world of pranks,” Adam says, “but we wouldn’t have it any other way!”

Do the other people these two pranksters rope in for their content feel the same way, though? “There was the time when my parents were selling their old home,” Adam says, which he describes as “a particularly stressful period for them”. The couple decided to do some meddling anyway. “I called my mum and told her that the agent 'doesn't like your conduct; she's asked me to have a word with you because you're being very difficult and you need to sort it out if you want to sell your house.' Dom couldn't contain his excitement, and we were both struggling to breathe from giggling under our breath so hard.” As I’m sure you can imagine, his parents had quite a different response. “My mum and dad were absolutely fuming… it took about a week for them to forgive us!”

Recently, Adam says it’s become harder to prank his family on the same scale he’s used to, “given the sheer amount of pranks that I’ve inflicted upon them over the years. The landscape is so competitive, and to pull off a prank on my family, it has to stand out.”

And, to stand out on YouTube these days – when top creators like Mr Beast rack up billions of views for funding life-changing operations or challenging a random subscriber to survive in a circle for three months – a hit prank is often either expensive “or extremely hard to execute as a production, and sometimes out of our bandwidth,” Adam says. I have to admit I’m a bit surprised to hear Adam say this, though, as moments before, he was describing a prank that was both elaborate and very expensive. “I recently came up with the crazy idea to host a competition where the winner gets their rent paid for a year,” he says. “We preselected our worthy winner, Nicole, and hired nine incredible actors to fake-compete in a series of adrenaline activities, such as bungee jumping and skydiving… When I finally revealed that she had been competing against paid actors all along, the payoff was nothing short of hilarious.”

But is tricking someone into thinking they’re genuinely fighting for free housing all fun and games? Or – to reference a viral stunt Mr Beast supposedly spent $3.5 million to make – is it all a bit IRL Squid Game? Youtube charity content is big, booming business, but it also often feels sort of icky watching people go through absurd trials for clicks. Indeed, prank videos almost feel wholesome by comparison.

Adam certainly sees the prank-o-sphere as all rooted in innocent fun and silliness – like slapstick comedy. “The reason why prank content is so popular, in my opinion, is because of how visual and how universally appealing it can be,” he says. “Most of my big pranks in the past are quite visual pranks – understood by anyone from any country that speaks any language. People watch for the reaction. Not the commentary.”

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that people are watching for something else, too: discomfort. “My audience love seeing any one of us in jeopardy or discomfort,” Adam says. “One video fans always reference is a road trip my brother Callum and I took Dom on, where we tried to be as mean as possible to him without him realising.” This involved Callum pushing Dom into a river, and getting him to throw up on a rollercoaster. “That video was all about being mean to Dom,” Adam declares, “so it’s allowed…right?? LOL!”

Kristen and Reafe suggested the audience’s desire for certain pranks stems from the pleasure of grappling with the darkest parts of humanity in a safe environment. But there is clearly a more perverse pleasure at work here, too – that of schadenfreude: joy at witnessing humiliation or pain. “Come to think of it,” Adam says, finally, “I don't know who’s more evil, us for doing the prank or the viewers for watching them.” Really, it’s the quandary of our media age. Personally, all I know is, if I was living in this “rollercoaster” world of pranks, I’d probably throw up too.


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