The Prank That Never Ends
In 2013, I was part of a sixteen day long prank for a French television show, with aftershocks that still have me thinking I’m part of the joke today, ten years later.
It was a premise within a premise.
A participant seeking a loving relationship applies to be on a television show in which she meets various, handsome, successful men, (a process which she was involved in for many months), only to discover on day one of filming, that it is a ruse to lure her into a different program.
She meets Patrick; the most annoying, foul-mouthed, crude, frustrating man-child with a huge gummy smile and a penchant for biting his toe nails at the dinner table, who has also joined the TV show for love, and for him, it’s a potential dream come true, as he meets the beautiful Clara.
They are told the “truth”, that they’re not actually here to meet the love of their lives, and instead, they are deemed incompatible, but have to convince their family and friends that they have fallen deeply in love and are engaged to elope two weeks later, and must do everything in their power to be convincing in order to each win €100,000.
Little does she know that Patrick is a comedian, hired to turn this challenge into a nightmare.
“Is it possible that I’m actually the one being pranked?” I ask my friend who produces shows for the BBC, as I pace the balcony of this rented mansion in Miami, “because I’ve got the weirdest feeling that the joke is actually on me.”
“Not only is it possible, but it’s a great idea. Prank the prankee.”
“Shit, I think that’s what I’m in.”
Six days in, I ask production if that’s what they are doing, and sensing my alarm, they send a therapist to chat with me.
“We wouldn’t do that to you,” she said.
“That’s exactly what you would say if you were an actor hired to convince me that this isn’t a prank on me.”
I’ve seen The Truman Show, I’ve also seen how small and camouflaged cameras can be, and I had filmed the pilot show for Impractical Jokers in the UK, so I’m well-aware of the intricacies required to pull off complex pranks.
Despite my apprehension, a lot of money had been spent on this television program, the show must go on!
I reassured them that I would continue, but for the rest of filming, I was convinced that I was the punchline.
In terms of opportunity for an actor to play, this was one of the best experiences, as I was given a brief outline of what had to be achieved and given carte blanche to create comedic mayhem around the day’s blueprint.
This became more challenging throughout the shoot, as both the character and myself developed; two beings in one body.
Production wanted me to play it as ‘Eric’, but I suggested we change the name so I could disassociate from what the character had to do, and I was grateful of this request, as I was often asked to do things that I was uncomfortable with, but that had to be done for the show.
Much like a movie, each scene needed something to happen, and is often guided by a win or a loss; either something good or something bad happens to the protagonist, feeding the beginning of the next section.
“You both had a great day” says the director, who only came to speak with me when Clara was in her daily talking head interviews. Something she assumed Patrick also did, but instead, that time was used to watch her interviews to collect information, debrief with production, and workshop the next scene.
It was a fascinating experience, and had me feel like an undercover cop pretending to be part of a gang, so that I could find out details of the next big money exchange.
But just like in those stories, those that get too close to the target, eventually see the humanity in them, and begin to care for them as more than their persona.
Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome, spending weeks cooped up in what was supposedly Justin Bieber’s mansion on Star Island, it became inevitable that I cared for her.
There was Patrick who was in cahoots with her despite his aggravating nature, and there was Eric, hiding behind, watching, who desperately wanted to reach out to her and introduce himself.
Knowing that our aim was for her to always win the money, alleviated the stress that I had to be so disagreeable.
“You both had a great day… so next,” continues the director, “you’ve got to make her hate you.”
She came out of her interview, and subtly, slowly, I peppered our interaction with a one-way ticket to our inevitable doom.
I was watching myself do a good job, and I hated it.
Choosing my words carefully so that they would penetrate her insecurities, until she eventually burst, screams at me and storms up the stairs. I waited to hear the door of her bedroom slam shut before I let myself cry, catching the eyes of the camera man who seemed equally complicit in this sordid Stanford Prison Experiment.
My tears were cut from the show, but that moment further reinforced the idea that the prank could be on me. My forlorn moment where my mask slipped could be of value to the audience, to get a glimpse of what was happening behind-the-scenes, to see the reaction of the tormented trickster.
There were so many delicious moments that weren’t seen by the public that I would love to share in greater detail, as well as the psychological and moral exploration of a show that toys with the minds and emotions of the participants.
Our family was to visit us soon, seeing as we were having a shotgun wedding, and to be convincing, our first week was focused on us building a rapport; we were in cahoots on a game to trick our loved ones.
Little did she know that my parents and siblings were actors that I had met only once in Paris for an afternoon of improvisation games, and Patrick’s best friend was a comedian I hadn’t even met; our first interaction was on set, in front of Clara.
I think the same can be said for my “surprise” ex-girlfriend, Jeanne (aka Cindy) who joined us for an evening of torturous fun, juggling the emotions of my faux ex, and my new fake bride to be.
What a thrill!
To improvise backstories and generate a sense of deep bond in seconds. Each time I locked eyes with one of the actors, I could see us behind the mask, smiling. It was a genuine pleasure to be part of this play. However, by the time they arrived in our charade, I had a complicité with Clara and was protective of her, both as Patrick and Eric.
We had naturally grown fond of one another, both implicit in our own game. There were many highlights; one was a poem I had written her which I read aloud when her sister visited us. It was dangerously sexual, yet strangely romantic. We laughed so hard, that it was impossible to not convince people we were in love. We were able to fool them because we had fooled ourselves.
By then we had kissed, because we had to, although I was apprehensive about doing it; not Patrick, but Eric. It felt morally dubious. One of our challenges, with the help of a marriage counsellor was to kiss, in order to convince others that we were a real couple. It’s one thing for people to kiss, it’s another for two actors hired to do it for a story, but it’s something completely different when it’s a character that was born only weeks before and a real, genuine, person, enmeshed in a carefully constructed lie.
Clara is a smart gal, and production may have underestimated her intelligence as well as her compassion, and worried that she would figure it all out, I suggested that Patrick could think this was all a ruse on him.
Production was a little wary of this approach, so much money had been spent on this show, so planting the idea that it was a prank behind a prank wasn’t well-received with everyone.
Having been part of a reality TV show previously, she knew certain things about filmmaking which an ‘ordinary citizen’ might not know; one such example was when a plane flew overhead and she stopped talking and pointed to the sky. I, Eric, knew what she was referring to; the sound of the jet engine affects the recording of sound, and is therefore unpleasant to listen to, and more importantly, makes editing the show more difficult. I knew why she stopped speaking, but Patrick didn’t, so he asks her why and she tells him the technical reasons, revealing she knew things about filmmaking.
Suddenly, I saw my opportunity, Patrick flips out, starts acting defensively and shouts at the camera crew that clearly this is all a big joke on him.
“How does she know all this!?” “She’s a fucking actress!” Etctera etcetera. Producers had to play along, and with cameras off, they came out on set to speak with Patrick and calm him down, and with my back to Clara, Eric had a huge grin on his face.
From that point, revealing in her interviews her worries about Patrick maybe pulling out of the show, and therefore saying goodbye the prize money, she now had to do my job for me, she was now the one who had to convince me to be part of this show. She didn’t suspect that I was the actor, because I convinced her that I thought she was.
Prank the prankee pulling a prank on the prankee.
It’s only at the very end of the show, at the wedding, when I pulled the rug from underneath her feet that I knew she wasn’t an actor (or she was the best one I have ever worked with). Our final task is to say “I do” at our wedding, a task which would win us a lot of money and make the nightmare worth while.
Patrick, uncomfortable with lying to his parents, something which was reinforced throughout the show, reveals to everyone that he is not really in love with Clara, but they had to do this for money, and he couldn’t bear the lie anymore.
“I’m sorry, I can’t marry her.”
Just like that, I had ripped €100,000 from her hands.
She insults and hits me, not just because she had lost the prize money, but because Clara & Patrick were in on this together, and I had to commit this coup de grace for the finale.
She angrily reveals to our family members that all we had to do is pretend for a little longer and we would’ve won.
“Of course I’m not in love with him”, she insists, screaming at me with piercing eyes.
Exhausted, two weeks of game suddenly wasted, she falls to her knees, furious. At that point, I was given the green light to let Patrick die and tell her the real truth.
I bend a knee and ask if she can forgive me.
“No I can’t fucking forgive you!”
She had revealed so many times how winning could’ve helped her life, and I stole that future away from her. Little does she know I have a cheque in my pocket.
“No, I mean forgive me for lying to you all this time. My name’s not Patrick.”
She looks at me, confused.
And after sixteen days, I was able to finally reveal…
“My name’s Eric. I’m a comedian.”
I point to my faux family.
“Those people are not my parents, that’s not my ex-girlfriend, they’re all actors. I only met them a few weeks ago.”
Something which came as a shock to her because she had revealed in interviews how endearing and loving we were as a family, but instead, she was just witness to a game of improvisation.
“You’re on a TV show called ‘My Incredible Fiancé.’”
At this point, I had never in my life seen someone so confused.
All I kept thinking was “I hope there’s a camera pointing over my shoulder to capture her expression.”
Thankfully, there was. It was the money shot.
It was the moment I knew that she was oblivious to the scheme.
A huge weight could finally come off my shoulders. I was almost in tears from the exhaustion of lying.
I pull out the cheque from my pocket and give it to her.
“Congratulations, you win.”
As soon as the final shot is filmed, I go to my bedroom, take off these ridiculous clothes, shower and shed the old skin, to re-introduce Eric back as the main driver of this body.
Even with cameras off, I chose to continue behaving as Patrick. When we weren’t filming a segment, we were separated to control as much as possible the flow of conversation, so when one of the crew members silently asked why I was still acting like Patrick, I asked “can she see me?”
I didn’t just have to pretend for the cameras, I also did it for her.
So finally, at the wrap party, everyone watched us meet for the first time, again. I could finally reveal myself to her, and comedically apologize for all the things Patrick said or did in the name of entertainment. I was so excited to finally speak with her as Eric.
I approach her as I would a good friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, after all, I had been with her for the past sixteen intense days, and had grown quite fond of her.
We shake hands, but she doesn’t quite know what to say, she no longer looked at me like she used to, and maybe I’m wrong, but it’s like she was scared to talk with me.
As far as she was concerned, I was now a complete stranger. I had the same body, but I was moving around with it in a different way, every detail she associated with that person was a fabrication, she didn’t know the person behind the eyes, even though I had silently been there the whole time.
It was a surreal sensation, and one I hadn’t expected. I remember being sad, as if all the cherished memories she had with me actually belonged to Patrick.
Thankfully, that feeling washed over us relatively swiftly and we shared some good laughs about our crazy adventure.
The show came out the year after in France, and was a success, garnering millions of viewers, the same year I married a woman in the United States, whom I met in January and wed in October, the same week the show aired. A whirlwind love affair that coincidentally mirrored the show in eerie ways, in a display of life imitating art.
I am now divorced.
On 17th March 2019, I woke up with amnesia…
St. Patrick’s Day.
Since that day, I feel very aware that Eric is also a character I get to play. It’s a little alien, disturbing at times, lonely and frustrating, occasionally brilliant and weirdly funny, to sense yet another stranger behind my mask, pretending to be me, pulling the strings.
I hope in time, this trickster will reveal why it has me in this cosmic prank, and finally let me in on the joke.