Prankster From 'Freak Out' Tells Us All About The New ABC Family Horror-Themed Hidden Camera Prank Show
There's a reason TV shows like Candid Camera and Punk'd are so iconic: there's something incredibly satisfying about watching a practical joke work. Like witnessing a gymnast stick the landing after a physics-defying uneven bars routine. ABC Family has thrown its hat into the hidden camera prank show ring, but it has added a spooky twist. Freak Out doesn't just want to trick the mark; it wants to scare the bajeezus out of the mark. Before Wednesday night's premiere, I had the chance to chat with Freak Out prankster/actor/improvisor Dan Amerman (aka A rrested Development pop star Mark Cherry) about the new hidden camera series. Let me just say I am grateful the prank pro didn't prank me at any point during our conversation.
Unlike the hidden camera prank shows that pull the same trick on multiple passersby, each Freak Out prank sets its crosshairs on a single person, aka "the mark." With the assistance of the mark's friends and family members, aka "the accomplices," the show tailors the prank to the person's fears, and then ups the ante with special effects. Oh, the mark gets the heebie-jeebies around bugs? Why not introduce the mark to a prankster who's wearing a prosthetic stomach that's full of real cockroaches? And why not find a reason to make the mark cut open that roach-filled prosthetic stomach? Sounds like the perfect recipe for a freakout.
Dan tells me that while a lot of improvising was involved, a TON of prep and planning went into the practical jokes. The pressure to pull a joke off in one fell swoop was high: “[If the mark realizes it’s a prank], you look foolish. Not only in front of that person, but in front of the 75 crew members [in the control room] watching this on camera who spent three days building all of the special effects that are going to pop off," Dan explains.
"So, in the moment, you’re like, ‘I hope I don’t ruin three days of everyone’s lives. You get one take to do it right. And if it doesn’t happen, then that’s a big problem.”
Was there ever a time a prank didn't land? “There have been close calls," he tells me. "One of the most common things [marks] say is ‘I feel like I’m being Punk’d’ or ‘I feel like I’m on a hidden camera show.' But that’s just their gut reaction. It's like when any of us experience something crazy in real life and we say, ‘This is nuts, I feel like I’m being Punk’d.’ We can't let their initial wariness rattle our confidence. As long as you stay confident and calm, you can bring them back.”
When I ask if there are any specific "close calls" that come to mind, Dan recounts a prank in which he had to pretend like he developed super powers after being “electrocuted.” Lights would flicker in his wake, a blender would suddenly spew out smoothie ingredients as he walked by, and so on. Initially, the actors weren’t sure that the mark would buy the supernatural scenario. But when one prankster asked what was going with Dan, the mark earnestly replied, “Don’t you get it? There’s electricity coursing through his veins!” It was in that moment that the cast was certain they had the mark in the palms of their prankin' hands.
“The thing that you come to realize after you do a couple pranks successfully, is that people kind of believe anything until they have reason to not believe it," he explains. "So if you just continue to be a normal person, even if it seems like [the prank] won’t work, if you don’t show your cards or give up the prank, then they’re going to buy it. But the hard part is believing in the prank enough to not sell it out.”
"You have to make yourself believe the ghost that just came out of the wall is real, even though you just had lunch with the person playing the ghost."
After filming over 50 pranks together, it isn't surprising that the Freak Out cast grew to be a tight-knit team. Their trust in each other played a major role in the process: "If you mess something up, you have other people to dig you out if you ever get into trouble," Dan tells me. "And you also have the [producer talking to you via earpiece] who is working to dig you out. So, you have a lot of people holding you up so you don’t feel alone."
As gratifying as it is for the viewers at home to watch the cast pull off a prank, that gratification is tenfold for the cast: “The times when you realize [the prank] is working and [the mark] believes it, and then when you reveal it and see that look in their eyes— the transition of them going from, like, ‘Oh, my god. My life will never be the same. I just saw a ghost for real’ to realizing, ‘This was all just a gag,’ that little moment is priceless. It’s like seeing someone win the lottery, or something," he laughs.
“It’s pure joy and so much relief. When we would do the reveal at the end of every prank, we'd feel like we just hit the game-winning shot.”
Freak Out premieres March 25 at 8:30/7:30c on ABC Family. Follow Dan on Twitter at @DanielAmerman for behind-the scenes photos, stories, and other Freak Out-related fun.
Images: Rick Rowell/ABC Family; Dan Amerman