'Pranking is actually a lot of hard work!'
Master prank caller Russell Johnson aka Ownage Pranks on what it's like to prank call people for a living every week, for millions of viewers worldwide
Most people relegate pulling pranks to the one day of the year that gives them a carte blanche for doing so. But not US-based comedian/voice actor Russell Johnson. Better known by his very popular YouTube channel Ownage Pranks, Russell is a professional prankster. In other words, every day is April Fools' Day!
Unlike his peers on the YouTube pranking scene - who go out into the street to prank people and capture their reactions - Russell is an anonymous performer. His calling card (excuse the pun) is making prank phone calls. Fans have no idea what he looks like but they're all too familiar with the nine characters he voices - most popular of who are Abdo the Egyptian (who is always asking for "combensaytion"), Rakesh the Indian (a big fan of chicken tikka masala), Buk Lau the Vietnamese (who pronounces 'L' as 'R') and Tyrone the black American (who calls everyone 'dawg').
With over 3.7 million YouTube subscribers (and counting), Ownage Pranks has come a long way from when Russell first started out more than 10 years ago with about 7,000 listeners and a basic live streaming website. But when people began to increasingly distribute his content on YouTube without crediting him for it, Russell decided to start his own channel on the video-sharing website. That was in 2007. It's been a "nice upward climb since", he says. And the stats concur. Today, his videos easily touch about 17 million views a month, while Facebook posts reach anywhere between 30-40 million viewers a week. While Russell is also involved in "bigger picture projects in the voice acting and comedy realm", he admits his commitment to Ownage Pranks is almost full time now.
We rang up the master prankster for a fun chat about what it's like to 'get up to no good' by popular request. Excerpts from the interview:
It's taken you years to get to where you are right now. How has the journey been so far?
Hard - because for a long time, I was the only prankster who didn't show his face and yet had a huge following. That's a lot more difficult to achieve when people don't have a face to connect to, just a voice.
What's an average day like?
The average day usually consists of sifting through the hundreds of requests that come in from fans everyday, and then working with the team to figure out the content, video production and editing process. It probably looks very easy, but it's a lot of hard work behind the scenes. I'm very passionate about bringing a visual to these characters - which adds an element of hilarity - so there's a lot of time, money and effort spent on working with animators all over the world too.
How did you perfect the accents for your characters, since they come from such diverse cultural backgrounds?
A lot of the character voices evolved over time, actually. I started when I was much younger and I still have recordings from when I was trying to perfect these voices, and make them more authentic and believable. I also had an extremely diverse group of friends that influenced the character development heavily. I'd be over at their houses a lot, watching them interact with their families and picking up on stereotypes that people from those cultures would be sure to relate to. Plus, my friends would offer their own inputs every now and then, making suggestions about certain phrases they thought would be funny etc.
Of all the prank calls you've made to date, which one is your favourite?
That's a tough one! I put up a new prank every Sunday so there's always new material coming in. But I guess the current favourite would have to be the guy in Australia, a few months back. He'd gotten into a heated altercation with an Indian cab driver a few days before, so on his friend's request, I called up pretending to be the cabbie - as Rakesh, of course - demanding an apology. His friend had given me a lot of details - like his licence plate number, his home address, the names of his mum, sisters and girlfriend - which I used during the phone call and which obviously made me come across as some sort of crazy stalker. It got to a point where he thought that I'd actually kidnapped his girlfriend - which is when I finally revealed that it was a prank. He was a great sport about it, and the prank has been viewed more than two million times since.
Why do you do these pranks?
Purely comedic purposes - there's no other intent. One thing I'm particular about is to only do it in such a way that people will always get a kick out of it. I never want to offend anyone with the pranks, so I always find out from their friends or family first whether the person they want me to prank will find it funny, whether there's anything I should be aware of etc. People don't see my face on the channel so it's sometimes easy to assume I'm mean or that I don't care. But I've started doing 'prank reveals' now - where I let my 'victim' know it was just a prank, sometimes even send them a couple of hundred bucks for their trouble - so they get that I have a heart. A lot of the people I've pranked have emailed me afterwards to say they're now huge fans.
As you get older, your personality and content mature too. It's not just about calling up people and ticking them off. When I was younger, I didn't care all that much - but it's different now. I actually enjoy creating in-depth content, exploring different situations but also circling back the classics (like the restaurant owner or robbery victim pranks) that fans keep coming back for.
Apart from that, personal messages from all the fans - like when they write in to say they were feeling down but a particular prank video really brightened their day - really motivate me to keep things fresh for them.
Why all the anonymity though?
A lot of people have their own ideas of what these characters look like. A very large part of what I do is not ruining that image for them. I also enjoy the humble low-key approach. A lot of people like to bask in the fame they accrue for themselves, but I like being able to live day-to-day without being recognised on the street.
The anonymity has its ups and downs though. Because of it, I've had to miss out on a couple of great opportunities. Folks have offered to fly me out to different countries for meet-and-greet at YouTube conventions and the like. Naturally, I've had to turn them down.
Will that be the case forever? Not necessarily. But, right now, it's about maintaining the mystery for the fans, and not taking away what they perceive these characters to be. I've built it up to a point where I can't just turn the switch off. If I'm going to start putting a face to the name, the transition will need to be right.
What about your friends? Do they know who you are?
I have a tight-knit group of friends who I can be myself around. At the same time, there are also a lot of close friends who don't know. It's funny because, sometimes, I'll be out at a social gathering, talking normally, and suddenly someone will say, "Dude, you sound just like this guy Ownage Pranks on YouTube!" (laughs) It definitely keeps me on my toes. For now, unless I'm hanging around with my own friends, I keep the 'mask' on.
Where do you draw the line?
I push the boundaries quite a bit in some of these calls, but I generally know where to draw the line. I take into consideration whether I have an insider to calm them down, whether there's a reveal in the end etc - but I also have a general intuition that tells me if I'm pushing it a bit much. Being smart about not pushing things too much has been a good strategy so far.
All your calls are unscripted. Why is that?
I pride myself on keeping it real. A lot of people in the prank space have resorted to phasing out some of their content to other people - that is, they'll hire actors who pretend to get pranked - and that's tarnished the scene in a way. I get why they do it: they're on the street all day; they don't know how long it'll take. it's pricey, time-consuming and not getting good results can be frustrating. But people aren't stupid. They can tell when it's fake. And that's unfortunate because then the fans start questioning the authenticity of everything [because of a few who're taking the short route]. That's why I take pride in doing everything in real time.
Do you have anything to say to your fans in the Middle East?
I want to give them a huge shout out for their continued support. I love going online and reading all their comments, translating them from Arabic etc. I actually don't do a lot of interviews. But I have a soft spot for the Middle East, and definitely hope to make it out there soon.