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Joe Gandelman: Hoax comedy doesn’t always buy you universal laughs

How could she possibly do it?

How could nurse 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha possibly take her own life after two Australian radio DJs using bad accents crank-called a hospital in Great Britain, and tricked her on the air into transferring them to get confidential information on Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton?

How could the DJs and radio station be so unthinking, some wonder. How could she take a prank so seriously, others ask. How could the media be guilty of such overkill on a quintessential radio hoax call prank, still others wonder. And could the media that gleefully reported the hoax now be so hypocritical as to lambast the two young DJs, once the death became known, many ask.

DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian expressed shock and grief. Grieg, quoted by The Daily Mail, said when she heard the news “‘my first question was, ‘Was she a mother?’ ... It was the worst phone call I have ever had in my life. There’s not a minute that goes by that we don’t think about her family and what they must be going through.”

I’ve been personally involved with two forms of a “hoax” — a hidden camera stunt and a DJ radio hoax — and I can understand the feeling what one family member said was the dead nurse’s likely feeling of overwhelming “shame.”

In 2001, I was on NBC-TV hidden camera show “Spy TV” in my incarnation as a ventriloquist. The set up was I walked into a fake office where a mother and her preschool-age-ish child was sitting, took out my dummy who interacted with them, got called into the other room, and put the dummy down. When the mother was called out of the room the dummy came “alive” and asked the little boy to help him to run away from me. The mothers of all kids taped (they selected the best kid) all signed releases and were in on the prank.

Several years ago I got a call from a radio show staffer in England. He said his show’s host saw my characters on the Internet and because “we broadcast near a children’s hospital and there are many sick kids. We wanted you to come on so our host could interview you and have you talk like some of your characters talking to little children to cheer them up.” He said he wanted me to talk specifically to very young kids, and the host would tape it and edit it for time purposes.

It clearly was a hoax. The host asked some basic questions, then insisted I do a few jokes aimed for kids in the voices of some characters, then he’d say, “Oh, yes. That’s classic comedy... You’re really a great comedian.” When I quickly sensed the set up, I angrily told him so and hung up.

This was an attempt to get me to say specific things for an edited bit, after getting me by appealing to my feelings for sick children. I felt beat-up, humiliated and victimized. Yes: I can imagine what Jacintha felt.

The Australian DJs' bit was not mean-spirited, but it left a host of victims. A mother of two will be laid to rest in India. The DJs’ careers and lives will never be the same. Meanwhile, the radio station Southern Cross Austereo now says it’ll donate rest of the year’s ad profits to a fund for Jacintha Saldanha’s utterly decimated family.

But you know the old saying: money doesn’t buy you love. And hoax comedy doesn’t always buy you universal laughs.


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at