The funny story behind 50 years of Arab prank shows, from Camera Al Khafiya to Ramez Galal

Some find them a guilty pleasure, others say they're guilty of emotional exploitation – but there is no denying their enduring appeal, especially on the Ramadan TV schedule

A handout photo of Ramez Galal for Ramez Wakel Elgaw show (Courtesy: MBC) NOTE: For Hala Khalaf's roundup of Ramadan soaps for 2015 *** Local Caption ***  MBC MASR - RAMEZ WAKEL ELGAW 2.jpg
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Taxi trips with wacky drivers and celebrities navigating obstacle courses featuring wild animals are some of the set-ups for this year’s tranche of Ramadan prank shows.

As a television and online staple during the holy month, the genre has a storied history from humble beginnings on street corners in Algeria and Cairo to the latest big-budget productions in Riyadh packed with famous faces and death-defying stunts.

As well as the genuine laughs, part of the soundtrack to these programmes are the occasional complaints from viewers and authorities about their content. But the fact that they come almost hand in hand with high ratings and viral moments for broadcasters indicates they transcend some of the controversial material and serve a more enriching purpose during Ramadan.

"They are a mood booster during the month," Mazen Hayek, a media consultant in Dubai and former official representative for MBC, tells The National.

"At the end of the fasting day, people are a little tired and after they eat and do their prayers, they often want to unwind together as a family. This is why you will find prank shows and comedies firmly established in that post-prayer and fasting timing slot, then followed by the more hard-hitting dramas. That has always been the case for decades because viewers need that dose of fun after a long day."

Hidden cameras and the big reveal

This year’s offerings come in varied forms.

The biggest prank show once again belongs to Egyptian comedian Ramez Galal with the latest installment of his series, this year titled Ramez Gab Min El Akher, airing on MBC and streaming platform Shahid.

Shot in Riyadh, each episode has a pair of high-profile guests – mostly Egyptian actors and athletes – arriving at a television studio to appear in what they assume is Galal’s new talk show.

Things go almost immediately awry, however, when their changing rooms unsuspectingly lead to an obstacle course through a trapdoor.

“Greetings and apologies for the disturbance," Galal then says when guests discover the reality of their situation. "The price of those who listen and follow me is to handle discomfort.”

In the Moroccan programme Fasel Wa Nowasil (Keep Laughing), also on Shahid, Arab celebrities are invited to an entertainment show where they are subject to derision by a fellow guest portrayed by comedian Morad El Achabi.

Meanwhile, taxi pranks feature in a pair of online Egyptian shows Crazy Taxi and Crazy Woman. The unrelated series, shot through a hidden camera on a car dashboard, have comedians Hamam Al Shamam and Fatma El Nagar taking unsuspecting passengers along the scenic route to their Cairo destination while prodding them with uncomfortable personal questions.

Binding the shows together are cathartic moments for the audience when harried subjects lose their cool when it is revealed to them that their ordeal was all an elaborate joke.

Where in previous seasons Galal was placed in a headlock by Syrian actor Bassem Yakhour or attacked by Egyptian pop star Ahmed Saad, in the latest, he arms himself with a paintball gun for defence.

El Nagar had no such backup and faced the occasional grapple and litany of abuse from passengers, while celebrities stormed out of the studio in Fasel Wa Nowasil.

Each episode then ends in a show of forgiveness between the host and victim, a tribute to Ramadan's central message of mercy.

A funny history

The typical prank show follows a lineage dating back nearly 80 years.

Originating in 1948 when Candid Camera was first aired by US broadcaster CBS, the format – where concealed cameras captured members of the public caught in unexpected situations – arrived on Arab screens in 1973 with an Algerian version, Al Camera Al Khafiya, hosted by Alhaj Rahim.

The concept took off, however, with the Egyptian version of Camera Al Khafiya in 1983, which was broadcast regionally.

It was first hosted by actor Fouad El Mohandes, but Ibrahim Nasr, who took over the show in 1993, turned it into a family favourite.

For nearly 20 years, Nasr would walk around busy Cairo streets and bamboozle citizens in his disguise as neurotic elderly woman Zakia Zakaria.

Not only was it charming and good-natured, but acted as a brilliant showcase of his comic talents, ranging from slapstick and zany improvisations to sharp punchlines.

The success of the programme inspired other regional takes of Camera Al Khafiya. It had its debut in Saudi Arabia in 1991 as Moosh Ma’qool, hosted by comic Maher Al Taweel, and in Syria with actor Ayman Reda in 1995. It arrived in Iraq two years later with performers Yusuf Jumaa and Mohamed Ibrahim as hosts.

These programmes represented the first wave of Arab prank shows, Hayek notes, in their reliance on the talents rather than the public.

"It was very presenter-centric and the comedians were the heroes," he says.

"Each episode would see them acting out a new situation on the public. In many ways, people were tuning in to watch the comics and their skill and not the reaction of the audience and this made these shows a great showcase for them.”

However, not every regional spin was a success.

Algerian programme Ana Wa Rajli (Me and My Man) was pulled off air in 2020 after its concept spectacularly backfired.

Each episode began with unsuspecting and financially struggling single men who thought they were taking part in a variety show. Things took a turn when the host, comedian Mohammed Bin Yahya, began to ask about the qualities they are looking for in a wife.

The cringe-worthy moment arrives when the man discovers the “grand prize” he is competing for is a spouse “who has her own house and salary".

By the time the man finds out it is all a joke, the damage is done and they are utterly humiliated. The show reportedly stopped airing after nine episodes with Bin Yahya issuing a public apology.

Celebrities and controversies

In a similar vein to how the genre arrived in the region, when US shows started replacing members of the public with celebrity victims at the turn of the millennium, so did Arab pranksters.

The success of MTV's Punk'd, which first aired in 2003 and was hosted by Ashton Kutcher, centred largely on its complex and headline-making pranks involving the likes of Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. It inspired Arab broadcasters to become more ambitious in their concept.

The move became a double-edged sword, however, in that it captured the attention of a new generation of viewers with some spectacular concepts, while also ushering in a string of controversial and ill-thought programmes that made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Leading the charge was Galal whose annual Ramadan series, which first aired in 2011 under the name Ramez Qalb Al Asad on Egyptian channel Al Hayat TV, found novel ways to create death-defying experiences for celebrities. They included simulating a fire rescue from a burning building to staging a bloody bear attack in the freezing forests of Russia.

Hayek, who worked on the marketing campaigns for Galal’s programmes after the show moved to MBC in 2014, says its success was down to the production values and big budget offered by a major broadcaster.

"What Ramez did with MBC is really take the prank to a new level,” he says.

“We are no longer talking about handheld cameras anymore and instead using more cinematic techniques, getting stunt teams from Hollywood and getting scriptwriters to really dial up the drama.”

Celebrities were also looked after, Hayek states. They could approve their appearance on the show, receive an appearance fee and had the added bonus of their social media numbers increasing after their episodes were aired.

That said, the success of Galal’s shows inspired problematic programmes whose reliance on shock value caused controversy in their respective territories.

In 2021, Iraqi media regulators cancelled the prank show Tannab Raslan after outraging viewers with its concept.

The show had Iraqi personalities, appearing in what they thought was a charity sports event, who were detained and then rescued from a staged ambush by actors playing militants and security forces.

Sudanese programme Aleika Wahed (One on You) was also reportedly criticised by the Sudanese police force for their portrayal of overzealous officers in the series.

These flash points are par for the course Hayek states, while chalking programme failures down to poor creative and production choices.

"The fact that many of these programmes are top rating and cause controversy tells you that people are still watching it despite what they tell themselves or hear from others, " he says.

"Prank shows are one of those guilty pleasures in life in that people hate the fact they love it.”

Updated: April 01, 2024, 12:30 AM