While Ashton Kutcher has grown to be known for his charity work and rom-coms, the actor first had a reputation in stoner comedies, including 2000’s Dude, Where’s My Car? and That ‘70s Show. Because of this, it was Kutcher’s then-himbo energy that primed him perfectly to be among the most devious pranksters in Hollywood and tapped as the host of MTV’s Punk’d.
Before Punk’d even made it to air in 2003, it began with a rocky start as a show titled Harassment, in which the first prank involved a fake dead body at the Hard Rock Hotel. The targeted couple returned the favor with a $10 million lawsuit against Kutcher, MTV, and the casino property, causing them to switch focus to “punking” celebrities.
The live comedy show celebrates its 20th anniversary on March 17, and a lot has changed in the decades since. Compared to a current time dominated by social media and celebrities opting for cleaner images, Punk’d feels like a time capsule of the raunchy ‘00s anything-goes nature — for better or for worse.
Kutcher’s first targets were Justin Timberlake and Malcolm In The Middle star Frankie Muniz. For Timberlake’s turn, he was told by what he believed to be IRS agents that his valuable possessions (including his dog) were being taken for not paying taxes. Muniz had a similar encounter, except they made him believe his Porsche was stolen by the valet.
Throughout his time hosting on the show, Kutcher and his team also made Hugh Jackman believe his house was on fire, and Jason Bateman got questioned about a hit-and-run. Other guests were like a who's-who of aughties fame and tabloid fodder. What other show could you find Rihanna in one episode and Nitro Circus’ Travis Pastrana in another?
[Courtesy of MTV]
The first finale of Punk’d happened in 2007, years before the show would have several more rollercoaster-style revivals. After eight seasons under Kutcher’s reign, he reminisced about the best celebrity pranks in an awards-style format, aptly titled “The Punk’d Awards.” Considering the categories included “Best Reaction From A Guy Who Could Kick Our Ass” (which went to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who did not show up to accept his trophy) and “Celebrities Gone Wild” (won by Zach Braff, who also did not show up), it’s clear that Kutcher could already tell that the series had outlived its welcome.
MTV eventually attempted to revive Punk’d in 2012, a time when the network was in a bit of an odd phase. Its lineup included Silent Library and Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory, which found the skateboarder decking out a warehouse to fit his wildest dreams. Was there substance? No, but it was damn well entertaining and a less-provocative option to Jersey Shore. This eventually led to the very early days of the home-video style of Ridiculousness — which now notoriously occupies most of the network’s live programming schedule.
Despite the revival, Kutcher didn’t return as the host, leading them to capitalize on a changing lineup of celebrity guests hosts, including Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and some that made more sense, like Jackass’ Bam Margera and Kutcher's former prank accomplice Dax Shepard.
And Punk’d’s iterations have only become stranger since leaving MTV. It briefly moved to BET to be hosted by Vine stars King Bach and DeStorm Power in 2015. Then, in 2020, it became a Quibi reboot led by Chance, The Rapper before The Roku Channel bought Quibi — taking the show rights with it. Nowadays, only a handful of the original seasons are available to stream on Paramount+. (We know, it’s a lot to take in.)
[Courtesy of MTV]
Gone are the days when celebrities were willing participants in any sort of prank. A few months ago, a clip of Beyoncé believing she accidentally knocked over a Christmas tree during a 2003 holiday episode that made the rounds online. “You ruined Christmas!” the children yelled at her, as they watched the ornament decorations clatter to the ground. The then 22-year-old icon looks on in complete horror.
Taylor Swift’s turn happened at the hands of Bieber in 2012 — an episode in which Dyrdek was also a target. After being told to come to a Malibu beach house for a writing session, Swift helps Bieber set off fireworks into the ocean, which inadvertently causes a boat to catch on fire while a fake couple was having a wedding. Those who were in on the prank from the boat eventually swim to shore, leading Swift to become increasingly scared she actually caused the accident.
"They told me they saw the Punk'd episode, so now I know they've seen me absolutely traumatized and terrified, so that was good,” Swift said at the time, referencing how Barack Obama’s daughters reacted to her episode, and speaking to the wide reach of the series.
[Courtesy of MTV]
Given how culture has changed in the years since, “hidden camera pranking” has severely raised the stakes, with YouTubers conducting dangerous (and sometimes, traumatizing) stunts in the name of content. It makes watching Punk’d seem relatively tame in retrospect.
It’s also worth noting that Swift, Beyoncé, and other A-List celebrities are currently in a time where their images are a lot more polished in order to distinguish themselves as unattainable. Outside of the occasional talk show or an edited TikTok, there isn’t much of an expectation for stars to appear on wacky TV concepts. Fans are even lucky if they dish even one secret in a cover story interview for Vogue or Rolling Stone.
Sure, Eric Andre took the chaos to another level on his “talk show,” but the guests have included Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills star Brandi Glanville and Flavor Flav. Years into a prank-style show likely comes with the difficulty of celebrities catching onto the bit, which might also be why Punk’d started to falter.
While it might finally be time to let Punk’d go, it’s also not to say there won’t be another hidden-camera series in the future. Even ABC announced a new series this week, titled The Prank Panel, with the aforementioned Andre, Johnny Knoxville, and Gabourey Sidibe, so there’s a possibility that the prank era can make another comeback. Until then, the clips of our favorite performers on Punk’d will recirculate on social media, as a new generation of fans are surprised by the chaos and carefree nature.