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All Just a Prank

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Louise: I don't understand. How did you do all this? And how did I fall for it?
Linda: It was a lot of work. So many e-mails.

The "just a dream" trope has become so worn out that writers actively avoid it now. So how else can a main character be momentarily uncomfortable or threatened? Rather than conflict within the self, the conflict could be construed by a master-mind or a team of rascals: An event so elaborate that the person experiencing it will wish it was a dream.

The All Just a Prank trope is when a key plot in a story turns out to be a prank. This could be a prank in the comedic sense, but could also be something more sinister, where the victim/victims loses more than they gain. The trope not only fools the main character, but the viewer. Typically there are little to no signs that it's a prank, so viewers are left in the dark about their legitimacy. This can be compared with dream sequences that resemble reality and surprise viewers when they're revealed to be false. A sister trope of this is the Friendly Scheming trope, which applies to pranks that have positive results and brings people together.

Furthermore, the aforementioned dream trope and the current trope in discussion both rely on the suspension of disbelief. When a prank becomes too complicated, convoluted and expensive to be feasible, the viewer might assume it is a dream sequence. If there has been no indication of it being a prank, then the big reveal could be interchanged with someone waking up, and it usually has no major bearing on the plot. But as discussed, the "just a dream" trope is known to frustrate audiences and cause them to disengage with the text or criticise it.

The pranks depicted are often so complicated that only someone with an obsessive personality could create something so impossible. Several Plot Holes may arise following the reveal. Even if the prank is explained, it can sometimes raise more questions than it answers. It's also difficult to conceive of a plot being a prank if everything went as planned. With pranks that risk people's lives or sanity, it verges into Gambit Roulette, as anything could happen. Characters who are victim to the prank may lose their sanity or hold a grudge against the jokers.

Occasionally, the prankers will get A Taste of Their Own Medicine; the joke becomes ''real'' or gets out of control. The jokers then have to apologise for the prank and the real-life consequences. This may lead to someone pulling a prank on them for revenge.

If the prank occurs over multiple episodes, then the big reveal may have an underwhelming impact. It may even be a tool for the writers to discontinue a plot without abandoning it too suddenly or confusing the viewers.

Compare Prank Gone Too Far, All Just a Dream, Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, Nightmare Sequence, Overly Pre-Prepared Gag, Gainax Ending, Shock-and-Switch Ending, and And You Thought It Was Real. Can lead to a Surprisingly Happy Ending (although this is not a guarantee). Can overlap with The Con, when engineered situations and several people are used in an elaborated con.

Note that is a spoiler trope, so beware! You Have Been Warned!


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The first chapter of Zekkyou Gakkyuu has a girl find a magical game console that allows the things she experiences in the game to happen in real life. At the same time, a rumour about a Serial Killer on the loose is going around the neighbourhood. One day, while going home from school, the girl gets chased by the Serial Killer, and gets herself cornered in a bathroom. In desperation, she restarts the magic game, hoping that it would help her escape, but instead traps her into the device. It is revealed too late that the "serial killer" is actually her disguised classmates trying to prank her because they thought she's getting too obsessed with her game and ignoring them.

    Fan Works 
  • Peeking Through the Fourth Wall: In the Halloween Episode, Grammy the AI apparently turns evil, brings several appliances to life to declare a robot war, and zaps several of the siblings unconscious. As it turned out though, he and the "unconscious" siblings were simply playing a prank on the rest of the siblings.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • April Fools' Day. Muffy St. John invites eight of her friends to her island for April Fools Day, and one by one the guests are murdered and disappear. A standard Slasher Movie? Not quite, as no one is killed: it's all just a way for Muffy to test her "murder mystery weekend" plan on her unsuspecting guests.
  • The Game (1997): A man signs up for a mysterious service involving what he believes to be a game of entertainment. He begins to receive unsettling threats, and is soon on the run from the law as he endures various acts of violence, confusion and paranoia. In a stand off at the end, he accidentally shoots his brother and watches him die. Ashamed and horrified, he jumps through a glass ceiling and lands on an airbag, surrounded by party goers. The horrors he went through for the "game" were in fact all part of it, even his brother's death.
  • Deconstructed in Catacombs. The protagonist (a Nervous Wreck) navigates the Parisian Catacombs to escape a murderous maniac, causing her sanity to slip. After managing to kill the maniac with a pickaxe, her sister and friends come out of hiding to reveal that it was just a prank. They see that she killed their friend, and their harsh reaction fuels her final Freak Out as she kills them all.
  • Penn & Teller Get Killed: The biggest twist to the film is that the whole plot (a violent Loony Fan of Penn and Teller swears to kill them, culminating with him kidnapping Teller) is a prank Penn has planned to top, once and for all, the Escalating War that he has been playing with Teller for years. The revelation comes way too late because, unknown to Penn, Teller purchased a sub-nosed revolver for self-defense which he uses to shoot Penn dead just as he barges into the "stalker"'s room yelling "surprise!" The grief of Teller and all of Penn's fellow prank conspirators is so big that they all commit suicide... and so does every single person that enters the room afterwards.

  • Father Brown: In the story "The Blast of the Book", Father Brown and a famous paranormal investigator look into the mystery of a book which apparently causes anybody who tries to read it to vanish into thin air. It's finally revealed that it's all a prank by the investigator's secretary, who was annoyed at being treated like an appliance by his aloof employer. (The employer decides that it was Actually Pretty Funny and vows to be more friendly to him in the future.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • Banjun Drama: In "I Will Love You," Young-jun's whole escapade with his favorite actress Han Eun-byeol, from becoming her baking teacher to their dates, turn out to be planned for a hidden camera show. The ending shows the hurt Young-jun receiving a glimmer of hope by Eun-byeol seriously returning to his side but that too is revealed to be part of the prank show.
  • Bunk'd: Double Subverted in "Fog'd In", when the campers encounter a fog that is said to cause odd side-effects with the campers (ie. Emma loses her memory). Said fog was later revealed to be a prank on Jorge to get back at him for making fun of the fog earlier. But then an actual fog hits, which carries a parasite which gives the campers gigantic welts, followed by adrenaline-fueled highly aggressive behavior, and eventually death. Then the whole episode was revealed to be a story told by Jorge.
  • Cheers:
    • One episode has the gang take on Gary's Old Town Tavern in their annual prank war. However, Gary comes over to Cheers and says they shouldn't do it that year because he was recently diagnosed with a heart condition. The Cheers gang goes ahead with a prank anyway and it appears that Gary dies of a heart attack. Sam believes that the whole thing is a prank despite Gary's obituary being in the paper, a funeral, and even a burial. Just after Sam finally accepts that Gary died for real, it's revealed that it actually was just a prank and Gary is still alive.
    • It's reported that Gary's Old Town Tavern has been bought out. The gang tries to restart their prank war with the new owners, only for them to retaliate quite destructively. A police officer who comes to them reveals that the new owners are in the mob and the police are essentially afraid of them. Believing this is the sort of prank Gary would pull, they retaliate themselves. After that, the FBI comes to tell them that the new owners actually are in the mob and they're now in serious danger. They take Norm, Cliff, Carla, and Woody away to a safe location while Sam stays behind. The "safe location" turns out to be the middle of nowhere. Sam then calls them up and reveals the whole thing was a retaliatory prank for one where they made him believe Gary had died.
    • The B-plot for one episode had Cliff showing disgust at the postal service introducing new uniforms. At one point, two of his colleagues show up and have him try on the new uniform. It turns out that while the postal service is getting new uniforms, Cliff hasn't seen them yet and the two of them made up a fake one to prank him. The uniform they have him try on looks more like that of a marching band. Oddly, Cliff likes it.
  • This was a popular trope on The Golden Girls, and showed up in several episodes:
    • In "Bang the Drum, Stanley," Sophia gets conked on the head by an errant pop fly at a baseball game. Dorothy's ex-husband Stan convinces her to help him file a Frivolous Lawsuit against the team and ballpark. Sophia pretends that she's been paralyzed, although Dorothy knows she's faking. When it comes to receive a physical to prove her paralysis, Sophia, Dorothy, and Stan end up in a hospital waiting room full of people in wheelchairs, on crutches, and generally unable to move. When a particularly small boy enters, Sophia is overcome with guilt and announces that she's been which point all of the "injured" people reveal that they were faking too. It turns out that they're an acting troupe that Dorothy spoke to for help, which is hinted at by the B-plot of Rose and Blanche appearing in a local musical.
    • In "'Til Death Do We Volley," Dorothy's best friend from high school, Trudy, comes to visit Miami. The women were Vitriolic Best Buds as teenagers and loved to play pranks on each other, and it's clear that some of that competitiveness is still apparent. When they head to the tennis court to play a game, Trudy has a heart attack and collapses, apparently dead. Dorothy is utterly broken up about it and makes a tearful speech admitting what happened at Trudy's wake, running off to her bedroom. Trudy herself then shows up and says it was all a joke, prompting the funeral guests to scold her for being so immature. A chastened Trudy heads to Dorothy's bedroom to apologize—and discovers her husband in bed with her. After Trudy panics, the two pull off the covers to reveal that they're fully clothed: Dorothy realized that Trudy was pulling a trick and decided to get her back with a prank of her own. Rather than be upset, Trudy laughs and compliments Dorothy for the ruse, remarking that it's just the kind of thing she would have done.
    • In "The Case of the Libertine Belle," the girls attend a murder mystery weekend that Blanche has organized for a work outing. Dorothy proves herself to be quite capable of solving the fake crimes, but things take a turn for the serious when Blanche's boss Kendall ends up stabbed through the heart in her bed—and since the door was locked, suspicion immediately falls on Blanche herself. Dorothy thinks it's another part of the mystery, but when Kendall's breath fails to appear on a mirror, she's convinced. After a tense conclusion and Dorothy identifying the real murderer as Blanche's jealous rival, Kendall himself appears—it turns out The Game Never Stopped, and his apparent death actually was part of the experience (the non-fogging mirror is explained as Rose secretly spraying it with defogger, per the staff's request, as retaliation for Blanche borrowing her earrings without telling her.)
    • Discussed in one episode when the girls are reminiscing about funerals. Blanche reveals that, as a teenager, she was runner-up in a local beauty contest, and decided to make the town pay for "valuing her personality over her looks" by staging her death with the help of a riverboat captain she was dating. At the peak of the funeral, she rushed into the church and announced "Yoo-hoo, it's me, Blanche! I'm not really dead!" Her father proceeded to violently attack the riverboat captain and send Blanche to an all-girls school for a while.
  • Subverted with the iCarly episode "iTwins". Sam's visiting twin sister Melanie was NOT a prank pulled by her and Carly, but Freddie jumps to the conclusion it is a prank to test his gullibility. In the end, Sam pretends that Melanie was a prank when she learns Freddie won't believe them no matter what. Not that the girls did anything to convince him anyway.
  • Murphy Brown:
    • In one episode, Murphy convinces Frank that her gardener is Deep Throat. Frank runs with the information, pushing aside other (real) stories, before Murphy confesses that it was a prank. She apologizes profusely, only for Frank to admit that he saw right through it. Serial Escalation ensues with the rest of the cast.
  • New Girl: In the final season, Jess begins receiving eviction notices with increasingly closer dates. She only finds out on her wedding day, and has to start figuring out what to do. In the final episode, Jess and Nick pack up everything and start saying goodbye to the loft. At that point, everyone in the gang except them had moved out, so they have don't have a very emotional reaction to leaving. Eventually, they realise they'll miss the place as well, and decide to reminisce on their times in the loft. They pack a truck full of their things and pull down the shutter, to see Winston's giant face on it. He reveals it was all an elaborate prank, and had been planning it for months. He even went to the effort of registering various fake company names and having someone pose as a receptionist. Nick and Jess decide to leave anyway.
  • Psych: In "Tuesday the 17th", Shawn and Gus are hired to find a missing counselor at a camp that was closed after an electrician died gruesomely. This leads to the rampage of a slasher (who may be the aforementioned electrician back from the grave) killing the other counselors. The whole thing is revealed to be the test run of a "Slasher Movie" fantasy camp designed by a childhood friend of Shawn and Gus. After having a good laugh at the prank, things go to hell in a handbasket when the son of the aforementioned electrician goes on a killing spree to shut down the camp for good. Unamused by them exploiting his father's death, he murders three people before he's finally stopped.
  • Red Dwarf: In "Queeg", the ship's AI computer, Holly, is usurped and eventually deleted by Queeg, the ship's backup computer. Then the final scene reveals that "Queeg" was a prank by Holly all along.
    Holly: We are talking jape of the decade. We are talking April, May, June, July and August Fool. Yes, that's right. I am Queeg.
    Everyone else: WHAT?!?!?
  • Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later: The main villain of the plot is Ronald Reagan, played by Michael Showalter. Reagan intends to bomb the summer camp because he had an embarrassing incident there as a child. In the final episode, he reveals it was all a prank and everyone involved was an actor. One of the actors includes the creepy babysitter, who had been terrorising McKinley and Ben a la The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. They find the revelation of everyone being an actor especially shocking, because they believed the babysitter was trying to murder them. During a vicious fight scene, they killed her in self-defense then buried her body. Reagan calls out for the babysitter character to come forward and admit her part in the scheme, but she never does. Ben and McKinley, ashamed, tell each other to never acknowledge it again.

    Video Games 
  • My Cafe: In Level 35, Koffsky tells the player that the mirror that they receive from Jennifer in the previous story is haunted, and worries that Bloody Penny would attack him and his friends for summoning her back when they were at school. Henry calls bullshit, because he was the one who pranked his friends during those school days, but bad things continue to happen to the gang even after he confesses and takes the mirror. When Henry finally starts to believe in ghosts, it is revealed that the whole thing was an elaborate prank that Koffsky, Donald and Elsa (plus Clyde) planned against Henry, partly to get back at him for his old schoolboy prank, and partly because Koffsky and Clyde hopes to make a viral video out of this prank footage.
  • Hidden City: The "Antique Dealer's Curse" has the Capuchin couple help Alford Stone avoid being cursed by witches, who had been targeting him for apparently selling them fake artifacts. Halfway through the case, the group discovers that the "witches" stalking the antique store owner were fake and the whole thing has been a cruel joke played on Stone. Later investigation reveals that the perpetrator is Stone's own business partner, Shirley Fletcher, who has had disagreements with the former on how the store should be run, and decided to start a new business elsewhere. Her "Scooby-Doo" Hoax was meant to distract Stone so that he'd be too busy hiding from the witches that he won't notice that she's stolen his valuables after she's long gone.
  • Irisu Syndrome!: While the title character does kill all her friends in the normal ending. In the ending you get if you score over 20,000 points, it turns out to be this instead, though it's implied she did originally intend to kill everyone but changed her mind.
  • Until Dawn: One of the major twists is that the Serial Killer prowling the mountain and the ghosts haunting the Washington lodge were all part of a massive prank arranged by Joshua Washington. Having lost both his sisters to a cruel joke played by the main characters, Josh wanted revenge. He didn't actually want to kill any of them, but he did want to terrify and humiliate them and then upload the footage to the internet, even faking his own death so he could make it seem more convincing. Unfortunately, Josh failed to account for the fact that there were real monsters up on the mountain. When told that Jessica is actually dead (depending on your decisions, either she is or she's merely presumed dead), Josh is legitimately shocked.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time:
    • In the episode "Mystery Train", Finn and Jake go on a train trip to celebrate Finn's birthday, but the passengers start getting murdered and skeletonised. It turns out to be all a prank by Jake.
    • "The Creeps" has an even more complicated example when Finn and Jake attend a party in a supposedly haunted house, and a ghost starts murdering the guests. It's eventually revealed that Finn intended to set up fake murders to prank Jake, but Jake found out about it and set up even gorier fake murders as revenge. And there was also a real ghost involved.
  • Bob's Burgers: In The Hauntening, Bob and Linda take the kids to a house Mort has access to so they can turn it into a haunted house for Halloween. Their pranks on the kids are quite underwhelming at first. One laughable moment is when they are connected in one t-shirt, wearing bald caps and scrambling all over the house. After the kids tell them how uninteresting the pranks were, eerie things begin to happen. A strange man from earlier appears in their driveway, standing with garden shears and staring at them ominously. They hide in the basement and begin to freak out when the lights go out. They hear creepy moaning and ghostly shouts. They run upstairs and hide on the roof, only for a group of hooded figures to light a ring of fire on the lawn and stare at them. The man with the shears appears behind them, and Louise screams. Bob and Linda reveal everything was part of a prank, even the underwhelming haunted house at the start. Louise is shocked at first, but is absolutely enthused when she hears how they did it. They all embrace for a hug.
  • The Casagrandes: At the climax of "Prankaversary", it appears as though Sid has been Eaten Alive by a snake and is still living inside of it. Her best friend Ronnie Anne tries to squeeze her out, but it turns out to be a prank that the Chang sisters were playing on Ronnie Anne. The lump in the snake's body was actually because it swallowed a roast turkey.
  • Chowder: Multiple layers of this in the Prank. Endive subjects Mung Daal to progressively more and more harmful pranks, culminating in her ordering numerous orders of a dish so expensive Mung has to put the entire catering company up as collateral and when the prank is revealed is legitimately forced out of business. Endive and Panini then proceed to leave a large pie in front of the tiny house Mung and co. have to move into, before proceeding to drop an even larger pie on top of him. However, when Mung fails to emerge from beneath the pie, Endive checks beneath it and is horrified by what she sees underneath. She panics and forces Panini, as an accomplice, to help her hide the body, but by the time they return, Chowder's discovered the pie and eaten the entire resultant mess. However, he begins to feel queasy, forcing Endive and Panini to kidnap him to prevent him from vomiting up the evidence at an inopportune time. While on the run, Endive becomes increasingly unhinged and Panini abandons her. She eventually decides to hide out abroad at the West Pole and breaks down sobbing on the plane at how her life is ruined. In the midst of her breakdown, she's offered a drink by a flight attendant and when she looks up to snap at her for interrupting, the flight attendant turns out to be Mung, who reveals the Mung crushed under the pie earlier was a fake made of jam and that everyone up to this point, including Panini and the cops who chased Endive, were in on a much larger prank to get back at Endive, with Mung even having the company put into storage to sell the illusion that he was pranked. Relieved, Endive goes to hug Mung only for him to explode in her arms, to her horror, which of course is revealed as ANOTHER prank by the *real* real Mung who appears behind her.
  • Family Guy: In "April in Quahog", Tom Tucker and Diane Simmons report that a black hole will swallow the earth in 24 hours, leading to all kinds of hijinks around town. When the countdown reaches zero, they shout "April Fool's!".
    Tom: Yes, April Fool's. We at Channel 5 News concocted the whole black hole story as part of our commitment to being festive around the holidays.
    Diane: And with only 87 suicides and widespread looting, we think this was a pretty successful practical joke.
    Brian: You DICKS!
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends:
    • In "I Only Have Surprise for You", Mac fears that Bloo is planning to throw him a surprise birthday party and, because he always takes the opportunity to embarrass him, tries to sabotage it. However, the party turns out to be not for him, but for a little friend named Artie, leading to everyone hating him. Mac tries to repent by setting up a new party... only for Artie to be revealed as Madame Foster in disguise, and the whole guilt trip was another one of Bloo's schemes, with everyone in the house (except Eduardo) in on it..
    • In "Nightmare on Wilson Way", Bloo appears to have scared Mr. Herriman into having a heart attack, leading him to becoming a zombie and start a Zombie Apocalypse. At the end, it turns out to be an elaborate prank to get back at him for his Halloween tricks, but things got out of hand when Bloo fed Mac tons of sugar to fend off the "zombies".
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "28 Pranks Later", Rainbow's been pranking people too much, and during these pranks, she gives everyone rainbow-colored cookies. The cookies seemingly cause the townsfolk to turn into zombies, and then Pinkie Pie reveals that they were all just faking it to give Rainbow a taste of her own medicine.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "The Great Money Caper", Homer and Bart become scam artists, only for another scammer to scam them out of their money, so they invent an alibi and suspect description when they tell the police. This leads to Groundkeeper Willie getting arrested, and he ends up going on a shooting rampage in the courtroom before the two can't take it anymore and tell the truth. However, it turns out the whole thing was a ruse by Marge and Lisa to get a confession out of them, with the whole town taking part.
      Homer: I can't believe everyone was in on it.
      Willie: WILLIE WASN'T!
    • In "The Frying Game", Homer and Marge are performing community service for an old lady when she is suddenly murdered, resulting in them being arrested and sentenced to death. Homer saves Marge by claiming sole responsibility for the murder, and just as he's about to be shocked on the electric chair, it's revealed that the whole fiasco was a prank for a reality TV show; the old lady is not only alive, but is really host Carmen Electra.
      Chief Wiggum: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You tied up the judicial system, costing the city millions of dollars, just for a TV show.
      Carmen: Yes.
      Chief Wiggum: And I'm going to be in the show?


Video Example(s):


The Alien Prank

Dolly and Dawkins reveal the truth to Dylan about the 'UFO sightings', with flashbacks showing how they were able to fool him.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / OnceMoreWithClarity

Media sources: