In front of a hardware store, Jack Vale stands with his wife, a petite brunette who is noticeably pregnant–as in, baby's-hand-hanging-out pregnant. A bundle of lumber rests on the ground; they stare at it. The dilemma: How are they going to carry it to their truck?
A bespectacled, middle-aged man walks up to them and stops. "Where you going with that?" he asks. Vale points to his vehicle in the parking lot.
The man offers to help, bending down to lift one end of the pile. Vale then takes a step back and motions to Sherry, clutching her round, round belly. "Honey," he says to her, "you can grab the other end here." The man freezes.
As the video footage plays on a computer screen, Vale laughs hard, a raspy huh-huh-huh-huh bellowing through his Huntington Beach studio headquarters, where he and his assistant Kodi are editing their latest hidden-camera prank, "Husband Mistreats Pregnant Wife." Reclining in their swivel chairs, they smile and cackle at the reaction of the well-intentioned stranger who stepped into their trap, or, as they call it, "social experiment."
Back to the video. Bewildered at first, the man soon lowers his chin and scowls. "She ain't picking nothing up," he tells Vale. "Not in my world she ain't picking nothing up."
Vale laughs again at the scene unfolding onscreen. He takes a swig of orange juice, then turns to Kodi and asks, "Do you have his release?"
"Yeah," Kodi says. On a desk is a stack of video waivers that prankees sign after they find out Vale set them up (in this case, Sherry had strapped on a stuffed belly). Hours of video featuring several more victims will get sliced into a digestible three-minute-and-13-second clip set to zany instrumental music, then uploaded to Vale's YouTube channel, Jack Vale Films, for the delight of the 1.2 million subscribers who follow his antics.
He isn't exactly the type of guy associated with YouTube pranks, a subset in the digital space known and reviled for the sheer jackassery involved–idiots with video cameras have tossed realistic-looking toddlers off balconies, groped women on the street, and staged their own hangings from stairwells and bridges, all for the shock and shares of their online audiences.
The father of five is a devout Christian who attends Refuge Calvary Chapel in Huntington Beach, not the most renowned fun factory. He calls his style of comedy "squeaky-clean" (he removed one video from his main channel because it included the word penis).
Dressed in corduroy pants, a slouchy plaid shirt and Converse sneakers, the 41-year-old has the goofball facial expressions of Jim Carrey, the boyish charm of Johnny Knoxville and the crumpled style of a man who was woken up before dawn by his kids climbing into his bed.
"It's really cool being the dad on YouTube, the type who kids might look up to and say, 'I wish that was my dad,'" he says, clutching his iPhone, which has as its background a photo of his two youngest children, Jaxon and Jazmyn. In his studio, he steps around a few cardboard boxes stuffed with Angry Birds toys, Nintendo games and a severed human head, a rubber prop used in a gag last summer.
The premises of most of Vale's pranks are simple, even a bit inane. A grown man who slathers Vaseline on his hand and high-fives passersby. Prank-calling sellers on Craigslist. Pretending to poop on a sofa. He has 188 videos under the category "Farting in Public." It doesn't rise to the intellectualism of Candid Camera, let alone Crank Yankers.
But Vale's stats say it all: More than 250 million views; advertising partnerships with companies including AT&T, KFC, Subway, GM and Microsoft; an award last year for Best Pranks at the Streamy Awards, the Oscars of the online video universe. And now he has his own television show, Jack Vale: Offline, a reality series on CNN spin-off channel HLN that follows his clan as they plan and execute practical jokes throughout Las Vegas–all clean, of course, all with an eye toward further conquering the strange, wild and incredibly lucrative ride that is Internet stardom.
"Sure, edgy stuff gets the views," he says. "Right now, there's a ton of stuff that people call 'pranks,' but it's really just people harassing people, interfering with police officers or being sexually explicit to women–none of which I consider funny. It's really big right now to just try to get the reaction without caring about how. I won't put anybody in a dangerous situation or offend somebody to where it's devastating. I've never been willing to do that."
All YouTube legends have a backstory involving the moment they clicked "upload," and then sat in anticipation and vulnerability, wondering who out there in cyberspace might be curious enough to watch that snippet of their world.
Vale's story begins with a pocket-sized fart machine.
"Welcome to the Pooter Academy," he says in a video he filmed in 2009, a tutorial for his invention, the Pooter. "Here's what it's gonna sound like," he says, squeezing the device to launch a robust juicer. "The most realistic fart sound on the planet, I guarantee it."
He uploaded other segments of the Pooter in action, pranking strangers in banks, malls, Walmarts and grocery-store aisles. "You're disgusting," some would say as they'd walk past him. Vale would smirk in satisfaction, his calling in life finally validated.
The youngest of five, Vale grew up in Lodi, about 30 miles south of Sacramento. When his mother was pregnant with him, his father said he had to go on a business trip, then left for good. Years later, she met and married a retired apartment manager named Bill, who Vale says is "the man I really feel is my dad." Nearly 20 years older than his mother, Bill was the quintessential big kid. "He would take me to the store and fart in public for real, right there in the aisle. Then he'd start cracking up. He was the funniest man I have ever known."
Vale's mother worked as a secretary at the elementary school he attended, so she was the first to hear about it when her son got into trouble. On one occasion, the offense was enough for her to order Bill to "spank that boy." Bill nodded, grabbed a belt, pulled Vale into his room and closed the door behind him. Then, in a whisper, he instructed the young boy to scream on cue. When Bill whipped the belt against the bed frame, Vale followed his stepfather's orders, crying out in fake pain, both relieved by his pardoning and awed by his stepfather's gesture. "That was a secret we kept for a long, long time," he says.
Teachers told Vale's parents he was a sweet boy, but he had an attention problem. At the beginning of his junior year, he dropped out of school. "I always felt like I didn't want to be there, like I had more important things to do," he says.
He took on a string of jobs: pizza man, selling cars and scraping grease off the grills at Carl's Jr. As the activities director at a retirement home, he tried to engage residents by tossing a balloon around the room and hoping they'd hit it back. More and more, though, Vale realized that his true calling was to be an entertainer. On the first day of an acting class in Sacramento, he spotted a woman named Sherry. He approached her and asked if she wanted to read through their script together sometime . . . "I know, the cheesiest line ever."
Three days after their first date, they decided to get married. Then they moved to Reno and began making babies.
To pay the bills, they set up e-commerce websites, but it became a grind, and "we were just so ready to get out," Vale says. One day, in 2007, he remembered a fart noisemaker from years back, a cheap toy Vale picked up at a gag shop in Hollywood and used for kicks, describing the feeling of squeezing the thing and getting a laugh as "addicting." He tried to buy a new one, but he found out the manufacturer had shut down. None of the other devices on the market produced that same authentic sound. A friend finally said, "Dude, you can probably change the design and manufacture these yourself."
Invigorated, Vale told his wife he wanted to invest their savings–about $16,000–into getting that mystical fart machine prototyped and mass-produced.
"I thought it was crazy," Sherry says. "But Jack always had so many ideas, and this was the one he couldn't stop talking about."
Vale named it the Pooter, and to advertise the thing–a small, rubber cylinder that acts akin to a whoopee cushion when squeezed against one's palm–he started posting fart prank videos on YouTube. Views trickled in. "Once 1,000 people watched, I was ecstatic," Vale says. "It's like, 'Whoa, we can't fit 1,000 people in our living room.'" Then, in 2008, Vale got a call from an NBC producer. He had seen one of the Pooter clips and wanted to feature it on a show called Most Outrageous Moments. That was the "single moment that put the Pooter on the map," Vale says.
At the time, Vale had been selling about five Pooters per week. When the show aired, he received 300 orders within the first hour. The family enlisted friends from their church to help package the fart makers in their living room, which they transformed into a makeshift warehouse.
As he watched his audience grow, Vale would read comments from people saying the videos were hilarious. He decided to do more pranks. Armed with a camera that he'd hide somewhere, Vale headed to public places, where he'd whisper to strangers ("Where can I find women's clothing? Shhh . . . shhh . . . shhhh"), or repeat everything they were saying, or tell people, "Oh, no, no, I'm married!" for no reason at all. In a bit called "Paranoid," he held a phone to his ear and described aloud those walking by ("He has on a black Lakers beanie," "She has a white camera and is taking a picture"). For another prank titled "Nonsense," Vale simply approached people with a jumble of ridiculous phrases ("Avoid the monkeys on the trampoline," "Make sure to take grandpa's advice because he never liked the color blue anyway"), leaving subjects utterly confused.
One man punched Vale in the face after the prankster had Pooter'd on his wheelchair-bound wife at Target (the now-famous scene can be viewed in a video titled "I Got Punched"). Otherwise, the vast majority of Vale's foils burst into laugher when the joke is revealed. People rarely refuse to give Vale permission to use the footage–his disarming, cool-guy charm lets them know it's all in good fun. "I'm a person before I'm a creator," Vale says.
That ability to connect is what makes Vale so watchable, says Jeff Klima, senior editor of New Media Rockstars, an Irvine-founded online magazine that covers new media content.
"Jack is like a grown-up Bart Simpson, just out there being silly for all us squares," Klima says. "He's never mean to his targets, which is a rare trait in the online-prank medium. He has a sense of family and humanity in how he operates–it just shines through him in person and through computer screens."
Vale's YouTube pranks soon led to opportunities beyond the digital sphere. In 2012, he was tapped to co-produce and star in the first season of TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes. The syndicated show was filmed mostly on Huntington Beach's bustling Main Street, and after months of traveling back and forth, the family decided to move to Surf City permanently.
Last year, Vale posted what became his most talked-about prank, "The Social Media Experiment." Pretending to be psychic, he approached strangers and divulged personal details about them–their birthday, their dog's name, what they had for dinner. To find that information, all he had to do was comb through Twitter and Instagram for public posts near his location. The video started a conversation about social media and privacy, and Vale was invited to be a guest on shows such as The View, FOX & Friends, The Doctors, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
After those appearances, HLN Chief Albie Hecht personally approached the Vales and gave them their own show.
"We felt like he understood us and didn't want to change us or create something out of nothing," Vale says. "At the end of the meeting, he said, 'Jack, we're ready. When can we turn on the cameras?'"
On an episode of Jack Vale: Offline, Sherry sits at her computer, deleting comments left on the Facebook page of her preteen daughter Madysyn Rose, who posts clips of herself singing covers of pop songs for her nearly 600,000 fans.
"I don't want them hurting her confidence," she says to the camera in a confessional-style interview. "I probably am being overprotective, but what parent wants their kid reading 10,000 bad things about them?"
The HLN reality series, which debuted in January, follows the lives of Jack, Sherry and their five kids–Jake, Chris, Madysyn, Jaxon and Jazmyn–who span in age from 18 to 4 and are all budding Internet stars themselves. Vale calls it a behind-the-scenes look at the family business. It also gives a somewhat eerie glimpse of what it's like to be a child in the Internet age.
Since they started on YouTube, the Vales have been living in a virtual fishbowl, letting their fans share in some of their most personal moments, including the birth of 4-year-old Jazmyn. (The video shows the eager parents in the delivery room–Sherry is on the bed and Vale is holding one of her legs, chanting, "Here we go! Here we go! Here we go! Keep going! Come on! Hard, hard, hard, hard, hard! Here she is! Here she is! HERE SHE IS!") Vale says that even though the kids have all grown up with YouTube, there's an ongoing conversation in their house about topics such as social-media boundaries and brushing off haters.
"Not enough parents are paying attention to what their kids are doing online," he says. "You have to be willing to talk to your family about things that are in front of you, so you're all on the same page."
Jake, who is 18, has his own YouTube comedy channel that's gaining notoriety for its "Censored Series." Inspired by Jimmy Kimmel's hit segment "This Week In Unnecessary Censorship," he pumps adult humor into innocent video clips by adding strategically placed bleeps and blurs. Jake's censored version of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" from Disney's Frozen garnered more than 10 million views. (Buzzfeed featured it as a top post, writing, "Trust me, you'll be singing, 'Do you want to f*** a snowman?' all day.")
The elder Vale says that for his own audience, "those innuendos are off-brand. But Jake is 18 years old, and I want him to find the line in the gray area. I want him to figure out what's okay for him as long as it's not a blatant disregard or disrespect for what our faith is as a family. Sherry likes to say, 'We're Christians–we're not prudes.' If it's funny, it's funny."
But the Vales' Waltons-like worldview can also get them in trouble. In a prank series called "Farting In the Hood" that he filmed with other YouTubers, Jack tested the Pooter in Cincinnati's lower-income neighborhoods. In this case, he was wading in a genre of such videos in the pranking world–"Stealing Water Guns In the Hood," "Extreme Selfies In the Hood," "Escaped Lion In the Hood"–and advocates wanted the phenomenon to stop.
Writes Kyle Darbyson of Ontario student newspaper The Fulcrum, "Not only do these videos reinforce a lot of shitty ethnic stereotypes, but there's also some classism at play here, since these videos almost always feature preppy rich assholes using the poorest areas of the country as their Internet playground."
Vale admits that he's "not really a fan of that stuff" and was uncomfortable with the "hood" title himself.
Another writer, Carrie Murphy, of women's publishing site Bustle.com, takes issue with Vale's "Wife On a Leash" prank, a gag in which he straps Sherry to a leash on a child's backpack and "walks" her around town. "It's not that I think that Vale's actually some kind of controlling misogynist that treats his wife badly, but the whole video just makes me uncomfortable. It's not like this video was part of some larger social commentary of sexism or marriage or gender roles–it was just a prank."
Last summer, Vale posted a video of a prank on what appeared to be two Huntington Beach police officers. He did his "Paranoid" bit, holding a phone to his ear and giving a play-by-play of how the cops were eating their breakfast. In a twist, the male police officer pushes Vale onto the hood of the squad car, frisks his body and says, "You know what? Why don't you just get the [bleep] out of here?" The video went viral before Huntington Beach Police Department Captain Russ Reinhart tweeted that the cops were actors and "the whole thing is fake." Vale says he can't comment on the incident, but he says he's working with the police department and they're on "good terms."
As someone who has made this his career, Vale can't help but feel tugged in the numbers war. On his schedule for the day, he has a meeting with his network, Fullscreen, to try to figure out a recent decline in views for YouTube creators. His prank videos have shortened over the years since "people start to tune out after 2.5 minutes." He doesn't want to think about the "formula" for popularity, but business forces him to.
"I have this prank called 'Walking on Eggshells,'" he says. "I just walk like I'm walking on eggshells, and I have this stupid look on my face. To me, that's hilarious. But I have no idea how well it's going to do online because online, people want to see me getting punched in the face while yelling obscenities. Anyone can go out and be obnoxious and be rude and get a lot of views. I try to do what I do as an art form. It's not about the prank–it's about the funny. And I hope that what I do is funny."
After a recent appearance on the TV show Dr. Drew On Call, the Vale family sits inside a nearly empty café in Venice Beach. Jazmyn bounces around on the booth, while the other kids sit glued to their cell phones. A producer for Jack Vale: Offline reminded them to tweet during the new episode when it would air later that night.
At one point, comedian Norm Macdonald of Saturday Night Live fame walks into the restaurant. Vale's eyes bulge open. "That's freakin' Norm Macdonald," he whispers. "I am a huge fan!" A couple of the kids instantly turn to their phones to look him up on Wikipedia, confirming it's really him. For a few minutes, Vale contemplates his next move: Should he prank him? Who's going to film it?
"This is how Jack is all the time," says his family friend Wendy Kerr, who's sitting at the table with him. "You can see his brain on mega-overload. He plays off people. He plays off the world."
Vale ultimately decides not to prank Macdonald, and instead, he simply goes up to tell him how much he admires his work. When he returns, Jake gives him a high-five. "That's wicked, Dad," he says.
Vale's manager, Larry Shapiro, believes he is "the next Tim Allen" and says he can see him taking over shows such as America's Funniest Home Videos or creating that next family-friendly franchise. Vale is open to such opportunities, but he says that for YouTube creators today, as opposed to, say, five years ago, crossing over to television and film isn't necessarily the ultimate goal.
"TV is very, very different," Vale says. "It's exciting, and I'm stoked about it, but you're also working for somebody else. You're on somebody else's clock. It makes you want to hold onto your digital world even more." He's constantly interacting with his online fans, replying to tweets, hosting Q&As on Facebook, and posting video messages to express his gratitude.
He says he's had "a little taste" of fame, and if things start to really explode, he's ready. But if not, he'll be okay, too. "I just want to be known on my deathbed as a great father and great husband. Then I'll die with a smile on my face."
Vale launches into a story about how he had a vasectomy after his third child was born. "Got it nipped in the bud," he says. Five years later, he and Sherry started feeling as if they "jumped the gun too soon." So he went back and had the procedure reversed.
"You only have this little section of your whole life where you get to have children," he says. "You can only do it once. Now here we are with a crapload of kids later. And we get to be portrayed as who we really are, and I get to make money doing this. What an incredible thing."
He stops. A smile cracks on his face. Then Vale's voice drops to a dramatic tone, and he goes for the punch line: After having kid No. 5, "I ran back to the doctor."