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Smile! Your Intervention Was Just Viewed by 18 Million Strangers

When a joke intervention—viewed by 18 million and counting—isn't so funny after all. The true story behind that YouTube viral prank and the troubled alcoholic who inspired it.

By Sarah Peters

12/27/13

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Louisville, Kentucky comedian Tom Mabe is serious when it comes to staging elaborate YouTube pranks, but with his latest video, he found himself hoping for once a joke could save a life. 

The video, “Epic Don’t Drink and Drive Prank,” has garnered nearly 18 million views in the short time since Mabe’s posting on December 8. The prank’s target? A childhood friend of Mabe’s with a decades-long history of alcohol abuse. 

“He’s hit rock bottom with a rock in his chest,” Mabe said of his troubled friend, identified only as “Dennis,” who has lost a job and personal relationships due to his addiction.

The prank involved a fake newscaster, a staged hospital room—complete with a gurney, an IV and other equipment from medical supplier DRE—and even a fake doctor to “break the news” to Dennis that he had just come out of a 10-year coma after his last bout of drinking went sour. 

The goal was not to improve our viral presence with a great prank, the goal was to help our buddy.

Mabe hoped that the shock of waking up in a hospital room would force Dennis to finally come face-to-face with his problem. However, the video ends with a laughing (possibly still drunk) Dennis and a frustrated Mabe leaving the room. 

“Dennis, you have five DUIs, it’s not funny,” Mabe shouted in the clip. “You could have lost a daughter.”

Dennis, whose last name was not released, does not have a license and has been arrested seven times, including five times for driving under the influence. A pending court date for the latest arrest stemming from his friend’s drinking will likely result in some jail time, Mabe said. 

“Moderation is one thing,” Mabe said. “But, when you’re wired like this guy, you have to be aware of that [wiring]. When [alcohol] grabs ahold of you, it’s like a monster.” 

There is some hope that Dennis will accept an invitation to go to rehab, but like many friends and family of an alcoholic, Mabe's well of optimism is running dry. The YouTube video attracted the attention of the Los Angeles-based talk show The Doctors and an offer to pay for treatment. However, Dennis was unable to get permission to leave the state from his probation officer, Mabe said. 

There may yet be a second chance for Dennis. Money generated by the video through a partnership with YouTube will go to funding a treatment program, this time in Kentucky.

Mabe is well aware that not everyone thinks his prank was in good taste. Many commenters on the video have posted statements that either accuse Mabe of being too harsh or suggest that Dennis deserves far worse punishment. 

“Worthless prank, hes [sic] a fucking scumbag lowlife that didn't even take the prank seriously,” wrote YouTube user Vincent Briffa. “Five DUI's [sic], means he doesn't give a shit, how the fuck is this scumbag even driving still?”

While the commenters' responses are a mixed bag, at least there's a conversation happening about addiction and drunk driving as serious issues, Mabe said. 

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and you could do a PSA where a lady crashes through a windshield, but people won’t watch it,” Mabe explained. “You do a PSA with some humor and people will watch it. It will actually reach someone.”

As for Dennis, he hasn't been reached quite yet, Mabe said. Dennis called Mabe from his local pub just days after the stunt. But Mabe believes that when it comes to a loved one, you have to be prepared to go to extremes. 

“Be ready to shoot the tires out; do whatever it takes [to break the addiction],” Mabe said. “That’s what I was doing. I was shooting the tires out.”

Mabe had the best intentions, but his guerilla-style prank may end up doing more damage to his longtime friend than good. 

“It sounds like there was no planning and there was no assessment [by a professional] done beforehand,” said professional interventionist Louise Stanger

Overly elaborate or shocking productions—such as a faux coma—that do not take into account the needs of a specific disease or disorder can backfire with anger and resentment, she said.

Stanger is also a licensed clinical social worker and founder of AllAboutInterventions.com.

“The most important thing is to treat that loved one with compassion and respect,” Stanger said. “We have to understand that that this person is in the midst of a disorder.”

The surprise model of intervention is appropriate and very effective in some cases of addiction; however, certified drug and alcohol counselor Nanette Zumwalt would not recommend any repeat of Mabe’s prank which does not fit into the model followed by professionals. 

The best approach is to issue an invitation, said the professional interventionist and owner of Hired Power Transitional Recovery Services in Huntington Beach.

“I think that for certain drugs and certain age and risk factors, [surprising someone] is just not a safe idea,” Zumwalt said. “I think if you can invite someone to a conversation and have them be there willingly, it’s always better.”

But many addicts are resistant to having a conversation. Mabe had many with Dennis about his drinking over the years, he said.

“When you address that conversation, you tell them that it’s not going to be just about them, but it’s also about you and how things are going to be different,” Zumwalt advised. “The interested party almost always wants to be there. No good addict wants their enabler to go straight.”

Even if Mabe had staged a traditional intervention—without the humor, without the borrowed medical equipment and without the 18 million-strong audience—there’s no guarantee that Dennis would be receptive to the message.

In all cases, it’s key to remember that “an intervention is an invitation to change, but every day people get many, many invitations to change,” Stanger said.

Those invitations can come in the form of a bad bill of heath from a doctor, a court summons or a caustic YouTube comment.

As of Dec. 21, the video had 6,575 comments and climbing. 

Mabe admitted that be was both happy with the attention the video has received, but also disappointed.

“We got everything we wanted—we actually hoped it would be bigger,” Mabe said. “The goal was not to improve our viral presence with a great prank, the goal was to help our buddy."

Sarah Peters is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about Youth and Pornography Addiction.

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