ST.PETERSBURG — These days, Justin Hires spends lots of time running away from angry men after spraying them with fake pesticides or blowing leaf blowers in their faces.
But the 28-year-old Gibbs High School graduate insists that he's not really a jerk; his antics are all for the love of comedy.
“I've almost gotten beaten up a few times doing these pranks,” Hires said. “There was one time when a dude chased me into the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and we almost got hit by cars, but it's all worth it if it makes people laugh.”
Hires and seven other comedians are the stars of MTV's new reality prank show, “Jerks With Cameras,” which premiered Jan. 16 (watch it on MTV.com here). Prank shows are nothing new to the network or viewers, but “Jerks With Cameras,” which will run each Thursday for 10 weeks, should appeal to a wider audience because of its format, the St. Petersburg native and stand-up comedian said.
The eight comedians each film themselves performing pranks on unsuspecting passers-by and then let a live studio audience decide which is best.
“I think the show is going to be huge because I'm on it,” Hires said. “Everyone in America is going to have their favorite on the show because each comedian has a different style that can appeal to everyone and make them fall in love for different reasons.”
Hires is no stranger to the screen, having appeared on sketch comedy shows such as Comedy Central's “Key and Peele,” MTV's “Disaster Date,” the film “21 Jump Street” and “a bunch of failed pilots that don't get picked up,” he said.
His first roles, in the films “Stomp the Yard” and “The Gospel,” were given to him by another St. Petersburg native, producer William Packer.
None of his success would have been possible without his upbringing in Pinellas County's performing arts programs, Hires said. His mother, area superintendent for the Pinellas County school district and longtime Pinellas educator Barbara Hires, agrees.
“I never thought he was that funny, to be honest,” she said. “His teachers always said he would make everyone laugh in class, and I would tell him if he's going to be a clown he should get paid for it, so now he's proved he can.”
Justin was in third grade the first time he tried to convince his mother to move to Hollywood so he could become famous, and his teachers always encouraged him to dream big, she said. It was a teacher at Lealman Elementary who first told her that her son was “destined for fame” because of his unwavering determination. And when he landed two movie roles while still graduating with honors from Clark Atlanta University, that teachers' words resonated in Barbara's head, she said.
It was his love of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that got Justin, a black belt in karate, interested in theater. His first acting experiences came in middle school, when he began performing with the St. Petersburg Little Theater, and he was the youngest and only black actor in American Stage Theater Company's “Shakespeare in the Park” productions.
Justin's path to Hollywood emerged when he entered the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, where he starred in productions, told jokes as a talent show host and honed his work ethic, he said. He learned not to model himself after his heroes, like Michael Jackson, but to find his own style, a difficult but life-changing process, he said.