Joe Jones would really appreciate you not using the word “terrorize” in relation to his work.
Yes, his livelihood is dependent on the fearful reactions of strangers to a seemingly harmless potted bush suddenly standing tall or swatting at their legs. But Jones prides himself on what often follows the yelps, screams, and curses: laughs. Big, full laughs that likely express relief as much as they do amusement at a six-foot-two “bush” revealing itself as a friendly, quick-to-apologize, internet-famous prankster.
Before working as a bush full-time, Jones owned and operated a diesel shop in Midland. Most of his early videos were shot during hours-long day trips to other Texas cities. He then planted himself more permanently on San Antonio’s River Walk, a spot he found lends itself especially well to “the prank.” The “bushman” prank is often credited to San Francisco busker David Johnson, who used eucalyptus branches to startle those walking along Fisherman’s Wharf, where he performed for nearly forty years, starting in 1980. The origin story, however, is contested, with some attributing the prank’s creation to fellow San Francisco street performer Gregory Jacobs, who said the idea came to him after a long night of drinking.
Those details are fairly inconsequential to Jones, who found inspiration in a bushman many iterations down the line: the Florida Bushman, active on YouTube since 2015. Jones’s online following has now eclipsed that of the Florida Bushman’s: he boasts nearly 3 million followers on TikTok and a combined 800,000 on YouTube and Instagram—not that he’s keeping track.
“The first year I did care,” Jones said. “I actually kept stats on the other bushmen. I kept stats on how many subscribers they had, video views they got, and saw what they were averaging for video views. I did that every ninety days for the first year. But I felt like I was turning into a robot for this prank, and I was losing sight of why I was doing the prank in the first place.”
In fact, Jones is friendly with other bushmen, including the Florida Bushman, going so far as to invite him to Texas and take him to Whataburger. Their visit included, of course, a meta bush scare, with Jones suiting up and performing the prank on the Florida Bushman.
Jones isn’t sure how much longer he sees himself performing as the Texas Bushman, but the way he looks at things, the decision is sort of out of his hands. “I feel like the people that support me will determine how long I’m doing this. If I didn’t have the support that I have online, or if I felt like I was terrorizing folks more than I was making them laugh, then I’d be ready to quit.” He spoke with Texas Monthly about his life and art.
Texas Monthly: How did you first find yourself in a bush suit scaring passersby on the San Antonio River Walk?
Texas Bushman: My mother had sent me a video of another guy who was doing the prank on YouTube, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I binge-watched his whole channel in almost one night—I just loved it that much. I thought it was hilarious. I ended up ordering a ghillie suit online. I drove from Midland to Austin without a plan. All I had was a ghillie suit and a camera, and on the way I stopped at the store and bought a pot. That’s when I filmed my first video.
TM: Why’d you settle in San Antonio?
TB: I was doing a tour of Texas, trying to do the prank in every major city. [In San Antonio] it was a great reception, great turnout. I loved the energy and the vibrancy of the people.
TM: How long is a shift?
TB: Honestly, it all depends on vibes. If I go out and I’m making a lot of people laugh that day, then I’ll be out there all day, and do eight hours. But if I feel like “Man, people just aren’t being receptive today”—and that happens—then I’ll head home. I might try again the next day, or I might wait a week or wait a month. It just has to feel right.
TM: What sort of characteristics make for a good bush?
TB: Someone with patience and empathy. I tell people that curse me out, “Let it all out.” How often do you get an opportunity to cuss a bush out? Not everyone’s going to like it. Some people enjoy it. But I understand all sides of it.
TM: What percentage would you say enjoy it, and what percentage would you say are less thrilled?
TB: I would say less than ten percent absolutely hate it. So, nine out of ten people, I’m not going to say love it, but they laugh leaving me. It could have been a nervous laugh, it could’ve been a happy laugh—I can’t be the one to determine that. But they laughed before they left me, and that’s how I’d determine they liked it.
TM: Has anyone ever physically come at you?
TB: Absolutely. It just happened a couple weeks ago. It is what it is. It comes with the job. I understand fully what I’m getting myself into. I’m not looking for sympathy from anyone. I understand I’m out there messing with complete strangers in Texas, so you have to take the good with the bad.
TM: In that situation, what do you do?
TB: I’ve always said, “The first punch is free.” What that means is that’s your instinct. I would never be upset at anyone’s instinct that says “attack the bush standing up quickly or reaching his hand at the ground in front of you.” But after that first punch, you understand it’s a human in there that’s not trying to cause you harm, or is not a threat to you. I’m saying reassuring, calming words to you, so you have an idea that this person is no threat to you. Beyond that, I’m going to defend myself, but not attack.
TM: What is the funniest reaction you’ve gotten?
TB: Easy. The first year I was doing the prank, I was in Dallas and a guy was watching across the street from a high-rise building with his friends. He saw me doing the prank, and he came and crossed the street and dropped to the ground and faked a seizure. He scared the crap out of me. He was having a seizure—I was having a heart attack.
TM: How are you handling this current heat wave?
TB: One second at a time. I was out there filming [last week] in the record-setting 117-degree heat index. I keep a frozen bottle of water between my feet, and it helps keep me cool.
TM: What criteria are you looking for when deciding whether or not to jump out at someone?
TB: I’m very choosy about who I do the prank on. I promise I’m not trying to be reckless out here and scare your grandmother into a heart attack. Number one: instincts. Number two: a person’s gait. Their walk tells a lot about a person. Do they look happy already? Do they look like they’re having a tough day? Do they have a stroller? Are they older? Or too young? I just look for anything that indicates to me that this person might not appreciate a stranger standing up unexpectedly next to them. It’s been a learning experience.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.