Happy April Fools’: A Day to Give Pranks

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sunday Source -

The orig­i­nal April Fools’ prank was the wild-goose chase. In the 18th cen­tury, the Scot­tish would send a “gowk” (a gullible per­son) around town with a note that said, “Never laugh, never smile, send the gowk an­other mile,” ac­cord­ing to Alex Boese, pro­pri­etor of the Mu­seum of Hoaxes Web site. The re­ceiver of the note would come up with an­other er­rand for the gowk, who’d be handed off from house to house on a wild-goose chase. Prank­ing has since di­ver­si­fied, of course, and though you can de­bate the dif­fer­ences be­tween a hoax, a prank and a prac­ti­cal joke, there are cer­tain el­e­ments to con­sider when pre­par­ing any of th­ese. In honor of April Fools’ Day, here’s a buf­fet of in­sights into prank­ing.

And if you have a prob­lem with us ad­vo­cat­ing bad be­hav­ior, here’s our ed­i­tor’s di­rect line: 202-3346354. Call her up and ask for Lit­tle Deb­bie Snack Cake. (She loves that.) — D.Z.

Last-Minute Larks

You can find a gowk and send him off to get an un­ob­tain­able item (like striped paint or a one-ended stick), but Boese of­fers th­ese prac­ti­cal jokes as sim­ple ways to fill your prank quota to­day: K Use a rub­ber band to de­press the han­dle of a kitchen sink’s ex­tra noz­zle (you know, that de­tach­able spray thing) so that it spritzes any­one who turns on the wa­ter. K Dip cot­ton balls in choco­late and ar­range them on a plat­ter like truf­fles. Place them in a cen­tral lo­ca­tion at home or work. Ad­ver­tise the avail­abil­ity of the “treats.” De­light in the re­ac­tions. K Cover an area with sticky notes. It can be any­thing: a door, a cu­bi­cle. But a whole car is the ideal.

“If some­body isn’t get­ting an­noyed, it’s not re­ally suc­cess­ful,” says Boese, who be­lieves we prank to vent some re­pressed hos­til­ity. “It has to be slightly ob­nox­ious.”

Work­place Hi­jinks

From your desk stretches the of­fice land­scape: gray, se­date, cu­bic­u­lar. It begs to be stirred up. The el­e­ment of sur­prise is what makes pranks such a nice con­trast to the work­place en­vi­ron­ment, says psy­chol­o­gist Ed Dunkel­blau, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Emo­tion­ally In­tel­li­gent Learn­ing and past pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Ap­plied and Ther­a­peu­tic Hu­mor.

In the course of his work tout­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of hu­mor and play­ful­ness in the work­place, Dunkel­blau has heard some good pranks. He of­fers this one as the gold stan­dard:

“A com­mu­nity ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion had a new case­worker start­ing, and they gave her a fake case and name and said, ‘Just check with the other staff to find out about it,’ ” Dunkel­blau says. “Each per­son she asked about this case would say, ‘Oh gosh, again? It hap­pened again?’ And that’s all they would say. They’d say, ‘Talk to some­body else.’ They even had the lo­cal po­lice li­ai­son in­volved. They had her call him, and she said, ‘No one will tell me what’s go­ing on.’ And he said, ‘It has to do with alien ab­duc­tion, but you can’t tell any­body about this.’ And they had her go­ing the whole day. “It’s a great ex­am­ple of how some­thing in­cred­i­ble be­came more and more be­liev­able as it evolved.” It’s a riff on the wild-goose chase. Tried and true. For links to three amus­ing of­fice pranks on YouTube, visit www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/source.

Pranks With Pur­pose

Twenty-one years ago, Joey Sk­aggs punked The Wash­ing­ton Post. He sent fake press re­leases alert­ing ma­jor me­dia out­lets to a 24-hour sur­veil­lance team called the Fat Squad, whose com­man­dos-forhire hounded di­eters. The Post and oth­ers re­ported on it, then ran fol­low-ups to ad­mit that they’d been vic­tims of a hoax. Sk­aggs said he did it to call at­ten­tion to the gulli­bil­ity of the me­dia and the pub­lic.

“I’m try­ing to raise the level of con­scious­ness per­tain­ing to pranks,” says Sk­aggs, who’s been at it for over 40 years. “It is a fine art that in­cor­po­rates many as­pects of tal­ents: writ­ing to act­ing to di­rect­ing to do­ing videog­ra­phy to do­ing a fake com­mer­cial.”

His new Web site, the Art of the Prank ( www.pranks.com), launches to­day. Com­posed in blog form, the site is a one-stop shop for prank recipes, news, fo­rums and in­for­ma­tion on hoaxes, hack­ing and “cul­ture jam­ming” (ma­nip­u­lat­ing the me­dia to make a point). Al­though, who knows with this guy; maybe he’s prank­ing us again. We got an ad­vance look at the site, but by to­day he could’ve changed it to a page that says, “For­get the Post. Read the Times.”

Pom­pos­ity Busters

Sir John Har­grave, the King of Dot-Com­edy who reigns over the Web site Zug, rec­om­mends aiming to up­set the power struc­ture. “Like the Marx Brothers go­ing into a high-so­ci­ety ball or Bo­rat go­ing into that gen­teel South­ern din­ner with a bag of his fe­ces, we love see­ing the big guy go down, and it gives us a sense of the lit­tle guy win­ning,” he says.

Pos­ing as a 9-year-old, Har­grave sent let­ters to ev­ery U.S. sen­a­tor ask­ing them for their fa­vorite joke. He posted the re­sponses on Zug. A pre­cious re­sponse came from for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia sen­a­tor Rick San­to­rum: “Al­though a fa­vorite joke doesn’t im­me­di­ately come to mind, I do en­joy laugh­ing.” Adds Har­grave: “It also helps if the tar­get does not have a sense of hu­mor.” He al­lowed the pub­lic to vote for the fun­ni­est and “un­fun­ni­est” sen­a­tors. The fun­ni­est? Maine’s Olympia Snowe (who re­sponded to Har­grave’s in­quiry with a joke about a politi­cian at the pearly gates). The un­fun­ni­est? New York’s Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton (who didn’t re­spond at all).

Tele­phone Tom­fool­ery

There’s a cer­tain voyeuris­tic adren­a­line — an ex­cit­ing pulse of sym­pa­thy or pity — that kicks in when you watch or lis­ten to a great prank be­ing pulled, says Johnny Bren­nan, for­merly one half of the Jerky Boys com­edy duo, whose prank-call CDs topped Bill­board charts in the early ’90s.

“When I was young, I al­ways did th­ese char­ac­ters and voices,” Bren­nan says. “Orig­i­nally, I was just get­ting it down on tape. But now peo­ple can sit back [with a CD] and say, ‘I feel bad for that guy. Johnny re­ally gave him a rib­bing.’ ”

You can lis­ten to prank calls at www.the­jerky­boys.com, but be pre­pared for some salty lan­guage un­suit­able for im­pres­sion­able young­sters. Bren­nan’s new­est CD, “Sol’s Rusty Trom­bone,” was re­leased last month and has 98 tracks of prank calls, ring tones and voice-mail mes­sages.

Bren­nan ad­vises the in­trepid prank caller to strive for orig­i­nal­ity and spon­tane­ity. Settle into a voice or a char­ac­ter be­fore mak­ing a call, and com­mit to im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

“Just get into it,” he says. “Some­times it’s great to do fam­ily mem­bers. Build a char­ac­ter. I have many, many char­ac­ters. There’s no limit re­ally. Ir­ish, In­dian. Do it all.”

Cam­pus Ca­pers

In the 1800s, stu­dents would fire mus­ket balls through their pro­fes­sors’ win­dows, says Neil Stein­berg, au­thor of “If at All Pos­si­ble, In­volve a Cow: The Book of Col­lege Pranks.” Need­less to say, that kind of thing would not be writ­ten off to­day as the horse­play of rest­less col­le­gians. Stein­berg says to­day’s pranks need to be sub­ver­sive and clever. Case in point: the Phan­tom Event, a pro­to­typ­i­cal col­lege prank de­signed to work off a cam­pus’s flier epi­demic.

How to do it? Put up signs for an event or club that doesn’t ex­ist but that would stick out and get peo­ple riled up enough to protest or show up at a cer­tain time and place.

“Think of some sort of ex­cess in things that are be­ing ad­ver­tised — maybe it’s the most touchy-feely Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion event of all time,” Stein­berg says. The key is to “give some­thing grav­i­tas. Im­ply there’s a lot of peo­ple do­ing it,” he says.

Stein­berg doc­u­ments a true-life ex­am­ple in the book: In 1936, when an­other world war seemed in­evitable, Prince­ton Univer­sity stu­dents cre­ated the il­lu­sion of a Vet­er­ans of Fu­ture Wars or­ga­ni­za­tion, which de­manded mil­i­tary bonuses in ad­vance of one’s ser­vice. Its logic: Why not get the money while we’re young and alive (and in a De­pres­sion)? The move­ment spread to hun­dreds of cam­puses across the coun­try and ran­kled the ranks of the Amer­i­can Le­gion and Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars.

The beauty of it? It was a prank and a peace move­ment.

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