Tread Lightly, Pranksters!

On this April Fool’s Day, here is some heartfelt advice for those who are scheming about practical jokes: tread lightly today.

Any capable prankster has to consider the setting, the nature of the prank, and the prankee. Any kid old enough to attempt an April Fool’s Day gag during his formative years intuitively understood this. You might try the “put salt in the sugar bowl” trick on your brother, but you were risking an explosion if you pulled it on your Dad as he was taking his first, wake-up sip of morning coffee. And doing anything permanently destructive, like sawing through the legs of a chair so your sister would crash to the ground when she sat down for her cereal, was clearly out of bounds.

This year, any practical jokers need to understand their audience and some reasonable boundaries, too. We’ve been pretty battered by the past year, and we’re more brittle than normal. So slipping somebody one of those dripping cups, or putting an obscene hat on the statue in Schiller Park, or sticking a “kick me” sign on Captain Kirk’s back might be funny, but nobody’s going to get much of a belly laugh out of a COVID-oriented gag. Let’s not mess around with vaccination needles, for example, or cut up vaccination cards. And I’m not sure how those who have been involuntarily housebound for more than a year now would react to a flaming bag on their doorstep, either.

The best April Fool’s Day jokes have a certain silly, timeless quality, anyway–like the 1957 BBC broadcast that convinced some gullible Brits that pasta was harvested from trees in Switzerland. If you’re interested in reading about legendary pranks of the past, take a look here and here. But if you’re going to actually try a prank, please–go easy on us!

A Shiners Tale

Since at least 1700, April 1 has been the day to pull a prank and dupe the gullible.  It’s a day to keep your skepticism level set at maximum, to make sure that strange memo you got at work isn’t a jest, and to double-check that what you’re stirring into your morning coffee is sugar and not salt.

The arrival of April 1 made me think about jokes we used to play as kids.  One of the most successful and most elaborate was a prank that my sister Cath and I pulled on UJ shortly after our family moved to Columbus in April 1971.

mens-dress-shoes-slip-on-leather-lined-business-casual-formal-suit-loafers-new-black-12_3852594At the time there was a pair of really cheap, almost plastic-looking black loafers lurking around the house.  I don’t know where they came from — they weren’t Dad’s, and they certainly weren’t UJ’s or mine — but for some reason they became an object of ridicule and silly humor in our household.  We called them the shiners, and they would mysteriously appear on your chair at dinner, or on your pillow when you went to your bedroom at night.  It was one of those inside jokes that sometimes develop in families.

After UJ deftly deposited the shiners with one of us, Cath and I decided to kick things up a notch.  We came up with the idea of making UJ think he had won a prize in a contest.  We decided that the Columbus Dispatch had sponsored a “best brother” contest and, with devilish cleverness, we thought that it would be more believable if we made out that UJ had taken second prize rather than winning outright.  So we typed up an official-looking letter stating that, on the nomination of his brother and sisters, UJ had come in second in the Columbus Best Brother Contest, and that the enclosed gift was his award.  Then we boxed everything up, wrapped it in brown paper, and mailed it all to make it look even more legitimate.

One day, when we got home from school, Mom announced that UJ had received a mysterious package.  With Cath and I barely able to control our glee, UJ first opened and read the letter — and fell for our scheme hook, line, and sinker.  As he read the letter he seemed legitimately touched, saying something like: “Gosh you guys, you didn’t need to do that!”  Then, with mounting excitement, he opened the inside box and found . . . the shiners.  First a look of puzzlement, then a sense that a mistake must have been made, and finally the dawning realization that he was the victim of a practical joke washed over his face, and Cath and I had a good laugh.  Mom, on the other hand, declared that enough was enough with the shiners, and they were never seen again.

As is the case with many practical jokes, the planning and execution was fun, but the act of consciously fooling someone ultimately seemed mean-spirited.  I’ve always felt kind of guilty about the shiners incident.  Sorry about that, UJ!

Happy April Fools’ Day!