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!


To the extent that the pranksters among us are tempted, I’ve got a very strong suggestion:  please, no April Fools’ Day jokes this year.

fof-the-fool-action-shotI’m not much of a prankster, myself.  As a kid I tried a few of the time-honored classics, like the well-placed Whoopie cushion on Uncle Tony’s chair, or the salt in the sugar bowl gag, but mostly my jests involved convincing a credulous person about some far-fetched story.  At the office, I’ve participated in a few jibes, too — including one incident that involved constructing a wall of boxes to block the door of a fellow attorney while he was in his office with the door closed for a telephone call.  This year, though, I’m not much in the mood for gags of the April Fools’ Day variety, and I don’t think that anyone else is, either.

It’s not that I’m opposed to pranks, in principle.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and pranks just seem kind of pointless and childish given the current circumstances.  Part of the idea of the April Fools’ Day jest is that the target will laugh at it, too — which doesn’t seem likely right now, no matter how well-crafted and humorous the scheme might be in a normal setting.  Plus, who are you going to pull the prank on — that person you’ve been spending 24 hours a day with for the last three weeks?  It doesn’t seem like a wise course when you’re going to be spending every waking hour with that person for the foreseeable future, does it?

So, I’m hoping that all of the pranksters among us hold their fire, and let this April 1 pass in a blessedly fool-free fashion.  Next year, perhaps, we all can let our inner pranksters loose.

The Death Of April Fool’s Day

Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day!  Who’s in the mood for a good prank, or an elaborate hoax story — like Sports Illustrated‘s famous The Curious Case of Sidd Finch?

f77aaa7a0ed1f7e38493bbeee74ea5b8Probably not many of us.  In fact, with the way the world is going these days, you’d probably have a hard time determining whether what you read or were told was intended as a funny joke, as more of that “fake news” we’ve been hearing about, planted or leaked to advance some political agenda or another, or as a honest statement about something that has really happened.  Part of the fun of a good prank or hoax is playing on the hoaxed party’s credulity, and picking your target to avoid the inherent skeptic and instead trick the hopelessly naive among us.  But who can truly be deemed naive, or skeptical, about what has or has not happened in the weird reality we now find ourselves in?

Think about it:  if someone told you that the President had tweeted something outrageous, how could you possibly evaluate whether it was true or not without checking?  If you accepted what you were told at face value, would it be because you were a gullible “April fool” or because, in reality, the President has tweeted a series of ill-advised and intemperate things and these days just about anything could come out of his mouth?  In fact, is there anything that any one of our current political leaders, Democrat or Republican, could purportedly say or do, about Russians or surveillance or climate change or leaked diplomatic communications or any other of the prevailing topics of the day, that are so inherently unbelievable that your fakery senses should start tingling?

When reality itself is so bizarre that any statement about an actual event could be considered a prank, and vice versa, April Fool’s Day isn’t quite so much fun anymore.

Hey, you don’t suppose Kish put salt in the sugar bowl, do you?

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!

The Delightful Devil Baby

I’m usually not much for pranks, but this one is pretty hysterical. To advertise a soon-to-be-released horror movie called Devil’s Due, a special effects company rigged up a mobile, remote-controlled, highly disturbing Devil Baby to roll through the streets of New York City and scare the hell out of curious Manhattanites. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look — some of the reactions are priceless.

Prank No More

They said it was just a prank.

The pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was taken to King Edward VII Hospital in London with a severe form of morning sickness.  Two Australian radio show hosts decided, as a prank, to call the hospital and pose as members of the royal family trying to get information about the Duchess’ condition.

They spoke to a nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, who believed they were members of the royal family and put them through to another nurse, who described the Duchess’ condition in detail.  The call was later shown to be a hoax, and the hospital apologized for the breach of patient confidentiality.  The DJs said they were “very surprised that our call was put through, we thought we’d be hung up on as soon as they heard our terrible accents.”

And then Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who fell for the “terrible accents,” apparently committed suicide.  She leaves behind a husband and children.  An inquest will be held to try to determine the cause of her death and whether it is, as many suspect, related to the hoax.

Suddenly, the stupid joke isn’t funny anymore — if it ever was.  The Australian radio hosts say they are “heartbroken” by the suicide.  They say their motivations were innocent and they expected to be hung up on within 30 seconds.  The implication is clear:  it’s not their fault that a harried nurse taking a telephone call at a busy metropolitan hospital didn’t see through their little jest.

I don’t listen to shock jock radio because I don’t think these kinds of pranks are funny.  They’re mean and cheap.  The smug caller always has the upper hand and the audience is already in on the joke; the person answering the phone is usually just doing their job the best they can, and their good intentions cause them to be the object of ridicule.  Even if you can’t predict that a successful prank call might lead to a suicide, how can you possible describe this call as “innocent”?  The Duchess of Cambridge is a public figure, of course, but doesn’t simple human decency suggest you not try to get personal medical information about a newly pregnant young woman trying to deal with a scary condition?  And didn’t the DJs stop to think that, if their call was successful, the innocent staffer who treated their call at face value might at least lose her job?

I hope this terrible story causes the many shock DJs out there to stop their stupid pranks — but given the crassness of most of those shows, I doubt it.

Happy April Fool’s Day (No Kidding)

Be careful when tapping salt onto your eggs this morning, or drinking something fetched for you by another:  it’s April Fool’s Day, and the prankster in your family might have loosened the cap on the salt shaker or spiked your drink with lemon juice in order to get a chuckle at your expense.

How did April Fool’s Day come to be?  Even though it’s been around for centuries, nobody knows for sure.  Some say it dates back to the date in 1582 when, by order of the Pope, the Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar, and as a result the traditional New Year’s Day, on April 1, was replaced by New Year’s Day on January 1.  Some rustic types supposedly didn’t get the news and made fools of themselves by celebrating New Year’s Day three months too late, and the tradition of playing pranks on the gullible began.  Others say it started with the Roman Emperor Constantine, who appointed one of his court fools Emperor for a day, or just reflects the general high spirits that come with the end of winter and the hope of spring.

Whatever the origin, April Fool’s Day is celebrated around the world.  I particularly like the French variation, where the target of a prank is called an “April fish” — to reflect the fact that April fish are young fish that are easily hooked.

Kish is on the road today, so I’ve got nobody to fool except the dogs.  April Fool’s Day pranks on dogs don’t seem very sporting.  At some point today, however, I am going to ask Penny if the refrigerator is running.

Tee-Pee Time

When the dogs and I left for our walk this morning, the tell-tale signs were visible to anyone who cared to look and let their inner teenager roam free.

A few stray gray cardboard tubes, of the kind we associate with only one product, were on the side of the street, where they clearly had been tossed by excited kids fleeing from the scene.  A few scraps of white had been blown onto green lawns.  And then we came upon it, in all its glory — the season’s first teepee job, on a house in the neighborhood.

Budding teepee activity is as much a sign of spring as crocuses.  Even the most mischief-making teen doesn’t teepee anyone during the cold winter months.  But when the weather is newly warm and bored kids are hanging out on a weekend night with nothing else to do, you can be sure that somebody will find some toilet paper, and then teepeeing becomes inevitable.

You can also be sure that, later today, grumbling parents at the target house will be trying to figure out how to get the white strands off the highest tree branches.