The art of the April Fools’ Day prank

Illustration: Peter Arkle
Illustration: Peter Arkle

Summary

The enduring popularity of holiday hoaxes suggests that people still know how to take a joke.

My dad, Allen Funt, once approached a cop in Bar Harbor, Maine, and asked where he could buy a bomb. The visibly annoyed officer explained that bombs weren’t sold in Bar Harbor. Then, with a straight face, he suggested checking in the neighboring city of Ellsworth.

For viewers of “Candid Camera" in 1961, the notion of shopping for bombs was a funny gag. By the time I took over the program decades later, pranking boundaries had changed: there would be no jokes about explosives.

So in 2001 I went to the airport in Bullhead City, Ariz., where I posed as a security guard and told airline passengers they would have to lie on a conveyor belt and roll through the X-ray machine. Airport security was truly laughable in those days—until a few months later, when 9/11 happened.

This year, as April Fools’ Day approaches, some might wonder if we’re in a pandemic of pharsaphobia. (The term, from the Greek word for “prank," is literally the fear of being pranked.) Many recent comments on my “Candid Camera Classics" YouTube channel are along the lines of: “You could never do that today. You might get shot!"

Has our ability to take a joke really changed? In 1979 I wrote a book about practical joking titled “Gotcha!" in which I noted, “Nowadays, I fear, people have lost some of what it takes to laugh at life and to appreciate a good gag, even at their own expense. The modern term for this condition is—uptight."

I was wrong 45 years ago, and I believe the YouTube commenters are wrong today. It’s a mistake to conflate societal edginess with a diminished sense of humor. Americans still appreciate a well-constructed prank and welcome a good laugh, perhaps now more than ever.

Some say the term “April fool" emerged in the 1500s, when adoption of the Gregorian calendar set January first as the start of the year. Those who missed the news and continued to celebrate in spring became known as April fools. (There are a slew of other origin stories, but this one seems reasonable enough.)

Abe Lincoln was an inveterate practical joker. As a young man, he would go to a rooming house and tie a long string to the underside of a bed used by newlyweds. At the other end of the string was a bell, and whenever it rang, Abe and his chums hooted in the room below.

A Golden Age of practical joking came between 1920 and 1950, when pranksters were particularly daring. One influential character of the period was the illustrator Hugh Troy, a man who could not tolerate the status quo.

He once bought a bench and waited until a cop tried to arrest him as he “stole" it from the park. While in the military he filed a bogus “Daily Flypaper Report," listing every insect caught in the previous 24 hours, and soon the Army demanded similar paperwork from other officers. 

In 1935 Troy made a fake human ear out of corned beef and placed it in a display box at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with a sign: “This is the ear which Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." It drew a large crowd.

The arrival of the internet provided a boon for hoaxsters, and a lot of low-hanging fruit. For instance, in 1998 website MalePregnancy.com claimed to document the case of Lee Mingwei, the first man to become pregnant. The site drew considerable media attention but was actually a prank by Lee and Virgil Wong, who were performance artists.

Once Photoshop was added to pranksters’ toolboxes, the internet exploded with fake images. “Snowball the Monster Cat" went viral in 2001 and was displayed on NBC and ABC until it was found to be a gag by Cordell Hauglie, who was just having fun with a photo of his daughter’s average-size cat Jumper.

Then the lure of over-the-top reality television took hold. In October 2009, TV news reports carried video of a huge silver balloon floating across the sky with six-year-old Falcon Heene trapped inside. 

When the balloon landed near Denver International Airport, the boy was nowhere to be found, igniting fears he had fallen out. It turned out that the elaborate ruse was staged by his parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, in an effort to get a TV deal.

Two years later a “study" by AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting Co., covered by CNN, BBC, NPR and Forbes, found that users of Internet Explorer were “dumb." Though it turned out to be a hoax crafted by a Canadian web developer named Tarandeep Gill, it underscored a condition even more widespread today: Users of the internet are easily gulled.

Other than online, however, there seems to be a dearth of quality pranks these days. Last April two highly reputable outlets offered suggestions so lame that they, themselves, were a joke. 

NBC’s “Today" presented “25 hilarious April Fools’ pranks to pull on family and friends." Among them: “Swap out the contents of their underwear drawer for bathing suits for an early morning prank that’ll get all the laughs." Good Housekeeping’s “20 Best April Fools’ Pranks" included: Buy fake poop and “place it literally anywhere: on the toilet, in the car—seriously, you can’t go wrong."

Both reports also suggested purchasing a whoopee cushion, a crude prop that dates back to ancient times. (Roman Emperor Elagabalus, who reportedly enjoyed practical jokes, used them at dinner parties to embarrass any pompous guests.) Today there is “iFart," “Tap & Fart," “Fart Box" and a symphony of other digital aides for those who insist flatulence is funny.

Meanwhile, April Fools’ Day, like so many other special occasions, has been taken over by advertisers. On Madison Avenue it’s second only to the Super Bowl as an opportunity for budget-breaking creativity. Amazon, for example, introduced Petlexa, a version of its home assistant device, designed to allow dogs and cats to place orders online. Burger King promoted Whopper-flavored toothpaste.

Petco announced the release of a $99 DooDoo Drone that flies around the yard and picks up after your pet. Nestle celebrated April Fools’ with its new coffee-flavored Coffee-Mate, designed to give your coffee the taste of…coffee.

Personally, I admire pranksters who are so dedicated to their craft that they don’t even have to witness the result. I worked in a newsroom where I was the first to arrive at 4:30 a.m. and one morning I spotted a folded sheet of paper on the manager’s desk marked “Confidential." Naturally, I peeked and discovered the message: “Good morning, Peter." Now, that was funny.

I don’t believe we’ve lost our sense of humor. I don’t fear funny pranks will necessarily trigger nasty reactions—even in these tense times. And I don’t cede the fun of April Fools’ Day to corporate advertisers.

I do, however, advise that the best approach come Monday—indeed throughout the year—is to heed the Golden Rule and only prank others as you would have them prank you.

Peter Funt, a journalist and TV host, is the author of “Self-Amused: A Tell-Some Memoir."

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