From Benjamin Franklin's hoax about the the death of his rival to Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to levitate the Pentagon to Stephen Colbert’s “news reporting”, pranksters, hoaxers, and con artists use humor to underscore larger, pointed truths about society.
Excerpted from Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World by Kembrew McLeod (footnotes omitted) published by New York University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Kembrew McLeod. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
American wit and wisdom began with some mass-mediated mischief. In the December 19, 1732 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin penned the following advertisement: “Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, ...[and the] prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds.” Writing under the name Richard Saunders, he not only narrowed down Leeds’s time of death to the date and time—October 17, 1733 at 3:29 p.m.—but also the exact moment when two worldly bodies aligned: “at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.” Franklin was a rationalist product of the Enlightenment. He was a cynic who valued science over superstition, and heaped scorn on astrologers such as Titan Leeds. More crucially, Leeds was a business rival, and the printer’s way up the ladder of wealth was often achieved by stepping on his competitors. Franklin claimed that the two friends frequently debated when the cosmos had scheduled Leeds’s appointment with the grim reaper: “But at length he is inclinable to agree with my judgment. Which of us is most exact, a little time will now determine.”
When Titan Leeds did not die on that date, phase two of Operation: Ridicule Astrologer kicked into gear. In the next Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin/Saunders bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t attend to his best friend during his final moments on earth. Oh, how he wished to give Leeds a farewell embrace, close his eyes, and say good-bye one last time! This infuriated the astrologer, who ranted in his not-quite-posthumous 1734 almanac about this “false Predictor,” “conceited Scribbler,” “Fool,” and—last but not least—“Lyar.” Poor Richard was shocked by these rude utterances. With a wearied tone, he wrote, “Having received much Abuse from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to still be living, and to write Almanacks in spight of me and my Predictions, I cannot help saying, that tho’ I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly.” He added that there was absolutely no doubt Leeds had died, for it was “plain to everyone that reads his last two almanacks, no man living would or could write such stuff.” Franklin wasn’t the first to mock astrology, which by the early eighteenth century had become a timehonored tradition. Two centuries before, François Rabelais published at least two such lampoons: Almanac for 1532 and Pantagrueline Prognostification (signed “Maistre Alcofribas Nasier,” an anagram of his name). The satirist wrote vague forecasts such as “This year the blind will see very little, and the deaf will hear poorly” and “In winter wise men will not sell their fur coats to buy firewood.”
Rabelais’s lighthearted jabs, however, were nothing compared to what Leeds endured. Benjamin Franklin owned and operated the printing house that churned out his competitor’s almanac, giving him a crucial advantage in this war of words. This inside knowledge allowed Franklin to read his attacks and respond to them in Poor Richards’ Almanack before Leeds’s publication even went to press. “Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any Man so indecently and scurrilously,” Franklin wrote, further egging him on, “and moreover his Esteem and Affection for me was extraordinary.” The astrologer’s protests continued to pour fuel on the fire, which by now had captivated much of the colonies’ reading public. Franklin kept this up for several years, even after the astrologer really did die in 1738. The 1740 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack described a late-night visit from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who entered Richard Saunders’s brain via his left nostril and penned the following message: “I did actually die at that moment,” he confessed, “precisely at the hour you mentioned, with a variation of 5 minutes, 53 sec.” After this belated apology, the spirit issued one more prediction: John Jerman, another almanac maker who used Franklin as a printer, would convert to Catholicism. This was an outrageous claim to make during those antipapist times, and the author was not amused. Because of Franklin’s “witty performance,” Jerman huffed, he would be taking his business elsewhere.
Learning from Pranks
Benjamin Franklin’s ruse is one of the first modern examples of what I call a prank. In the groundbreaking book Pranks! , Andrea Juno and V. Vale suggest that the “best pranks invoke the imagination, poetic imagery, the unexpected and a deep level of irony or social criticism.” By staging these semiserious, semihumorous spectacles, pranksters try to spark important debates and, in some instances, provoke social change. Unfortunately, the word prank is more often used to describe stunts that make people look foolish and little more. I’m not interested in celebrating cruelty—especially the sorts of mean-spirited practical jokes, hazing rituals, and reality-television deceits that are all too common in today’s popular culture. Although “good” pranks sometimes do ridicule their targets, they serve a higher purpose by sowing skepticism and speaking truth to power (or at least cracking jokes that expose fissures in power’s facade). A prank a day keeps The Man away, I always say. Nevertheless, I should stress at the outset that this book is not solely about pranking. Many of the characters who populate these pages aren’t driven by noble impulses, and even those who are more pure of heart can muddy the ethical waters with dubious tactics.
With this in mind, Pranksters examines everything from political pranks, silly hoaxes, and con games to the sort of self-deception that fuels outlandish belief systems. Though these may seem like very different examples, they are linked by fact that all varieties of deceit engender confusion, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Spectators (whether they have been scammed by a swindler or have witnessed a satirical street-theater spectacle) can experience a single event in radically different ways. One person’s prank can become the fodder for another’s con or, as we will soon see, conspiracy theory. Pranks, hoaxes, cons, and conspiracy
theories share another key similarity: people buy into them when they resonate with their own deeply entrenched worldviews. Conversely, they can also push us to think more critically about how and why we come to embrace false beliefs—while at the same time reminding us not to repeat past mistakes. As the old proverb goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” By viewing modern history through the lens of trickery, this book offers an offbeat and overlooked account of political, religious, and social life in the West. Yes, Reason and other Enlightenment principles shaped modernity, but so did chicanery and irrationality.
Mischief makers also left their mark on media. Most textbook histories offer a parade of Big Broadcasters, Great Men, New Technologies, and Noble Ideas. Lost in the cracks are the more peripheral figures who worked outside convention but still impacted the norms and uses of media. Subversive pranksters, opportunistic hoaxers, greedy con artists, and clever hackers all have played formative roles in the evolution of media. In 1903, for instance, a lone troublemaker helped kill off a sector of the wireless telegraphy industry before it got off the ground. Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was attempting to promote his patented radio system as a way to send confidential messages (even though total secrecy is impossible with broadcast media). During the device’s unveiling, moments before it was to receive a transmission from Marconi himself, the wireless telegraph mysteriously came to life, tapping away. It had been hacked! “Rats. Rats. Rats,” the message announced, followed by a series of obnoxious rhymes that began, “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.” It was a PR disaster for Marconi, and it doomed his company’s new product. The perpetrator was a stage magician named Nevil Maskelyne, who gleefully explained to reporters that he was trying to expose the invention’s fatal flaw. Maskelyne’s wireless-telegraph hack is a reminder that rulebreaking has long been a part of media’s DNA.
My history of trickery—or trickstory, if you will—starts at the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment and spans four centuries. Among other things, Pranksters chronicles the exploits of Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, and Mark Twain. It also explores P. T. Barnum’s humbugs and the nineteenth-century culture of cons, the youthful hacking adventures of Apple cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and a number of politicized pranks orchestrated by WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), and a dynamic duo named the Yes Men. In doing so, this book vividly illustrates how pranksters can stimulate constructive public conversations and, on some unfortunate occasions, unintended consequences—or what I call prank blowback. This occurs when a satire is taken seriously by its intended target and provokes a reactionary response. For example, the 1960s feminists who founded WITCH designed their outrageous protests to appeal to reporters and appall conservatives. Little did they know that their stunts (along with similar pranks pulled by others) would help jolt the Moral Majority into existence, reshaping American politics in the process. On a much grander scale, one can draw a twisted-but-unbroken line from today’s New World Order conspiracy theories to the mind-control paranoia of the Cold War era, the post–French Revolution Illuminati scare, and all the way back to a satirical prank pulled in the early 1600s, which kicks off chapter 1.
If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire × Media = Prank. Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere and amplified by media. They allow ordinary people to reach large audiences despite constraints (such as a lack of wealth or connections) that would normally mute their voices. Storytelling is an important tool that makes this possible, especially when a prank produces memorable morals or lessons that cry out to be retold. I had this in mind when I successfully trademarked “freedom of expression.” My quiet little joke went public after I hired a lawyer who threatened to sue AT&T for using this iconic phrase in an ad without permission! In 2003, the New York Times broke the story with a wry article that began, “Freedom of expression, it turns out, may not be for everyone.” When wire services picked it up, more reporters came calling. This gave me a platform to say ridiculous, provocative things such as “I didn’t go through the time, effort, and expense of trademarking freedom of expression® just to have people use it whenever they want.” I dangled many more tasty hooks, but if journalists savored the humor of this serious joke, they also had to swallow the critique that came with it. The absurd nature of my fake lawsuit certainly got people talking, but all good things must come to an end—including my beloved trademark. I forgot to file a “Section 8” form a few years into its lifetime, an oversight that terminated my ownership of the phrase. But there is an amusing silver lining. A U.S. government website now declares that freedom of expression is “dead” (in all caps, no less). Dead is just a legal designation for a lapsed trademark, but I prefer to think of it as an unintentionally hilarious example of bureaucratic performance art.
Pranking is a form of edutainment—an instructive amusement that can make perpetrators, victims, and witnesses wiser. And as I said earlier, even hoaxes and cons can sharpen our critical-thinking skills. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, an obviously Photoshopped image of a scuba diver swimming in a fully submerged subway station circulated on social media. Rather than taking a few seconds to realize that every element of this picture was implausible, I quickly and credulously reposted it. I should have known better, especially because this happened while I was writing this book! Notorious publicist and self-proclaimed media manipulator Ryan Holiday discusses a tried and true technique that he calls “trading up the chain.” Holiday writes, “I can turn nothing into something by placing a story with a small blog that has very low standards, which then becomes the source for a story by a larger blog, and that, in turn, for a story by larger media outlets. I create, to use the words of one media scholar, a ‘self-reinforcing news wave.’” A 2010 survey of working journalists, for example, found that 89 percent admitted to turning to blogs and social media for story research. The speed at which news now travels makes antiquated concepts such as “fact-checking” and “verification” that much more difficult. If you trace the path of a news story back to its origins, more often than not a publicist is at the beginning of the chain (after all, “PR” is the first two letters of the word prank).
Pranks encourage audiences to pause and reflect, even if it is only for a few seconds. Sometimes pranksters craft clear and direct messages that persuade, and sometimes they deliberately befuddle. The latter act is also useful—especially when an unexpected guerrilla performance jolts people out of their daily routines. When the world is temporarily turned askew, it can be seen from a new perspective. “Imagination is the chief instrument of the good,” philosopher John Dewey argued, emphasizing the transformative power of art. Drawing on Dewey, sociologist
James Jasper used the term artful protest to describe the same tactics I attribute to pranksters. “Much like artists,” he writes, “they are at the cutting edge of society’s understandings of itself as it changes.” Jasper believes that artful protestors offer us “new ways of seeing and judging the world.” One of the reasons why pranking can be so compelling for everyone involved is because it’s fun, theatrical, and participatory. By dispensing with stage lights and other barriers that separate audiences from performers, it lies somewhere between acting, gaming, and free play. A prank is like a humorous role-playing adventure in which people, ideas, and language all have leading parts. “Jokes are active, social things,” media scholar Stephen Duncombe argues. Humor requires engagement from spectators, especially when irony is employed (one has to figure out what the joke teller doesn’t believe to get it). With enough repetition, these cognitive acts can bleed over into the social world, moving people to action.
Silly Social Engineering
Pranks also provide a real-life learning lab for conducting social experiments. Anyone with enough pluck, luck, and imagination can open the hood of the culture industry’s engine and watch the gears turn. One useful example is the Banana Hoax. In early 1967, a rumor circulated that one could get high by smoking banana peels—though, in reality, the only way to trip on a banana is to step on one. The instigators were most likely “Country” Joe McDonald and Gary “Chicken” Hirsh, from the acid-damaged jug band Country Joe and the Fish. In late 1966, they started spreading the word among friends that banana peels contained psychedelic ingredients. “Even if it didn’t work,” Hirsh said of their druggy effects, “it was great fun.” Not only would this fruit be absurdly difficult to outlaw, but the thought of puffing on bananas contained more than a whiff of slapstick silliness. The story initially traveled via word of mouth, and the first printed account appeared in a March 1967 issue of the Berkeley Barb. Conveniently, Ed Denson served as Country Joe’s band manager and also contributed a regular music column to that underground paper. “I was fully involved in perpetrating the hoax when I wrote that article,” Denson later admitted, though he denied penning a letter to the editor about a cop in a local food co-op who was “lurking in the fresh produce section.” The writer predicted that possessing large amounts of bananas would soon become a criminal offense.
The smokable-banana myth is a bit frivolous, sure, but we can still learn a lot from how it took root. Historian John McMillian notes that this prank reveals much about the social and media landscapes of the time. Underground papers created a virtual community connecting weirdos, radicals, and dropouts living in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. This alternative communication network ensured that few things remained local. Mainstream outlets also propagated the put-on, starting with a San Francisco Chronicle article titled “Kicks for Hippies: The Banana Turn-On.” Within a month, Time and Newsweek piled on with a wink, and soon it was part of popular folklore. “From bananas, it is a short but shocking step to other fruits,” said Congressman Frank Thompson, who cheekily proposed the Banana Labeling Act of 1967. In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, he declared, “Today the cry is ‘Burn, Banana, Burn.’ Tomorrow we may face strawberry smoking, dried apricot inhaling or prune puffing.” Thompson claimed a “high official in the FDA” urged him to introduce the bill, but the Food and Drug Administration actually didn’t find the banana-smoking rumor very funny. The FDA posted a press release that soberly stated that it failed to find “detectable quantities of known hallucinogenics” in bananas. Pop music also helped to spread this mischievous meme. Donovan’s recent hit “Mellow Yellow” was widely rumored to be about you-know-what—“Electrical banana is gonna be the latest craze,” he sang—but the song was actually written before the prank was hatched. It was just a kooky cosmic coincidence. The constant repetition of “Mellow Yellow” on radios amplified the Banana Hoax as it spread through subterranean tributaries, corporate channels, and word of mouth.