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The (P)Art of the Prank

Glenn McDonald
Make Jokes Not War — photo from

A desperate inquiry into the madness and methods of practical joking from a frightened young man who really should know better, by now.

prank: (n) a mischievous trick or practical joke

A lot of people don't know this, but the art of practical joking dates all the way back to ancient Babylon, where it flourished in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar II. In what may be the world's first fully realized prank, court scribe Cyrus the Impish broke into the king's garden and glued all the potted plants to the ceiling. The king, well pleased, chuckled heartily and executed Cyrus on the spot. In a testament to Nebuchadnezzar's awesome powers of public relations, that greenhouse later became famous as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - a kind of a prank on a prank that would take on historical significance.

Previous to this, there was a lesser kind of proto-pranking, of course, particularly among the sea-faring Phoenicians, but with them it was mostly about bonking each other on the head with the oars. Over the years, the art of the prank has been refined and expanded. Like other forms of expression, it tends to reflect the technology and culture from which it is borne. My great-great-great-grandfather Angus Hamish McDonald, for example, fought in the American Revolutionary War and introduced the hilarious Backwards-Exploding Musket Gag.

I'm making most of this up, of course, but I felt a need to provide some historical context, and our research budget has been brutally slashed. Anyway, the point is that I've recently rekindled my appreciation for the art of the prank, for reasons that will soon become clear, and I thought I'd share some recent findings. After all, April Fools Day will be sneaking up on you before you know it, and forewarned is forearmed.

Lately I've been mining the very cool blog The Museum of Hoaxes, maintained by the indefatigable Alex Boese since 1997. Boese has since released two books on the subject of hoaxes in general, of which pranks per se are merely a subset, and is a recognized expert on the subject. I'm here to tell you that you can spend days wandering in Alex's virtual museum.

Check out, for instance, his Top Ten College Pranks section. Here you will find detailed what is widely regarded as the best prank ever pulled, The Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961, in which a small group of Cal Tech students managed a kind of analog hack of the entire Washington Huskies cheering section. Here's how it went down:

On January 2, 1961, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Washington Huskies were playing in the annual Rose Bowl game. NBC was televising the game, and the Washington marching band had prepared a flip-card routing where fans in the stands were supposed to hold up cards under their seats at various prompts from the cheerleaders. Boese takes it from here:

"The flip-card show got off to a well-coordinated start. Everything went smoothly, and the crowd marveled at the colorful images forming, as if by magic, at the command of the cheerleaders. It wasn't until the 12th image that things began to go a little wrong. This image was supposed to depict a husky, Washington's mascot. But instead a creature appeared that had buck teeth and round ears. It looked almost like a beaver.

The next image was even worse. The word 'HUSKIES' was supposed to unfurl from left to right. But for some reason the word was reversed, so that it now read 'SEIKSUH'.

These strange glitches rattled the Washington cheerleaders. They wondered if they might have made some careless mistakes when designing the complex stunt. But there was nothing for them to do about it now except continue on, and so they gave the signal for the next image.

What happened next has lived on in popular memory long after the rest of the 1961 Rose Bowl has been forgotten. It was one of those classic moments when a prank comes together instantly, perfectly, and dramatically.

The word "CALTECH" appeared, held aloft by hundreds of Washington students. The name towered above the field in bold, black letters and was broadcast out to millions of viewers nationwide.

Cal Tech is small technical college in Pasadena, California, where the Rose Bowl is held every year. Seems a small group of students decided the home team really should be represented. So a few days before the game, they managed to steal the instruction sheets that were to be handed out to fans — all 2,232 of them.

Then, each sheet had to be individually marked up by hand according to Caltech's new master plan, so that the seat numbers and card designations would be correct. This was done all in one marathon session on New Year's Eve at Lloyd House, the home of the Fiendish Fourteen. When the task was done, three students were dispatched back to the hotel of the Washington cheerleaders to switch the old sheets with the new, altered ones. The cheerleaders, as was known beforehand, were away from their rooms visiting Disneyland. The switch completed successfully, the Fiendish Fourteen sat back and nervously waited for their scheme to come to fruition."

It's a great story, and testament to the enduring genius of the well-conceived practical joke. Boese has hundreds of correspondents, and duly chronicles all hoax and prank news on a global scale. This is the kind of critical, front-line reporting we need, quite frankly. One particularly cool section details the enduring phenomenon of garden-gnome and garden-gnome-related pranks.

The truth is that I have some very practical reasons for my renewed interest in pranks. You see, I have a friend, we'll call him Ringo, who has made a reputation for himself as a dedicated and resourceful prankster. Everybody has a friend like this, I imagine. Often, these people are just annoying, and depending on the depth of their idiocy, are appropriately ostracized, incarcerated or slain in adulthood.

But some pranksters, as Boese's site demonstrates, elevate the craft to something akin to art, maybe even genius. I am very much afraid that my friend Ringo falls somewhere in one of these categories, and unfortunately for me, I think I'm on his hit list, again. This is extremely bad news. Ringo has, over the years, evidenced a pathological inventiveness when it comes to practical jokes. He is possessed of a preternatural calm and patience, and has been known to wait years for a gag to pay off.

It all started many, many years ago when we were roommates. I made the mistake of challenging him on his own turf. He was bringing his new girlfriend over for the first time and, thinking it funny, we other roomies hung up several beer-themed girlie calendars in his bedroom. Stupid, I know, but at the time it seemed like the height of sophisticated humor.

We soon learned of the horror we had unleashed, for thus began the devastating California Prank Wars of 1994-1999. I can't go into much detail here, due to various statutes of limitation, but suffice it to say the pranking escalated wildly until only Ringo and I remained standing. There was the Hidden GlennCam initiative, of course, and the reciprocal Rocket-Powered Alarm Clock. Several incidents featured unexpected public nudity, and one particularly nasty exchange involved bagpipes, lip balm, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Then there was the Big Sur Drunken Peacock debacle. Hoo, boy — I think we're still on file with PETA for that one.

The basic problem was that I was young, dumb and stubborn, and Ringo was an evil, unstoppable genius. Family and friends finally intervened, partially at the request of the San Francisco P.D., and a tenuous peace treaty was ratified just before the dawning of the new millennium.

And so we've had six years of uneasy detente, Ringo and I. Then, last month, I did something monumentally stupid. I participated to a very slight and ancillary degree in a third-party prank involving Ringo, telemarketing, and Serta mattresses. Anyway, I got ratted out. So now the sleeping prankster behemoth has been awoken, and I am freaking directly out.

So it's back to square one for me. I've been researching like a madman and trying to understand the art of the prank in the desperate hope that I can somehow level the playing field. I'm hoping to achieve through raw scholarly effort what comes intuitively to my adversary. The Museum of Hoaxes is by far the best online resource for a real understanding of the subtleties and ethics (or lack thereof) involved. Also, the urban legend page takes a rigorous academic approach to legendary pranks of yore, and I've found this helpful, as well.

In a weird way I'm rather enjoying that familiar, gritty, nerve-wracking paranoia of days gone by. I've been jumping at every little sound, peering around corners, and unplugging the phone. Feels like old times!

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