Pranks a Lot!

Posted by on Mar 27, 2014 in People and Culture, World History

Have you ever pulled off a really good practical joke or totally fallen for a flat-out hoax? What is it about a prank that is so satisfying to the prankster and catches the prankee off guard nearly every time? With a designated day marked for such shenanigans you’d think we’d be less gullible and more prepared for these kinds of jokes, but no. In honor of April Fools Day, btw presents your guide to the best tricks, deceptions and hoaxes of all time.

The Classic Biggies

  • War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast – In 1938, the only way most people heard breaking news was over the radio, where announcers would “interrupt this program to bring you the latest.” On Halloween of that year, many listeners of the show, the Mercury Theatre on the Air, believed that the country was in the midst of a real alien invasion. Orson Welles created this radio drama and went on to create Citizen Kane, considered by many to be one of the greatest films in the history of American cinema. While the actual  impact of the “public panic” it created has been greatly exaggerated over the years, it did lead the Federal Communications Commission to create a rule against broadcast hoaxes.
  • BBC Swiss Spaghetti Harvest – On April 1, 1957, the British Broadcast Service (BBC) aired a “spoof documentary” about a family in Switzerland who had trees that grew spaghetti. The footage was so real-looking and the tone so serious and the that viewers called in to inquire about where to purchase such trees for themselves.
  • Trojan Horse sand sculpture

    Credit: Adrian Buck/Alamy; How do you say April Fools! in Greek?

    Military Deception – While there was nothing funny about the casualties of war, history is full of
    examples where armies have defeated their enemies by deceiving them. The countries of Greece and Troy were engaged in war some time during the Bronze Age (between 3300 and 1200 BCE). The city of Troy was surrounded by high walls, and so the Greeks built an 80-foot high wooden horse and left it on the beach as they supposedly retreated. Seizing the horse as a “victory trophy,” the Trojans wheeled the horse through the gates, not knowing Greek soldiers were hidden inside.After the Trojans went to sleep, the Greek soldiers lit a torch, signaling their troops, who returned and easily defeated Troy. A couple thousand years later, the Allied nations involved in World War II employed their own strategy (called Operation Forde) to defeat Germany through deceptive means. In order to keep Germany in the dark about attacks, the Allied forces created a “fake army” (the US 1st Army Group), complete with fake radio transmissions and inflatable tanks. It was considered a great success in distracting the Germans from the real Normandy invasion.

Causing Outrage

  • False Claims of Corporate Sponsorship – In an era where sports arenas are named after items found in our grocery stores, nothing seems to enrage the public more quickly than a rumor that a national treasure has been co-opted for profit. On April Fools Day in 1996, Taco Bell announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and were renaming it Taco Liberty Bell. Likewise, the faux-news that Microsoft had “acquired” the Catholic Church (making then-Pope John Paul II the new “senior vice-president of the company’s religious software division”) caused quite a stir.
  • Messing with Tradition – The London landmark clock tower Big Ben is one of the most prominent symbols of Great Britain. When the BBC reported in 1980 (on April 1, of course) that it would be updating to a digital display, it created a huge response of angered citizens. In 1998 there was a gag story written for a science newsletter reporting that the state legislature of Alabama had voted to round the mathematical value of pi from 3.14159 to 3.0. This managed to spread like wildfire across the Internet and led to protests against the action.
  • Exciting “non-events” – Public Relations stunts are not a modern convention. Back in 1860, pranksters announced that the historic Tower of London would host a “Washing of the White Tigers” ceremony. Many showed up only to discover that there had been no animals kept in the towers for centuries, let alone white tigers. Here in the United States, many holidays are enhanced by a parade. But those who showed up for the advertised 15th Annual New York City April Fool’s Day Parade (including reporters from CNN) were disappointed to learn they’d been duped.

All in Good Fun

  • Changing it Up – Comic artists can be counted on to amuse the masses and on April 1, 1997, they did not disappoint. Forty-six artists penned each other’s comic strips on that day. Dilbert creator Scott Adams, for example, took over the Family Circus strip, placing Bill Keane’s kid characters Billy and Dolly in a work-type environment. Jim Davis (Garfield) paired his fat cat with Dagwood (of Blondie) and one of his famous sandwiches, a dangerous (but delicious) combination.
What Do You Think? Is there a great practical joke tradition in your family, school or among your friends? If not, ask around. Share them with your classmates.