This column should hit the digital airways on April 1 which, of course you know, is April Fools’ Day. Although I consider myself to be an aficionado of humor—specifically, the power and importance of humor—I do not particularly enjoy the tradition of pranks on April Fools’ Day. Pranks often fail to rise to the definition of humor except for the perpetrator of the prank. All too many pranks are mean spirited and, in my experience, that rarely works out well; in fact, I’ve known of a few that have resulted in angry exchanges and broken friendships. Not worth the price, in my opinion.
A study of notable historical April Fools’ Day pranks really becomes a study in human psychology. Not that I profess to be an expert on the subject, but I believe there can be a very fine line between gullibility and trust. Those who are gullible are very easily pranked, but the ninjas of the pranking world much prefer feeding on trust. After all, the gullible are, well, gullible; easy pickings, as it were. Abusing someone’s trust, however, can have catastrophic results as history has shown and which I will illustrate shortly.
How did April Fools’ Day begin? Although a number of historians claim the day is based on the Ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, at which citizens dressed up in costumes and mocked other citizens—including the powerful, most believe it began in 1582 when France moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thus changing New Year’s Day from April 1 (Julian) to January 1 (Gregorian). It took the change a couple of years to catch on fully as back then news traveled a bit more slowly than today, and a number of people failed to be notified of the change thereby continuing to celebrate March 31 as New Year’s Eve. They were promptly ridiculed and called “April fools” and became the recipient of pranks and public ridicule. In particular, victims would wonder why people were laughing at them until realizing a small paper fish had been affixed to their backs—signifying a young fish, easily caught and therefore gullible—giving these folks the nickname “poisson d’avril,” or April fish. Sounds a bit like the old prank of taping a “Kick Me” sign on someone’s back, yes? Come to think of it, is it impossible to imagine Marcus Brutus saying to Gaius Cassius Longinus, “For crying out loud, Gai! Putting a ‘Stab Me’ sign on Julie’s back was supposed to be a joke!”
The simple fact is that almost half a millennium after poisson d’avril began, I feel safe in believing that all of us pretty much know when a new year begins. Even the cultures that follow a different calendar recognize the global start of a new year. And yet, the pranks continue—although it’s difficult to imagine in a kosher restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a Chasidic server saying to a patron, “Here’s your ham and Swiss on rye. April Fools! Ha-ha!”
If, in fact, Caesar’s death had been an April Fools’ Day prank that backfired, it would likely have been the first but definitely not the last. And as he had been attacked by 60 men, the prank would have been on a good number of people. But, as any prankster will tell you, the more, the merrier. Shall we explore?
· In 1698 the thrice-weekly Dawkes’s News-Letter, became the first recorded April Fools’ prank when it reported that there would be a “washing of the lions” at the Tower of London for a few invited citizens to witness. As the Tower had hosted wild animals (although none at that time), this seemed plausible enough to attract who knows how many people, all of whom were duped by the prank. Far from being angered—at least by most—the prank was repeated for many, many years. In fact, in 1848 the prank was so successful that the Tower Guards had to call for military backup to help control the crowd that got a bit peeved when there were no lions to be washed. Talk about gullible!
· Thomas Edison was a great inventor who enjoyed being recognized for his accomplishments while he was living. And once he invented the phonograph in 1877, people believed his genius had no limits. This is why when the New York Evening Graphic published that Edison had invented a machine which turned water into wine and ordinary dirt into edible cereal, the public bought the story lock, stock, and barrel. So did much of the rest of the nation when newspapers in many other cities repeated the story. Eventually, the Graphic printed on its front page a glowing-with-praise-for-Edison editorial from a competing newspaper under the headline, “They Bite.”
· In 1957, the BBC excitedly told listeners how farmers in Switzerland were enjoying a bumper crop of spaghetti, and accompanied the story with a film clip showing workers picking noodles from tree branches.
· Even politics can jump on the April Fools’ Day carousel as evidenced by a resolution unanimously passed by the Texas House of Representatives on April 1, 1977. State Representative Tom Moore, from Waco (not to be confused with Wacko, although …), presented a resolution that distinguished Albert DeSalvo who had been “… officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.” You will likely recall that DeSalvo was the self-professed “Boston Strangler.” The resolution was presented, and received by the other elected representatives, as a joke to show that “no one reads these bills or resolutions.”
· On April 1, 1996, in an effort to run a promotional piece, Taco Bell announced in full-page ads in seven major newspapers (including The Philadelphia Inquirer), that it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. From the ad:
“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures. It will now be called ‘The Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”
Almost needless to point out, people were incensed and talk-show hosts across the country expressed displeasure at the government for allowing this to happen. Mike McCurry, then press secretary for President Bill Clinton, exacerbated the problem by joking, “We will be doing a series of these things. Ford Motor Company is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It will be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”
· Two years later, Burger King published a full-page advertisement in USA Today announcing the introduction of a new item to their menu: the “Left-Handed Whopper,” which was developed to appease the millions of left-handed Americans. While the ingredients would remain the same, all of the condiments would be rotated 180 degrees. Apparently, many people went to the restaurant specifying which Whopper they wanted.
What I’ve listed thus far barely scratches the surface of the number of pranks that have made the news. As for when April Fools’ Day truly began, forget Hilaria or poisson d’avril, just look to that bastion of veritas, the Associated Press. For it was on April 1, 1983 that the news agency reported the findings of Joseph Boskin who, at the time, was a professor of history and ethnic and urban studies at Boston University. Boskin learned that in the Fourth Century Emperor Constantine appointed his court jester, named Kugel, as the ruler of the empire for April 1. Kugel immediately decreed that only absurdities would be tolerated while he ruled.
It seems it took Professor Boskin a couple of weeks to find out the story appeared in hundreds of news sources worldwide because the AP reporter who led the interview had taken him seriously. The good professor hadn’t realized that not everyone knew kugel is the name of a favored dish common in Jewish homes. Go figure.
This week’s Street Advertising Smile: