It is April Fool’s Day and I am coming out of the closet: I love pranks. I have been told they are politically incorrect, can turn our children into vengeful monsters, and are responsible for our high crime rate. They are childish, and I am not a child. And yet I cannot resist playing them with friends whom I know will tolerate me, and I applaud the complex and well-executed gags that others perform.
A news program in Australia announced that the country would soon be converting to metric time. The April 1 story described the new system with 100 seconds to the minute, 100 minutes to the hour, and 20-hour days. Furthermore, seconds would become millidays, minutes become centidays, and hours become decidays. One young student recalls being told by his science teacher about this change and how they could go to the post office and get little stickers to place around their watch faces. She was not sure if he had fallen for the joke or if he was trying to fool them.
Pointless, yes, but it is light-hearted, too. Unrelieved earnestness needs a bit of mischief to keep us from getting too serious—silly pranks not mean tricks where someone is hurt or embarrassed. In fact, I have a pretty narrow definition of prank. It can’t be simply slapstick, such as clear packing tape across a doorway. It cannot dash hopes. I would never convince someone that their book was going to be published, or they had won an award, only to disappoint. It needs to be just the opposite, setting up a belief in something disappointing, and then taking away the disappointment. The rush of surprise and relief hopefully ends in laughter.
One year a friend was renovating a building. This included lifting it and digging a basement. The project had already been stalled a few times, and was way behind schedule. I wrapped yellow barrier tape across the front of the building, and created a sign saying artifacts from the Red Paint People had been found during excavation, and all further work was to be stopped until an archeological site survey was completed. My friend arrived at the property and asked the contractor (who was in on it) why nothing was happening. After reading the sign, he went in to make a few calls. His secretary smiled and handed him my April Fool’s card.
The BBC also enjoys foolish April pranks. From a convincing article on spaghetti trees, to flying penguins, and proposed plans to turn Big Ben’s clock face into a digital display, this respected corporation has been making an absurdity seem credible for over fifty years.
Here on Mount Desert Island there was a short-lived April Fool’s Day Party called the wreath police party. Christmas was long past, and it seemed time for the numerous brown wreathes with torn and bedraggled ribbons to be taken down. We decided to add some motivation. We would gather on April Fool’s Eve for a light snack then divide into teams. We had a stack of sticky neon orange tickets and a checklist. I once straddled my girlfriend’s shoulders as I poked a ticket loosely stuck to a broom handle to tack it to a second story wreath. Half an hour later we reconvened for dinner and awards: oldest wreath, biggest wreath, most dangerous, most ticketed, April Fool’s morning dawned with small orange squares brightening the dry and dead wreathes.
April Fool’s mischief need not be elaborate to be effective. One year my daughter and I switched all the drawers around in the kitchen, and when my husband reached for a fork, he stared at a drawer full of spice jars, his face bewildered as he tried to register what was going on.
Childhood visits to my aunt were enhanced because she lived above Jack’s Smoke Shop.I never even noticed all the cigars and smoking accessories, because a spinning display by the door was crammed with small colorful packages of practical jokes. There was gum that made your mouth black. I got that for my oldest sister. There was the fly in the plastic ice cube. This was a treasure, and I would even put it my own tall lemonade glass, if I couldn’t find a cousin or uncle I hadn’t already slipped it to. These admittedly not very clever gags were all left behind many years ago, but have left a simple joy of play.
This year’s foolery practically created itself. When my husband and I were in Quebec a few weekends ago, he lost a pair of gloves. These leather driving gloves had been his favorites for over twenty years. We retraced our steps, searched the car, and revisited places we had gone. No gloves. The morning we left the concierge offered to call the two nightspots we had been to the previous evening, but which had not yet opened. Back at home, I found the gloves while unpacking. A little Photoshop play, and I had a letter from the concierge saying my husband’s property had been found. A banged up and torn envelope has a paper package containing one glove. He will be presented with this at dinner on April Fool’s. The second glove will be in my lap, ready to hand over if the disappointment of getting only one glove seems too great. (Please do not mention to my husband if you see him today)
Humor changes with the social climate. Not many people are amused by the corny hi-jinks of Groucho Marx, the Joker is a villain, and clowns are more commonly portrayed as terrifying rather than funny. We are perhaps too sophisticated for practical jokes. But today, April Fool’s Day, let’s recall the simple childish delight in pure, pointless, absurdity. Whether you are the gullible one, or the prankster, or both, celebrate the silly.
If you fall for a joke, just look your prankster in the eye and say it does not matter, since gullible is not actually a word, and isn’t found in any dictionary.