Prank You Very Much: The Etiquette of Hoaxing

by
Filed under: Hoax Etiquette, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Why Do a Prank?

Three generations of pranksters: Self portrait of Caroline Weber with Nancy and Rose

In my natal family, the holiest of holidays were April Fools, Valentine’s, Halloween, and the first night of Passover, in that order. To joke was to love was to entertain was to celebrate liberty. My friends were brought up to take praying seriously; my brother and I, to take playing seriously.

Pranking was not only allowed, it was encouraged. Maybe it was even mandatory. And there were rules.

Tricking people wasn’t supposed to be mean. The butt of your joke wasn’t meant to feel like a jerk. Ideally the victim would be warmed and flattered by the attention. Oh, look how smart I am, that it took so much effort to beguile me.

Sometimes it went brilliantly right, and sometimes it didn’t.

Five o’clock on a lovely early spring evening, and my mother called me in from the backyard. She and my father were going out to dinner, she said, and she had my dinner ready at the kitchen table.

Pretty weird: No one, not even babies, dined at five in our family; and the kitchen table, in the rooster-wallpaper nook, was only for lunch and dinner. But my mother had a happy, adoring look on her face, and I didn’t think twice about going along with whatever she wanted me to do. I washed my hands and sat down at the table. I can see it perfectly across the years—the Formica table festively set with a straw placemat, yellow cloth napkin, and a fork and knife from the dining room flatware. Looked like a party.

With a flourish, my mother set a plate before me: two sunny-side-up eggs, a couple of strips of bacon, and a heap of bright peas and carrots. It wasn’t the sort of food we ate for dinner—I think that was the year of Steak Diane—and the bacon was curiously unaromatic, but my mother was calling it dinner, and so dinner it was.

I stuck a fork into the yolk.

Well, tried to stick it in. Everything on the plate was candy.

Thus, my first April Fools Day, and sheer perfection. My mother and I laughed and ate the marzipan veggies, and I felt very loved.

Less successful was the time my mother called me into the kitchen; said, “Nancy, I’m angry at you”; and threw a drinking glass at my feet. It shattered on the linoleum floor, and I burst into hysterical tears.

“Nooo!” my mother wailed, gathering me into her arms. “It was a joke! That’s Libby’s new Bounce glass! It was supposed to pop right up like a tennis ball! Oh, baby girl, I’m so sorry, I’m going to write a letter to Libby and give them hell.”

Rule: Always know your materials.

Then there was the time my mother suddenly declared, in the middle of a family dinner, that she didn’t feel well. My father, brother, and I watched in horror as she got up from the table, ran to a corner of the room, bent over in front of the Picasso urn, and made horrible retching noises. When my adoring hypochondriac of a father saw the pile of vomit on the floor, he almost fainted.

“Plastic!” my mother exclaimed, picking up the ugly thing. But dinner was wrecked.

Always know your audience.

Fast-forward to the next generation of family life.

Elsewhere on this site, you may hear from my grown-up kids, Rose and Albert, about our patented version of the prank: the narf. I don’t quite know how the word or the concept got introduced into our world when the kids were small. Is it an acronym for Not A Real Fact that Albert’s father, Rose’s stepfather, my then-husband Bob brought home from IBM? Did it come from Sesame Street or Pinky and the Brain, both cited by Wikipedia under “narf”? My sense is that the word just happened to us, the only possible name for a defining ritual.

Our narf is a spoken prank. It’s an attempt to get another family member to believe, if only for a second, a patent bit of nonsense that should defy credulity in even a half-awake, distracted person who is, say, busily making brownies while writing a novel and playing backgammon.

“There’a a kangaroo in the bathroom.”

“I’ve been short-listed for the Nobel!”

“I have a parking space that’s good until next month.”

The last actually wasn’t a narf—something to do with changing the alternate side of the street signage; but no one told the traffic cops, who blitzed us with tickets.

Getting people to believe what they should instantly doubt: Does this sound Skaggsesque? Well, yes. No denying it. Uncle Joey shares equal credit with Ben Spock for influencing parenting practices chez nous.

Rose and Albert are in their 20s now, and we still occasionally narf one another, or try to. How has narfing endured all these years when so much else has fallen away?

I give credit to its having rules and protocols, like any meaningful game. Here is anarchy with etiquette—satisfying two sides of the polyhedron soul.

For instance, narfing is nearly cruelty-free. It’s not a narf to tell someone who loves you that you’ve been diagnosed with leprosy. If your narf misfires, and someone’s bullshit detector lights up, you immediately have to confess. To say “no narf” when it is a narf is a violation of the deepest order.

Back to the natal family. For the last forty years or so, my younger brother and I have been so poised to be pranked by the other on April first, a telephone call on the day would go like this.

“Hi. I was walking down—“

“April Fool’s!”

With the coming of caller ID, neither of us could even say “Hi” before being doubted by the other.

So one recent year my brother April Fooled me the night before, and then claimed it was okay because we’re Jewish and the holiday had started at sundown.

I think that’s up there, or down there, with failing to test the Bounce glass.

And yet, I was secretly glad that he’d violated good form. I love being fooled, and it’s happening less and less. I just don’t feel I can let my guard down these days.

“Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” says that man in Washington.

“Narf,” say we.

“No narf,” says he.

As Joey has proved over and again, confessing that you’ve played a prank is part of what makes it a prank instead of malicious mischief. Joey for president. Or someone else who won’t say “no narf” when it’s very exactly a narf.

Oh, bring back the springtime of candy carrots and peas.

Photo credit: Andrew Marks

© 2007 Nancy Weber