Fool School: The Art of the Perfect Prank

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Filed under: Pranksters, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art, What Makes a Good Prank?

Update, April 3, 2011: You can now listen to this 30:00 radio show here.

The Artiness of Naughtiness, hosted by Toby Amies, aired on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, April 1, 2011. Until April 7, 2011, you can listen to it here.

The art of the perfect prank
by Toby Amies
BBC News Magazine
30 March 2011

As April Fools jokers hatch their plans, what’s the secret to a perfect prank, asks broadcaster Toby Amies. And how far do the very best tricksters go in preparing their practical jokes?

This article is not a hoax. I promise you. It’s a serious work about the practical joke.

How far would you go to pull off a prank? The dole queue? In 1987, a young British broadcaster called Chris Morris let off helium into the BBC Bristol studio, causing the newsreader’s stories to reach a higher and higher pitch. Chris lost his job. And started his career in satire.

Would you risk prison? Pranks are often protests, against unfairness or authority or reality. And protest is increasingly risky in the 21st Century.

As the film director Billy Wilder said: “If you are going to tell people the truth, be funny or they will kill you.”

Whether personal or public, the prank has a point to make, but if you’re planning on tricking someone, it’s best to ensure everyone gets the joke.

Russian Art Collective Voina might have gone furthest in making fun of the unfair. Two of their members went to prison. Russian prison.

Although Voina’s manifesto is political, their activities make more immediate (non)sense, from launching live cats at workers in McDonald’s to their most notorious “action” – daubing graffiti on a raised bridge opposite the headquarters of the federal security service in St Petersburg, with an enormous, crude phallus that erected every time the bridge did.

Perhaps inevitably, two Voina members were arrested – not for the abstract insult of the penis but for overturning police cars. Voina’s name means “war” and they see themselves as part of another Russian revolution, one that refuses to take the very serious seriously at all, even if it means loss of liberty.

The pranksters have been bailed out of prison by the world’s most internationally famous “anonymous” street artist, Banksy.

With its roots in the mythological trickster who mediated between Heaven and Earth – known by many names in many cultures, like Loki, Anansie, Prometheus, Coyote, Eshu or Brer Rabbit – a good prank allows boundaries to be crossed, including the ones between art and crime, or amateur and professional.

When unemployed Mancunian Karl Power became, for a brief moment the 12th man in Manchester United’s team against Munich in 2001 by walking onto the pitch at the right moment in the right kit, he turned every fan’s fantasy into reality.

But it was the result of two years of careful strategy, he said. “We planned it like a military campaign and brought three United kits with us – red, white and blue.” The choice of three kits meant Karl the imposter could blend in with the reality of a Champions League match unnoticed till it was too late.

Legendary American media hoaxer Joey Skaggs has devoted his whole life to the prank. For more than 30 years, Joey’s been making up ridiculous lies that get disseminated so far by the mass media we are forced to wonder if the same media might not be fact-checking every other story so closely.

“I am an artist. To me the media is a medium and I create plausible but none existent realities and I stage for the news media to make social, political, satirical commentary.”

Joey simplifies the process as “the hook, line and sinker”.

The hook has the bait, a ready-written story, so sexy that a journalist wants it to be true so much they don’t bother to check.

The line is a record of the process. Joey uses clippings services and devices like Google alerts help him chart the reach of the hoax. “I watched how the news media would change the intent, content, meaning of the message to suit their own agendas.”

Joey’s duped the media into covering an embarrassing number of weird but wonderful stories, from his canine brothel, The Cathouse for Dogs, to his celebrity sperm bank, and probably several other stories that are works in progress that have yet to be revealed.

The sinker is the reveal, the moment when the lights go on and we all realise how easy it is to be fooled.

It’s hard work to overturn reality. Joey creates shell companies, puts out official press releases, hires actors, installs dedicated phone lines, whatever it takes to make the false seem real. It’s a wonder he hasn’t been headhunted by the financial services industry. The prank on his scale is an artform and consequently a mix of inspiration, craft and industry, imagination and talent is needed.

False reality

Even so, pranking has proved extremely popular as a form of television, the hidden camera pioneered in Alan Funt’s Candid Camera in the US allowed the delicious dramatic irony of watching a carefully planned plot unfold from several angles.

Television turned the prank into an expensive business with millions at risk. The budgets of TV and film allowed for exactly the kind of careful dramatic plotting that a good prank needs, fortunes were spent in creating versions of reality that were are at once, ridiculous to the viewer and plausible to the victim.

Nigel Crowle, an associate producer for Noel Edmonds and Jeremy Beadle, describes it as creating “layer upon layer of absurd situations, build it up, to a climax, which really if you analysed it make absolutely no sense whatsoever”.

You almost need to bully your target into accepting a false reality, by not giving them the opportunity to consider the alternatives. Of course this is how advertising works.

Pranksters are the special forces of comedy, getting out into the field to tell truth through laughter and using the public space as a theatre.

Charlie Todd’s Improv Everywhere most famously froze time in New York’s Grand Central Station in a performance that has received millions of views on YouTube. He’s used social media as effectively as revolutionaries in the Middle East for feel-good pranks.

If nothing else, the use of social media is another symptom of the prank’s appropriateness as the perfect art for our zeitgeist. It’s anti-authoritarian, hard to commodify or monetise, full of social comment, anti-violent and revolutionary. The opposite of the kind of art a billionaire would buy.

But as I write this, I wonder if I’ve been unfair to authority and the status quo: the bosses, the parents, the teachers, the politicians, the forces of darkness who would stop us laughing and joking.

On reflection perhaps not, because you might say they’ve been playing the most terrible joke on us 364 days a year.

Famous pranks

1957: Hoax BBC Panorama reveals spaghetti harvest in Switzerland
1976: Patrick Moore tells Radio 2 listeners that at 0947 a planetary event would lessen Earth’s gravity and if people jumped in the air at that momentm, they would float
1986: Le Parisien newspaper announces that the Eiffel Tower is to be moved to Euro Disney
1998: Burger King launches left-handed Whopper

Related link:

The Artiness of Naughtiness, BBC Radio 4, airs April 1, 2011 at 11:30 a.m. UK time

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