The History of Pranks

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R.I.P. Dario Fo (1926-2016)

Filed under: Creative Activism, Parody, Political Challenges, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The History of Pranks

Revered playwright, comedian, Nobel laureate, and prankster patron saint Dario Fo has passed away at the age of 90.

Nobel laureate Dario Fo, who mocked politics, religion, dies
by Frances D’Emilio and Nicole Winfield
October 13, 2016

Dario Fo

Dario Fo

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him praise, scorn and the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan’s Luigi Sacco hospital after suffering respiratory complications from a progressive pulmonary disease, said the chief of pulmonology, Dr. Delfino Luigi Legnani. Fo had been working on a new stage production with collaborators in his hospital room up until his final days, Legnani said.

The author of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire that continued into his final years. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests. Read more.

Ghostwatch Remembered

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Looking back on a controversial BBC show called Ghostwatch and its creator Stephen Volk, a hoaxer who out-Orsoned War of the Worlds.

“The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers”
by Jake Rossen
Mental Floss
October 6, 2016

aotp_ghostwatchAfter more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK’s Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death. Read more.

Uncle Sam’s Imaginary Pen Pal

Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks

Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog examines the canon of opinion writer Guy Sims Fitch, a prolific non-existent writer for the United States Information Agency.

“Meet Guy Sims Fitch, a Fake Writer Invented by the United States Government”
by Matt Novak
September 27, 2016

aotp_guysimsfitchGuy Sims Fitch had a lot to say about the world economy in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote articles in newspapers around the globe as an authoritative voice on economic issues during the Cold War. Fitch was a big believer in private American investment and advocated for it as a liberating force internationally. But no matter what you thought of Guy Sims Fitch’s ideas, he had one big problem. He didn’t exist.

Guy Sims Fitch was created by the United States Information Agency (USIA), America’s official news distribution service for the rest of the world. Today, people find the term “propaganda” to be incredibly loaded and even negative. But employees of the USIA used the term freely and proudly in the 1950s and 60s, believing that they were fighting a noble and just cause against the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. And Guy Sims Fitch was just one tool in the diverse toolbox of the USIA propaganda machine.

“I don’t mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth,” said Edward R. Murrow in 1962. Murrow took a job as head of the USIA after a long and celebrated career as a journalist, and did quite a few things during his tenure that would make modern journalists who romanticize “the good old days” blush.

But even when USIA peddled its own version of the truth, the propaganda agency wasn’t always using the most, let’s say, truthful of methods. Their use of Guy Sims Fitch—a fake person whose opinions would be printed in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Australia, among others—served the cause of America’s version of the truth against Communism during the Cold War, even if Fitch’s very existence was a lie.

Read more.

DHMO in the Water, Mischief in the Air

Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Pranks, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Dan Lewis’s conversation-starting email newsletter “Now I Know” looks back on a morning radio hoax that kicked up a storm.

“The Dangerous-Sounding Threat of DHMO”
by Dan Lewis
Now I Know
September 14, 2016

aotp_dhmoSt. John and Fish were, at the time, morning hours radio hosts for a Florida radio station. On April 1st of that year — and yes, that date should have been a clue — the duo decided to issue a public service announcement, telling listeners that dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of water taps in the area.

The reaction from what would hope was a small, small minority the listeners was fierce and nearly immediate. Enough people were fooled by the PSA that the county water board began fielding calls, and at 8:30 AM that day — about three-and-a-half hours into what should have been a five-hour radio show — St. John and Fish were taken off the air. The county issued a statement telling residents that the water was entirely safe and that this was just a joke gone bad (although without explaining the science), and the radio station, per the Atlantic, spent the rest of the day informing listeners of the same.

But beyond that, no big deal, right? Wrong — at least, according to the state’s Department of Health. Its spokesperson told the press that calling in “a false water quality issue” could be considered a felony in the state. The station, perhaps fearing liability, suspended the pair of DJs indefinitely. And listeners seemed OK with the punishment: according to USA Today, a (hardly scientific, but why should we get science involved here?) poll on the radio station’s website had a large majority — 77% — hoping that the two would never be welcomed back on the air. Read more.

Harvard Toasts the Lampoon

Filed under: College Pranks, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The History of Pranks

An exhibit in Harvard’s Pusey Library pays playful tribute to the Harvard Lampoon, one of the most influential satirical magazines in American history.

“Pranks at Pusey Library”
by Aidan Langston
Harvard Magazine
August 6, 2016

AOTPLampoonVisitors to Pusey Library this summer have been greeted by a large cardboard cutout of a cow—part of an exhibit celebrating The Harvard Lampoon and the role it has played in Harvard’s comedic history. The exhibition, “Remorseless Irony and Sarcastic Pens: The Story of the Harvard Lampoon,” showcases photographs, drawings and other artifacts collected over the course of the Lampoon’s 140 years.

The cow is an homage to the Lampoon’s custom of unleashing farm animals on campus for comedic effect. William Randolph Hearst, a member of the Lampoon and the class of 1886—although his pranks resulted in his expulsion—is suspected of having sparked the tradition by releasing roosters in Harvard Yard. Lampoon members were also blamed for the appearance of a cow in the Yard sometime in the 1930s, which was “forcibly ejected” from the premises by Harvard police.

The exhibit contains an array of memorabilia from the magazine’s earliest days, ranging from photographs of the seven students who founded it in 1876 to a copy of its first issue. (more…)


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Filed under: Art of the Prank - the movie, Creative Activism, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

For information about ART OF THE PRANK movie, visit


Upcoming Screenings:

The Influencers
Sunday, October 21, 2016 at 5:00 PM
Centre de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona (CCCB)
Montalegre, 5
08001 Barcelona, Spain

Q&A with Joey Skaggs

Comedy Cluj International Film Festival
Saturday, October 22, 2016 at 3:00 PM
Cinema Florin Piersic
Piața Mihai Viteazu 11,
Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Tuesday, October 25, 2016 at 5:30 PM
Cinema City Iulius
Cluj-Napoca 400066, Romania

Q&A with Andrea Marini & Joey Skaggs on October 25 only

St. Louis International Film Festival
November 5, 2016 at 5:30 PM
The .Zach
3224 Locust Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63103

Q&A with Andrea Marini & Joey Skaggs

Rag Tag Cinema
November 7, 2016 at 8:30 pm
10 Hitt Street
Columbia, MO 65201

Q&A with Andrea Marini & Joey Skaggs

More screening dates coming soon!

Check for updates at:
and see what people are saying at

Movie Website | Teaser | Facebook | Twitter | Updates

This “sticky” post will be here for a while. Scroll down for other posts.

In Search of Political Art

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Political Challenges, Political Pranks, The History of Pranks

Randy Kennedy explores the state of political art in search of the iconic images that previously captured people’s imaginations as we navigate another absurd political season.

Thanks Peter!

Political Art in a Fractious Election Year
by Randy Kennedy
The New York Times
July 17, 2016

“The Truth Booth” by the Brooklyn Bridge. The booth, by the Cause Collective, is heading to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Credit Ben Pettey

“The Truth Booth” by the Brooklyn Bridge. The booth, by the Cause Collective, is heading to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Credit Ben Pettey

In 2008, when the artist Shepard Fairey created the graphically striking “Hope” portrait to support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, it seemed as if a rich tradition of American political imagery reaching back at least to the middle of the 20th century — on posters, buttons, bumper stickers — was still very much alive. The art critic Peter Schjeldahl called the “Hope” poster “epic poetry in an everyday tongue.”

Read the whole article here.

To Goose a Rival, Audubon Made Up Dozens of Creatures

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Pranks, The History of Pranks

Birdwatchers have vicious office politics.

“Audubon Made Up At Least 28 Fake Species To Prank A Rival”
by Sarah Laskow
Atlas Obscura
April 22, 2016

brindledsamiterPranks are meant to be discovered—what’s the point in fooling someone if they never notice they’ve been fooled? But one 19th century prank, sprung by John James Audubon on another naturalist, was so extensive and so well executed that its full scope is only now coming to light.

The prank began when the French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque sought on Audubon on a journey down the Ohio River in 1818. Audubon was years away from publishing Birds in America, but even then he was known among colleagues for his ornithological drawings. Rafinesque was on the hunt for new species—plants in particular—and he imagined that Audubon might have unwittingly included some unnamed specimens in his sketches.

Rafinesque was an extremely enthusiastic namer of species: during his career as a naturalist, he named 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, approximately. He was self-taught, and the letter of introduction he handed to Audubon described him as “an odd fish.” When they met, Audubon noted, Rafinesque was wearing a “long loose coat…stained all over with the juice of plants,” a waistcoat “with enormous pockets” and a very long beard. Rafinesque was not known for his social graces; as John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, Audubon is the “only person on record” as actually liking him.

auduonold-(1)During their visit, though, Audubon fed Rafinesque descriptions of American creatures, including 11 species of fish that never really existed. Rafinesque duly jotted them down in his notebook and later proffered those descriptions as evidence of new species. For 50 or so years, those 11 fish remained in the scientific record as real species, despite their very unusual features, including bulletproof (!) scales.

By the 1870s, the truth about the fish had been discovered. But the fish were only part of Audubon’s prank. In a new paper in the Archives of Natural History, Neal Woodman, a curator at Smithsonian’s natural history museum, details its fuller extent: Audubon also fabricated at least two birds, a “trivalved” brachiopod, three snails, two plants, and nine wild rats, all of which Rafinesque accepted as real. Read more.

Long May Your Refrigerator Run

Filed under: Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks, The History of Pranks

Gadgetary advances be damned, phone pranks endure in both old- and new-school iterations and seem to be intertwined with the human drive to communicate.

The Atlantic publishes a thinkpiece on the history and uncertain future of the artform.

“Do People Still Make Prank Phone Calls?”
By Julie Beck
The Atlantic
April 1, 2016

phonepranksOnly a rube or possibly an alien would pick up an unknown phone call, hear the question “Is your refrigerator running?” and answer in the affirmative. And so only the luckiest of amateur mischief-makers would get the satisfaction of getting to drop the “Well, you better go catch it!” before cackling away into the sunset.

And yet, amazingly, this doesn’t seem to be the oldest trick in the book when it comes to telephone pranks. In her 1976 paper “Telephone Pranks: A Thriving Pastime,” Trudier Harris reports that people “over 50 years old” remembered the old refrigerator gag, which, if they pulled it as teens, means it could’ve been around in the 1930s or earlier.

But other corny jokes were also around before the ‘30s, according to another paper, ones like:

“This is May.”
“May who?”

Most middle-class families had home phones by the 1920s or so, according to Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. And in the early days of the residential telephone, it was taken very seriously, as a tool for serious business, and so “children could trick unsuspecting adults fairly easily,” writes Marilyn Jorgensen in her paper “A Social-Interactional Analysis of Phone Pranks.” Read more.

Peter Markus, RIP

Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

Peter Markus, former classmate from the 60s at the School of Visual Arts, a talented artist, satirist and cartoonist, and a very dear friend, passed away on Wednesday, November 18, 2015. He was 70 years old. Peter was a frequent co-conspirator, working with me on numerous projects, usually behind-the-scenes, using his significant design talents to create graphic images of all sorts.

This is an image he created in 2000 purportedly for his own memorial as part of my Final Curtain media hoax, in which we promoted a cemetery theme park for creative people who wished to celebrate their own demise with satirical markers and mausoleums:

Peter Markus' self-made memorial tombstone from Joey Skaggs' Final Curtain media hoax in 2000

Peter broke his back in a motorcycle accident in the sixties, but it never stopped his indomitable creative spirit. He’ll be sorely missed.

Here are a couple of archive photos of Peter from the 70s:


Peter Markus Flag Shirt-1970s

Inside the Center for Tactical Magic

Filed under: Art Pranks, Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

Here’s a rare glimpse behind the enigma of the legendary Center for Tactical Magic as founder Aaron Gach shares his background, philosophy, and success stories in this interview with Regine Debatty.

“Interview with The Center for Tactical Magic”
by Regine Debatty
We Make Money Not Art
August 14, 2015

The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment.

At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.

Tactical Ice Cream Unit

CTM’s work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York’s stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called “linking rings“, while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches’ Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.

Read the interview here.

Molla Nisreddin: A Classic of Iranian Satire

Filed under: Political Pranks, Satire, The History of Pranks

Yes, you read that correctly.

“When Satire Conquered Iran”
Adapted by the Editors from Slavs and Tatars Presents: Molla Nasreddin: The Magazine That Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve
New York Review of Books Blog
September 18. 2012

MOLLA-move-forward-nocapPublished between 1906 and 1930, Molla Nasreddin was a satirical Azeri magazine edited by the writer Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (1866-1932), and named after Nasreddin, the legendary Sufi wise man-cum-fool of the Middle Ages. With an acerbic sense of humor and realist illustrations reminiscent of a Caucasian Honoré Daumier or Toulouse-Lautrec, Molla Nasreddin attacked the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the colonial policies of the US and European nations towards the rest of the world, and the venal corruption of the local elite, while arguing repeatedly for Westernization, educational reform, and equal rights for women. Publishing such stridently anti-clerical material, in a Muslim country, in the early twentieth century, was done at no small risk to the editorial team. Members of MN were often harassed, their offices attacked, and on more than one occasion, Mammadguluzadeh had to escape from protesters incensed by the contents of the magazine. (more…)

Looking Back at Some Superstar Scambaiters

Filed under: Creative Activism, Fraud and Deception, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

419 scams (a/k/a “NIGERIAN PRINCE” emails) have long, long fascinated certain quarters of the internet. They’ve flooded inboxes with outsider poetry and inspired satire and scambaiting, a prankish and dangerous literary subgenre explored at length in the fascinating work of journalist Eve Edelson.

Craigslist killers, social media “catfishing” scams, and the internet vigilantes of Anonymous now get much more attention, making 419ers look like relics, at least by internet standards. And yet, great work still emerges from the scambaiter milieu.

Here’s the absurd story (from 2013) of how a few intrepid 419-eaters orchestrated the cover of Vice, for posterity.

“How We Got the Skammerz Ishu Cover”
By Mishka Henner
December 17, 2013

Scam-baiting is a form of internet vigilantism in which the vigilante poses as a potential victim to expose a scammer. It’s essentially grassroots social engineering conducted as civic duty or even amusement, a cross-cultural double bluff in which participants on separate continents try to outdo each other in an online tug-of-war for one’s time and resources – and the other’s private banking information.

The baiter begins by “biting the hook” – answering an email from the scammer. The “victim” feigns receptivity to the financial lure, engaging the scammer in a drawn-out chain of emails. The most important element of baiting is to waste as much of the scammer’s time as possible – when a scammer is preoccupied, it prevents him from conning genuine victims.

Vice Skammerz IshuThe cover of the issue you’re looking at is a trophy from the most elaborate bait I’ve ever been involved in. Three scammers, spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates, set the con. They posed as a widow named Nourhan Abdul Aziz, a doctor named Dr. Ahmadiyya Ibrahim and a banker going by Ephraim Adamoah. From Nourhan’s initial contact with my associate, Condo Rice, to Ephraim’s actually donning an Obama mask and shooting our cover for us, 7,000 words were exchanged over nearly four months of emails. During that time, Condo and I negotiated our way through a labyrinthine network of fake websites, bogus documents and broken English, and ended up with the weirdest photograph I’ve seen in a long time. Read the actual email correspondence here.

John Law Reminisces with Broke-Ass Stuart

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, The History of Pranks, The Prank as Art

An Interview With John Law on ‘The Kinda Late Show with Broke-Ass Stuart’
by E.D.W. Lynch
Laughing Squid
March 9, 2015

Broke-Ass Stuart interviews Laughing Squid partner John Law about his adventures in the San Francisco underground including The San Francisco Suicide Club, Cacophony Society and Burning Man on a live episode of The Kinda Late Show with Broke-Ass Stuart.

Watch the video:

The Legendary Hollyweed Sign

Filed under: Art Pranks, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Los Angeles has an obnoxious habit of neglectfully erasing its own history. Before Hugh Hefner helped restore it in 1978, the city’s iconic Hollywood Sign had fallen into disrepair. It was during this low point that a few tenacious pranksters (and recreational drug enthusiasts) decided to temporarily alter it.

In the words of redditor bmwnut, “I do wonder where they put a 45 foot letter on which to practice.”

“In 1976, pot-head pranksters made ‘HOLLYWEED’ out of the iconic Hollywood sign”
By Rusty Blazenhoff
Dangerous Minds
February 27, 2015

On January 1, 1976, Tinseltown’s iconic sign read “Hollyweed” after art student Danny Finegood and 3 of his college pals used $50 worth of dark fabric to transform the famous Hollywood landmark temporarily. They had practiced it first on a scale model Finegood had crafted.Hollyweed

It was more than a simple practical joke, Finegood considered it a statement on the relaxed California marijuana law that went into effect that day.

Read more here.