The History of Pranks

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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

ART OF THE PRANK Feature Documentary November Screenings

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

Save the dates!

Denver Film Festival

UA Pavilions
500 16th St #310
Denver, CO 80202

Friday, November 13, 2015 at 2:00 PM
Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 3:45 PM
Sunday, November 15, 2015 at 11:30 AM

Q&A with producer/director Andrea Marini and artist/activist Joey Skaggs after each screening.

Buy tickets: Online or at the Box Office

Website | Teaser | Facebook | Twitter | Updates

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

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.

Announcing New York’s 30th Annual April Fools’ Day Parade!

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Filed under: Satire, The History of Pranks

New York April Fools' Day Parade jesterNew York’s spectacular April Fools’ Day Parade kicks into its fourth decade of hilarious irreverence, poking fun at the past year’s public displays of hype, hypocrisy, deceit, bigotry, and downright foolishness.

In honor of this 30th anniversary, 30 lucky revelers, picked at random from the crowd at the end of the parade in Washington Square Park, will receive free cartoon interpretations of their favorite taboo religious icons.
Details of this year’s planned floats and celebrity look-alikes are here or here.

See 30 years of annual press releases here.

Join the fun! Check back for updates.

Can Art Still Shock?

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Filed under: The Future of Pranks, The History of Pranks

Is Grayson Perry right – can we no longer be outraged by art and literature? From Manet’s Olympia to Pussy Riot and Houellebecq, Adam Thirlwell presents a short history of shock

Can art still shock?
by Adam Thirlwell
The Guardian
23 January 2015

Olympia by Édouard Manet. Photograph: Corbis

Olympia by Édouard Manet. Photograph: Corbis

For a long time, I’ve been nostalgic for the era of shock. It’s with a certain fondness that I reflect on the crazed year of 1857, which began with Gustave Flaubert in court for his first novel, Madame Bovary (in the presence of a stenographer, hired by Flaubert, for the benefit of an incredulous posterity), followed, six months later, by Charles Baudelaire, on trial for his first book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal. On both occasions, the unlucky prosecutor was Ernest Pinard, who lamented “this unhealthy fever which induces writers to portray everything, to describe everything, to say everything”. The era of grand trials! Or if not trials, then scandales: like the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, with its catcalling audience; or Duchamp’s impish Fountain – his notorious urinal, signed by R Mutt, submitted to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, but rejected by its committee.

I was nostalgic because it seemed to me that shock was no longer possible. Or, perhaps more precisely, shock was no longer admissible. We are all, pronounced Grayson Perry, bohemians now – and therefore unshockable by art. And if this is true, it signals a grand and maybe melancholy shift in the nature of art, and in the relation of art to society. It also appears to me – considering, let’s say, Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei – a slightly provincial argument. And then came the attack on Charlie Hebdo. (more…)

Joaquin Phoenix Pranks David Letterman Again

Filed under: Media Pranks, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, The History of Pranks

phoenixlettermanWhen he retires from television in 2015, David Letterman will wrap a remarkable career of stunts, water-cooler bombshells, and awkward celebrity interviews.

In some cases, Letterman has been seemingly ambushed by guests who were physically combative (Crispin Glover), doped out of their gourds (Farrah Fawcett, Harmony Korine), or simply engaging in the unhinged antics that are their calling cards (Courtney Love, who inspired the host to quip, “I’m glad I have a son.”)

In others, the hosts and his guests have worked in collaboration. Witness the legendary encounter between comedian Andy Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler.

More recently, actor Joaquin Phoenix used a disturbing and incoherent Letterman appearance to promote his controversial documentary I’m Still Here, for which he embarked on a half-assed hip hop career. Letterman later admitted that he was in on the gag.

Earlier this month, Phoenix returned to the show to announce that, like Alec Baldwin before him, he had decided to marry his yoga instructor. Read more here.

Watch the video:

Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries Exhibition

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, The History of Pranks, Urban Legends

From Marty Elvin:

The Milton S. Eisenhower Library of Johns Hopkins University presents:

Fakes, Lies & Forgeries

Fakes, Lies & Forgeries
George Peabody Library Exhibition Hall
17 East Mount Vernon Place
Baltimore, Maryland
October 5, 2014–February 1, 2015

In 2011, Johns Hopkins University acquired the world’s most comprehensive collection of rare books and manuscripts on the history of forgery in the West, some 1,700 items in all spanning the ancient world to the 20th century. This exhibition of 70 treasures from the collection explores the phenomenon of forgery as a creative literary form, and addresses particular highlights of this extraordinary gathering of scholarly materials from classical antiquity to the early decades of the 20th century.

Bibliotheca Fictiva

Highlights will include: editions of Jesus’ posthumous “Letter from Heaven,” eyewitness accounts of the Fall of Troy, the only surviving autograph of the martyr Thomas Beckett, unpublished manuscript verses of Martin Luther expositing “The Lord’s Prayer, annotated books from Shakespeare’s personal library, (more…)

Reinflating the Balloon Boy Hoax

Filed under: Publicity Stunts, The History of Pranks

Reality-TV-obsessed Richard Heene, whose theatrical Balloon Boy hoax transfixed the nation back in 2009, is back in the media. His son Falcon (the one everyone thought was accidentally in the homemade “flying saucer” when it took off) and his brothers have formed a band and written a song called “Balloon Hoax No Hoax.”

When you’re out of helium, try hot air…

Watch the video:

Read an interview with the family from, “Catching Up With Balloon Boy and His Family, Five Years Later”

The Case for Giving Andy Kaufman a Rest

Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Publicity Stunts, The History of Pranks, The World of the Prank

It’s 30 years later and Bob Zmuda, writing partner of the legendary prankster Andy Kaufman, won’t let his friend continue his quiet rendezvous with Elvis. Washington Post writer, Amy Argetsinger, ponders whether stoking decades-old rumors that Kaufman faked his death discredits the man and the astounding pranks he pulled while he was among us.

“Andy Kaufman: Why It’s Time to Celebrate the Comic and Bury the Death Hoax”
by Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post
October 9, 2014

Here we go again.

Thirty years after Andy Kaufman died too young of cancer — cutting short a brief, sensational career that changed the face of American comedy, and maybe even American irony — the old Andy Kaufman death-hoax theory is back.

It’s new and improved for the Internet era, going viral now that the ragtag community of Andy Truthers has been joined by a credentialed ally, Kaufman’s longtime writing partner Bob Zmuda. In a new book co-authored by Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies, Zmuda recalls years of conversations in which his friend outlined plans to exit show business by faking his own death.

“He said to keep a lid on it for 30 years,” says Zmuda in a phone interview. “It’s 30 years now. . . . What I’m doing is sending a telegram to Andy: It’s time to come in from the cold.” (more…)

The Wabuska Mangler: A Vintage Nevada Hoax

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

As Nevada turns 150, columnist Barry Smith celebrates a tradition of Silver State media malarkey.

“Nevada Newspapers Couldn’t Resist a Good Hoax”
By Barry Smith
Reno Gazette-Journal
October 5, 2014

shapeimage_3Nevada’s upcoming 150th birthday and National Newspaper Week make for a good opportunity to remind residents of one of this state’s seldom-celebrated contributions to journalism:

The hoax. The lie. Tall tales.

Mark Twain, of course, is our best-known example of a myth maker. But he’s not alone in the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame among Silver State journalists who didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

The pinnacle, as far as newspapers go, would be the Wabuska Mangler.

You may have passed through Wabuska on your way from Weeks to Weed Heights without realizing this tiny hamlet once had a feisty newspaper called the Mangler.

Well, it didn’t.

The Wabuska Mangler was entirely made up by Sam Davis, who was editor of The Morning Appeal in Carson City from 1879 to 1898, as a way to get outrageous opinions into the Appeal by attributing them to somebody else. (more…)

Get Off My Phone: A Toast to Scharpling and Wurster

Filed under: Phone Pranks, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters, Satire, The History of Pranks

In the 21st Century, it seems that everyone’s a prospect, has something to sell, or both. To stay balanced, we need people who can mess with our minds in ways that leave us more savvy, more curious, and more creative. If such people make us laugh, that’s a bonus. This is a tribute to two of these from Emerson Dameron a writer, storyteller, and humorist searching for signs of mischief in a world plastered with ads.

All illustrations are by the inimitable Los Angeles artist John Hogan.

“I like anyone with a dream.”
– Tom Scharpling

Great radio theater envelops its listeners in a vivid alternative reality and compels them to examine their own worlds more closely when they return. The best great radio theater twists their assumptions about themselves and makes them laugh for reasons that may be hard to explain to the world outside their headphones.

Until late 2013, Scharpling and Wurster, one of the underground’s favorite long-form radio comedy duos, made a home for themselves on WFMU, an influential and beloved freeform radio station broadcasting from New Jersey. They made sport of poseurs, snobs, and sleazebags in an elaborate world of their own creation. They are missed.

Tom Scharpling

Tom Scharpling, via Flickr

Tom Scharpling published the zine 18 Wheeler, wrote for the TV show Monk, and clerked in a music store. Jon Wurster is the original drummer for the North Carolina indie-rock band Superchunk and has played with Robert Pollard, the Polyphonic Spree, and many others. For over a decade, they collaborated on a unique and uncanny brand of phone-prank magic.


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