The Art of the Prank
by Spencer Morgan
June 29, 2009
From coast to coast, intrepid bands of merrymakers are staging hoaxes, stunts, and practical jokes like never before. Welcome to the Golden Age of the Prank.
This is for participants only,” announces a heavily bundled Charlie Todd through his trusty gray bullhorn. “If you didn”™t come to take your pants off today, you”™re in the wrong spot.” It”™s a frigid January afternoon in New York City”™s Foley Square, and hundreds of fearless pranksters are braving the elements to get together and shed their trousers for the eighth annual “No Pants! Subway Ride.”
Todd, a baby-faced 30-year-old from Columbia, South Carolina, is the mastermind behind this gathering, and on his command the assembled crowd scatters for the nearest subway entrances”¦and collectively drops trou. Even in a city like New York, riding the subway sans pants is a guaranteed eye-opener, and today is no exception: Straphangers stare, chuckle, even take photos. Around 1,200 men and women have come out clad in boxers, briefs, boxer-briefs, and bloomers, not just in New York, but in 21 cities across the globe. (“Three hundred take to the subway””shameless and pantless,” the Toronto Sun would inform its readers soberly the next day.) The mission ends with a group of agents celebrating in Union Square, making snow angels, still pantless. Improv Everywhere has struck again. Mission accomplished.
The largest network of pranksters ever assembled, Improv Everywhere is the leading light in what might be called the Golden Age of the Prank. All across America and beyond, groups are gathering to pull off practical jokes, hoaxes, and ruses of all kinds, blurring the line between prank and guerrilla theater, and using the Internet to share their work with audiences far and wide. The prank, of course, has a long and illustrious history going back to”¦well, Adam and the serpent: “Ha! You actually ate the apple!” Summer camps and college campuses have long been jokesters”™ playgrounds, while avant-gardists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist movement elevated the prank to an art form. Borat and (coming soon) Bruno have taken squirm-inducing hoaxing to the big screen. But it”™s the Internet””and groups like Improv Everywhere who have learned how to exploit it””that has been the primary mover in the prank renaissance. More than seven million people have watched the 2009 “No Pants!” clip on YouTube, and copycat groups have sprung up around the world.
“The use of video has spread like crazy, so pranks are getting more and more popular,” says CollegeHumor.com”™s Amir Blumenfeld, whose online “Prank War” series with colleague Streeter Seidell went viral this spring. No group has demonstrated the power of YouTube and the Internet better than Saturday Night Live”™s masters of the digital short, the Lonely Island. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer (whose debut album, Incredibad, was released in February) got their start by posting their sketches, songs, and goofs on their Web site. “When we started back in 2001, most people”™s computers weren”™t fast enough to watch video, but slowly technology caught up,” notes Schaffer. Now the group”™s clips regularly draw millions of viewers online.
While they may not have the muscle of SNL behind them, Improv Everywhere has pulled more than 80 stunts, involving thousands of so-called “agents,” resulting in countless headlines and enough TV news spots to fill a season”™s worth of Punk”™d episodes. Their own videos have generated more than 55 million views online. But their insidious influence has no doubt infected a far larger audience: Count literally hundreds of Improv Everywhere–inspired groups across the globe, to say nothing of the masses of bewildered, babbling “victims” each prank leaves in its wake. According to legendary prankster Alan Abel””whose Citizens Against Breastfeeding nonprofit group famously condemned what they called “an incestuous relationship between mother and baby that manifests an oral addiction leading youngsters to smoke, drink, and even become a homosexual””””Pretty soon we”™ll have as many groups pulling pranks as we have church choirs.”
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