Praising Pranksterism

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Perhaps you heard this story explaining the origin of April Fools’ Day. Prior to the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, April 1 marked the beginning of the new year. When Pope Gregory XIII blessed the calendar that would inherit his name, he not only replaced the Julian Calendar, but he simultaneously shifted the start of the new year to January 1. Those who continued to believe the new year started on April 1 were made fun of; hence, the start of April Fools’ Day.

Of course, this may not be the true explanation. For one thing, April Fools’ Day was celebrated in England well in advance of their adoption of the Gregorian Calendar. In addition, this conclusion was not deduced from any hard historical evidence, it was arrived at circumstantially. In fact, the earliest actual reference to April Fool’s Day may have been Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales (published in 1392) referenced April Fool’s Day in the Nun’s Priests’ Tale. Eloy d’Amerval wrote a poem in 1508 that contains the French phrase “poisson d’avril,” which is the phrase one shouts after pranking someone on April Fool’s Day. Finally, there is the comical poem written by Flemish writer Eduard De Dene entitled “Refrain on errand-day/which is the first of April.” This poem was published in 1561, a generation before the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

A professor of history at Boston University who specialized in popular culture by the name of Joseph Boskin offered a more convincing origin story. In 1983, Boskin was in Los Angeles to meet with Norman Lear while doing research on the history of All in the Family. At the same time, Fred Bayles, a young Associated Press reporter, contacted Boston University’s public relations office. The AP wanted to write a story on the origin of April Fools’ Day. Since Boskin was an expert in pop culture, his university’s PR folks gave AP his contact info.

After overcoming some reluctance on the part of Boskin – after all, the good professor was focused on another avenue of research – the AP got its story. He cited an event that occurred when Constantine ruled Rome. A court jester by the name of Kugel mockingly proclaimed he could run the kingdom more effectively than Constantine. Rather than behead the disrespectful clown, Constantine called his bluff. He allowed Kugel to rule the empire for one day. During his twenty-four hour reign, Kugel declared everyone must do something absurdly amusing that day. The practice became an annual event and thus was born April Fools’ Day.

When AP ran the story, to use a modern-day term, it went “viral” (remember, this was in 1983, before Facebook, before Twitter, before even the internet). All the major newspapers picked it up. The Today Show called Boskin. Once again proving the wisdom of Andy Worhol, Boskin was about to get his fifteen minutes of fame.

Boskin was beside himself. No doubt he could see the irony. Here he was, a pop culture researcher, who was becoming a major pop culture news item.

But the irony was greater than some merely professional juxtaposition. It was also the story itself. Boskin made it up. When Bayles kept badgering him for a story on April Fools’ Day, Boskin simply made one up. Using his friend’s favorite Jewish casserole – noodle pudding kugel – as inspiration, Boskin built an entire episode around the fictitious “King Kugel.” As any good professor would do, Boskin used this anecdote as a teachable lesson. He told his Media and Social Change class what happened and why it is always important to question what you hear, read, and see in the media, even the “reputable” media.

The next day, the Daily Free Press, whose editor was in Boskin’s class, ran the headline “Professor Fools AP.” Needless to say, this upset AP, who called Boskin out for lying. Boskin, according to a 2009 report from Boston University, said, “The AP had a huge conniption when they read this [the Daily Free Press story]. I got an immediate phone call from an editor there, who was furious, saying that I had ruined the career of a young reporter. He said I told a lie. ‘A lie?’ I asked, ‘I was telling an April Fools’ Day story.’ The AP always checks on stories and for some reason this one fell through the cracks. It was their fault for not checking the story, and I embarrassed them. But I mean, really – kugel? What reporter from New York doesn’t know what that is.?”

What ever happened to that young AP reporter? Was his career ruined? Fred Bayles spent three decades as a correspondent for the AP and USA Today before eventually becoming an associated professor of journalism in the College of Communications at Boston University, proving once again, no publicity is bad publicity.

But this real life story (really, although it sounds like an April Fools’ joke, it’s not, and you can verify this through multiple sources) proves more than that.

Life is too short to go without a good, well thought out prank every now and then. Master pranks not only get your synapses firing on full power, but they flush the soul of the bile of everyday living. Good pranks reveal some inner truth in a way that we get the phrase “from the mouths of babes.” They refresh and invigorate – and when you’re the victim of a really good prank, they stimulate your creative juices in ways they need to be stimulated. Think of those management brainstorming workshops where they have you split up into teams during the initial “icebreaking” session and have each team try to fool or trick all the other teams. That’s an example of using pranksterism to motivate and inspire great ideas.

Don’t be lazy and use April Fool’s Day to pull a mindless prank. Take your time to think of something really elaborate. Build it in layers so, just as your victim thinks the full plot has been revealed, a new, bigger, prank lies waiting for them to discover.

Lastly, remember this rule: What marks the greatest of pranks isn’t the immediate response, but how, after each year of retelling, the laughs grow larger and louder. If it brings a smile to all – the prankster as well as the victim – you know you have accomplished a prank for the ages.

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